Perception vs. Reality

Children playing soccer in an alley stop to say hello in the Marka neighborhood of Amman.

“But is it safe?” is the question I often received when I told people I was going to Jordan this month. I am writing to tell my family and friends that our perceptions of Jordan and the Middle East can be described as something closer to what Kellyanne Conway would call alternative facts. The truth is, I have felt very safe here. Like any large metropolis, Amman is a multifarious city with millions of people from around the world and across the region including Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians. As in any city, one must be conscious of their surroundings, not talk to random strangers on the street, and walk in groups. To say that Amman is secure is an understatement. The United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to make sure Jordan remains secure. Every time I leave our hotel I see men and women in uniform patrolling the streets. Explaining that Jordan is safe, however, is not the point of this letter. Instead, I want you to know Jordan is beautiful.

The Jordanian landscape is incredible with rolling hills, white rocks, and palm trees. The people are virtuous, kind, and respectful. The cityscape of Amman stands out yet blends together with the surrounding desert all at once. The tan stone buildings almost invisible, except for the oval windows and red tile roofs peeling out from the hills. During the week there are bustling bazaars in Amman, on the weekends families gather outside of the city to have a picnic, and at all times one can find deliciously fresh and tasty food. Furthermore, the cucumbers actually taste like more than just water and I am eating raw tomatoes without making a face of disgust.

The other day we visited Jordan University and sat in on a women’s empowerment class that was discussing the novel “The Awakening.” The discussion on feminism, agency, individuality, and culture left everyone in the room feeling stronger. For the women in the class, you could sense the transformation in their how they think and what they hope for by the dialogue in the room. It is in these moments that I realize how similar we all are. While we come from different places we share so much in common. We dream, we want the best for our children, we want to learn and see the world, to be able to provide for ourselves and for our children, and most of all we want to be happy. Throughout the week, we’ve been invited into the homes of refugees and have listened to their incredible stories of hardship, perseverance and family. Being a refugee is incredibly dehumanizing so we are sure to ask about their passions, their hopes, and their dreams the very things that make them human. However, it is hard to know whether they have a future when our world leaders preach xenophobic rhetoric.

It is important that we do not let our shared humanity succumb to fear. Fear makes us illogical and allows us concede the things that we should never lose hold of. We let go of our privacy and rights in exchange for security and surveillance. We let go of our ethics and love for blindness and hatred. We must do the extra work and shed the stereotypes we buy into and divest from stores of injustice. “Stereotypes are oppressive” Rula Qawas the professor of the feminist literature class declared to her students. I hope that one of the things I am able to do in this program is not only break the stereotypes that I hold, but help break the stereotypes of those around me. Diversity is difference, and differences are to be celebrated. Yet our only real difference are the places we are born and the circumstances we come into.

Awareness of Vulnerability

An old sports car sits in a garage in Abdoun, one of the expat districts of Amman.

In reflection of our time in the field thus far, many questions and issues have come up that I had not previously thought of before starting research. Looking at the issues of wealth and class in the context of refugees and humanitarian work, two separate questions come to mind. One, do you have to be poor to be vulnerable? And two, can people with very privileged backgrounds and/or identities effectively assist refugees?

The first question asks that we define what it means to be vulnerable while acknowledging that there may be many types of vulnerabilities both induced and not induced by wealth and class. My first interview in Jordan was with two Iraqi sisters who are the relatives of a high government official in Iraq. Back home, they had it all. This sharply contrasted from what I understood to be a refugee. Their apartment was beautiful and full of things that could only belong to someone of a wealthy background. Some may argue that their wealth provides them the opportunity to make decisions on how they spend their money that other people may not have. However, these women are still refugees, they have fled persecution and thus have suffered as a result. The loss of one’s family members, home, possessions, livelihood, country, and the ability to work is unfathomable to most, including myself. In today’s global society, one’s profession often defines one’s worth and often gives a person purpose. Without the ability to work, people lose that crucial piece of their identity. There is no doubt by having the basic comforts of a home, clothes, and food makes them better off than most refugees. But to be a refugee is to be vulnerable. Without health insurance their health is vulnerable. The trauma they experience makes them vulnerable. Without citizenship their very existence is vulnerable.

The second question forces us to look at our awareness, our ability to empathize, and our privilege. To do good humanitarian work with refugees requires that we better understand their experience through studying and working directly with refugee populations. Some cases and situations, however, are beyond our understanding because we have no idea what it is like to be persecuted in our home country or what it is like to be stateless. Those who have experienced some form of oppression or hardship however may have the ability to better understand what they are feeling and empathize with their situation.

“Humanitarian officials make too much money,” is something I have heard from both refugees and people who work in this field. Whether it is ethical for someone to be profiting off of helping others is another debate. Instead, officials who make a substantial amount of money, when the people they work for have no income, inherently adds several degrees of separation between them and a refugee. This in turn, may also undermine the work they are trying to do because they do not understand what it is like to have the inability to work and receive a small stipend (if they are lucky) from the UN or other humanitarian organizations. One potential benefit of the United Nations rotation requirement is that it requires all of their officials to rotate between comfortable locations and field locations, forcing officials to have direct access to the refugee population and see the situation from the ground.

