Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The World Through Children's Eyes

By Elizabeth Hall

My first impressions when I travel are always colors, sounds, smells and feelings, not what types of cars people drive, or if the “west” has found its way into the culture through globalization. I don’t notice how physically people seem “different” from where I come from. Instead I look at the brilliant colors of dyes in the fabric they place over their skin. I look at the way the sun shines its rays on mosques, temples and buildings so different from my own neighborhood. I listen for chaos. I hear the sounds of transportation- bicycle wheels turning against rusty chains, grinding on the rocky dirt roads, I hear rickshaws, buses; brakes squealing at the chaos of others crossing the road improperly. I smell dry earth. I smell lack of rain, or sometimes too much rain. And most importantly I feel. I look at the eyes of those who I encounter. I feel if they are sad or happy. I feel through their eyes if they are hungry, or lost. I feel their curiosity, and I give a look of curiosity back at the eyes that meet mine. Through my travels and research what always impacts me the most is what I learn from children. While it is not always easy to communicate with them due to language and time restraints, through their eyes I somehow understand their story.

On this trip, I was fortunate enough to grasp a glimpse of what children in Jordan feel on a daily basis. Through the eyes of Palestinian children, I felt an unknown distress. They have been taught that their lives were not meant to be lived in Jordan, and that they will go “home” someday. Until that day, they will live with a mentality to fight an unknown (to them) war. Through the eyes of Iraqi children, I felt an excitement for change. These kids are living in transition, most likely born in Iraq, growing up in Jordan, but having the expectation of going back to Iraq soon. I felt energy through the glimpses I stole. Through the eyes of a Bedouin child, I saw boredom and curiosity, little chance at an education, moving from place to place, the outside world brought to them through the lives of travelers visiting their tents.

Through the eyes of Jordanian children, I felt hope. Programs are being created for the youth in Jordan that promote activism and growth. Many are given a chance to emerge from their shells and speak out about the issues that concern them the most.

Several of the organizations we visited were focused on youth programs. For example at the Ecumenical Studies Center, Father Qais spoke about “liberating the illiterates” through programs focused on women’s cooperatives and youth groups. A few of the youth participants spoke to us directly about their own programs. They set their own agendas; they choose the issues that they feel are the most important for their age group to combat. While they may not reach large amounts of kids, they are creating a future for themselves. And while sometimes it takes baby steps and small groups to make a difference; it has the potential to create big changes down the road.

We also learned about INJAZ, which helps create economic opportunities for Jordanian youth through courses, job placement and volunteering ( And we were fortunate enough to visit the Princess Basma Youth Resource Centre, a part of the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development. We sat with youth at the centre and listened to the issues they face today, and heard about the programs they’ve created to work with their peers. Through after school programs that provide a safe haven off the streets, to a radio station run by the youth themselves, they are learning basic life skills and how to be active in their communities (

Of course there are other programs we didn’t visit that are helping children in Jordan. For example Save the Children has emergency programs for displaced Iraqi children, youth development programs, early childhood education and health programs. With over 60 percent of the population in Jordan is under the age of 24, it is imperative that programs of this magnitude continue and grow to fill the gaps of those who are not reached(

And while it is great that these youth are able to join some of these groups and really make a difference in their neighborhoods, ultimately the parents are the major influencers in a child’s life. The question is: what type of influence are the parents creating? Are they planting negative or positive energy into a child’s mind? Most likely this influence will direct the mentality of the children as they grow and form their own opinions about their lives. If the situations that the refugees face in their homelands are not solved soon, what will become of the future? Generations of refugees within the Palestinian community have faced the same outcome, over and over. They do not know what life is like to NOT be a refugee. They only know lives of lacking resources and support, and yet they chose to keep the mentality of a refugee because they refuse to know anything different.

