Awareness of Vulnerability
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.