We must be aware of our privilege and biases because it effects the work we do regardless of whether we have good intentions. To make sure that our good intentions bring about good outcomes requires constant vigilance to work with the populations we serve and the humility to know that we do not have all the answers.

Light From the Darkness

In speaking with refugees over the past three weeks about the darkness that is the refugee crisis, I have found light in some unexpected places. Can an experience so devastating for these refugees bring about new opportunities that may not have been available otherwise?

Last week, in an interview I asked a young Iraqi woman about how she makes big decisions. She told us that she did not make those decisions, her dad did. “I can’t be the leader,” she says. “I always follow the command. That’s the way most Iraqi’s raise their daughters.” It is no secret that women’s agency and rights are limited in most cultures. In the United States, for instance, a women’s right to make healthcare choices about her own body is still contested and restricted in many states. In the interview, I follow up by asking how her decision making has changed since she’s been in Jordan. The answer I received was somewhat surprising. “Yes it has changed,” she said. “If [my son] gets sick, I will take him to the pharmacy by myself. I feel confident now.” Previously, this woman could not cross the street without holding a man’s hand but now as a refugee, she has the agency to make decisions for herself, and it has meant so much to her.

In a meeting with the Jordan Health Aid Society, President Dr. Aljouni shared information about what he sees as a light in the Syrian crisis. Thirty years ago, he said, women were not allowed to go to school or watch TV. Since the crisis, women have become exposed to other areas of the world and the rights and privileges they have, where they begin to see how unjust and unfair your situation is and demand access to healthcare, good education, and self-determination. Without the turmoil that is the refugee crisis people may not have been exposed to a more liberated lifestyle.

Similarly, in a site visit to a White Hands school in Mafraq earlier this week, we got to witness the beautiful and happy primary school kids from Syria. Mafraq is a very rural area of Jordan, only 15 km from the Syrian border. Many of the kids live much closer to the border and also come from very rural backgrounds. The school is accredited by the Jordanian government. When speaking with some of the teachers and staff at the school, they mentioned that many of these kids would not have access to an education in rural Syria, but because they are refugees here in Jordan, they have access to a quality education with dedicated teachers and staff.

To find light in a world of darkness by no means justifies the darkness; however, it can certainly make it less gloomy. It is incredibly unfortunate that people somehow gain agency in survival situations and not in comfort. In other words, something so drastic must happen in their life to level their respective playing field. In other words, people have exposure to a new world that they would not have known unless they survived the conflict. This exposure lets them know that they can want more and achieve more.

A Formal Education Shortfall

According to the United Nations, education is a fundamental human right. In Jordan, we visited two schools, a formal school and an informal school. Formal schools are accredited by the Ministry of Education and can give certificates to their students. Informal schools on the other hand are not accredited by the Ministry and their education is thus unrecognized by the government. According to Human Rights Watch, one-in-three Syrian refugee children registered with the UN did not receive a formal education in 2015. With the large influx of refugees in the past several years, government schools have been overwhelmed by the number of students and have resorted to a 4 hour school day during the morning hours.

To account for the influx, international NGOs have come in to provide education to those who are not enrolled in the government schools. The price? Students will not receive recognition for it. On most accounts, the education that these schools provide is better than that of formal education. This is embarrassing for the Jordanian government thus providing no incentive for them to accredit these schools.

One of the NGOs that is filling the gap is the Middle Eastern Children’s Institute (MECI). They are primarily funded by UNICEF and have rapidly expanded from three schools to twenty schools in the past few years serving vulnerable communities in Jordan. MECI primarily aids Syrian students with some remedial education for Jordanian students. Their numbers show a high improvement for all of their students making them one of the best education providers in Jordan. MECI, however, is not accredited with the Ministry which has actively slowed down their expansion into new areas.

Iraqi, Somalian, Sudanese and other refugee populations may not receive any education as they are largely unrecognized in Jordan. Most international money and attention is currently given to Syrian refugees regardless of the fact that many of these other populations may be more vulnerable. For those who are able to go to formal schools, Syrian refugee students do not have to pay for their education fees whereas Iraqis and other refugee populations do.

These issues give rise to a series of questions that the Jordanian government and international NGOs are contending with. What does it mean for people who are informal citizens of the world to receive an informal education? Whose responsibility is it to fund and provide such an education? How do you provide a quality education to all refugee populations? How can you improve the education of formal schools which are often understaffed and overpopulated?

Currently, the answer to many of these questions is for these informal schools to operate in a supportive role to formal schools. In other words, the school will continue to provide support for refugee students until they enroll in a formal school. There are conversations among NGOs and the Education Ministry around whether students should be able to test into a grade to allow for students who are accelerating to skip grade levels. In my opinion, a path for informal schools to become accredited would help with the influx. Furthermore, formal schools should try an adopt some of the social and counseling methods of informal schools to best accommodate students and their learning methods. Finally, informal schools should look to bring in more refugee populations into their schools. Regardless, in order for a formal education to be provided to every student some major restructuring must occur.