As I re-read my journal from the trip, I find the same questions written down that are in my head right now. What do the refugee children think about their current situation? What are they taught about their family’s history? Do they have a negative connotation about their own lives? Or is it possible for them to be positive and have goals in life that will help them succeed in life. Lastly, what do they hope for in the future? I would be curious to see the results of interviews with both Palestinian refugees that were born in Jordan and now are grown up, as well as Iraqi and Palestinian youth. Instead I will go on, and continue to travel, and look into the eyes of those I meet to feel their story. I can only hope that the day I return to Jordan, I feel different stories, ones that have happier endings.

There was a reference on the trip to life being like a mosaic tile. I like to think a child’s life is mosaic. Every child needs a home, and they need a family with parents that encourage them in a positive manner. Children need food, water, creativity, nurturing, education, and laughter. Without these things, pieces of a child’s mosaic are missing and it fails to continue to grow and be complete. November 20th is the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children across the world. It is almost ironic that I write this just six days before, but fitting, for now I know I can do something to get involved ( I think it is important through local events, as well as when we travel, that we take time to sit with children of all backgrounds and feel their story.
Photo Credits: Elizabeth Hall

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Relief work for simple minded people

SPS international classes can give you headaches, heartaches, bad cases of anger, teacher hating thoughts, reminders of the upcoming revenge of Moctezuma, and once in a lifetime opportunities. That was the case when meeting with Dr. Mohammed Al-Hadid in Amman Jordan. He is the Chairman of the Standing Commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, or as I like to see it, the number one person in the area of disaster relief services in the world. The opportunity to meet Mr. Al-Haddid gave the whole group the opportunity to gain invaluable insights on issues of development, disaster relief and preparedness, basic understanding of the Red Cross-Red Crescent-Red Crystal commission and his personal views on practical operations.

MR. Hadid bases much of his work in a philosophy of inclusion, understanding, and cross-cultural communication in order to achieve peace and harmony. His work is based in a principle of impartiality that has allowed him to contribute to have the Red Cross-Red Crescent operate within many conflict areas in the world and with special success in the Israeli and Palestinian territories. This is also represented by a great adaptability that has led the organization to develop and employ three distinct emblems that can ensure acceptance, timely provision of services, obstacle breaching and the hard to accomplish goal to save lives. Here is where one of his main teachings takes place for those who work in the NGO-development world. Workers in this field often become dogmatic, entropic, and righteous while navigating with the flag of our causes and areas of expertise. Mr. Al-Hadid answers to these attitudes by pointing that things are quite simple when we focus and are guided solely by the real mission of helping those in need, not the political or personal agendas.

One of the examples of his speech of putting racial, religious and political interest aside is the collaboration he helped develop for Jordan with the Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva Israel. This in order to train young Jordanian paramedics on emergency medical response; this is a training that would have been available to Jordanians only by literally going to the other side of the world, and at a much greater expense. This example shows not only practicality, but focuses on the real development of infrastructure. Another lesson that can be learned from this man is the one of humility, the western perception of the person that in order to become great one has to do bigger projects as one progresses trough hierarchies, is contrasted by his humility. Mr. Al-Hadid has decided to step down from his position at the end of his current term, not because he is tired or retiring, but because he has a new mission to accomplish; to focus in more local issues in Jordan. I’ll think of him the next time when my colleagues dream and theorize about great international projects and politics, and down the local issues. I’ll think of him when I feel myself out of focus with the personal missions in my life.

Posted By Tomas Ramirez
Photo Credits: Elizabeth Hall

Monday, August 2, 2010

Walking through Jordan and seeing one’s life

After the landing in desert land and the clearing of the intelligence officers, Jordan opened its doors, I opened my heart, and a hectic clash in a dream world ensued. A dream world of split personalities, where at night, or any given time during the day; Palestine is Chiapas, Iraq is Colombia, The US gives without interest, the Bedouins are Navajos in the southwest who dream of air conditioned skies, and Jordan is the land where nothing bad happens. This place is too much like home, I understand much of it and this brings me a certain level of comfort, but I don’t like it. To my cynical eyes, this country is like any other where the indigenous and the poor learn to survive without food or water, escape the spell of modernity while the hierarchies have a first dream world and those with plenty of wealth can dress and behave any way they want without regard to Sharia law. This is indeed a place of contradictions.
As the jetlag subsides and welcome greetings fade away, I see a structure oversaturated with ministers, their own political plans, and personal issues. I wonder how is that the many ministers can get anything accomplished if they are subject to political, personal and royal agendas? Is this a progressive country, and the symbol of Arab moderation it proclaims in the media or a military state? I feel in my most resentful self that the politics of hypocrisy and convenience also have a place within Jordanian society just like in the American continent. I get very confused, sad and even angry to see the many disparities in this country that are often accompanied with a denial. In this regard I feel too familiar, and maybe that’s why I get easily agitated, and find myself trying to calm down. As we visit different agencies, I feel very lucky to hear of people’s histories of survival in an environment with so many restrictions.
I find myself in a very fragile state, even physically, and I get skeptical when I see the two different initiatives on youth development, the one sponsored by the Ecumenical Studies Center and the Bint Talal organization sponsored by princess Basma. The youth in the first one address issues that are real to their communities and daily lives, the Bint Talal center has almost a cosmetic appearance of smiles and no scars, this is hard to imagine when working with what I am explained to be a poverty stricken population by the director of the center. As the visit progresses, it is hard for me to find people to openly talk about drugs and crime, most representatives say that is nonexistent or under control. Every time I see this picture I have to ask, where are those who we do not see, what they do to survive, and is anybody doing something for them? As I read and see more about Jordan drug trafficking and addiction, gang fights, honor killings, Iraqi-Jordanian feuds and identity politics I grow weary of the degree of denial.
Another reminder of the power of the systems and structures is present during the visits to the municipalities. I feel that the impact of these encounters is intangible, yet backed up by very real institutions. When visit the municipalities of Amman, karak and Irbid, and the Bedouin areas this feeling gets accentuated. Some just talk pretty, others seem genuinely interested and desiring to improve their communities, others do not even know where their resources come from, others are too eager to please our eras during election times. When visiting the Queen Zein Al Sharaf Institute for Development makes me feel good to see a woman in the leadership. It makes me feel sad in contrast to see the Ministry of Agriculture developing what to me seems like the solution for the hunger and thirst of the elites or the ones who can pay. The son of a retired general gains enough trust in me to let me know that what we see is only a small part of the class issues in the country. When I ask about the Iraqi refugee reality, his explanation makes takes away my hope. He gives me depictions of people dying of hunger in the middle of the dessert in makeshift tents; he tells me that in Jordan they only are thought of as charity publicity at the end of Ramadan. He tells me that this is also the biggest contrast between the first waves of guest from Iraq, who were extremely wealthy and who create a lot of power conflicts in the kingdom.
As I have grown around diplomats due to my parents careers, I have to admit that most of the time I see that circle as an Invite to share in the big pie of nothing, I see the same in this land, and I can almost see the same people, different language. My alienation grows bigger when thinking how irrelevant the human emotion, and making the person whole is for the hierarchies and their schemes of fixing society. And I try to figure out what can I learn from this. My answer is troubling for my anger and frustration. The one lesson I see in my Jordan experience, and that can be applied all over the world, much to the regret of the freedom and anarchy dreamers, is that systems and structures still matter. They can make or break lives, store water and pave roads, subsidize women and youth initiatives, earn weapons contracts or stop and make wars. As we go through the Palestinian refugee camps, I feel like a white person walking through Soweto. I cast doubt on the many layers of my personal privileges and alienations. And the question ringing in my head is who really dominates the national and international humanitarian agendas here? This becomes more present when we visit the UNRWA , IOM , and UNHCR offices; at times these places look like one more bureaucratic mess, at times as humane seasoned workers, at times like people who just live form check to check.
I cannot understand all that is in front of me in just a few days, I know I am biased, I want to trust my instincts, and I have to force myself to step back, and at least for now, to just watch. I see that our human struggles of survival are the same, to make our issues relevant, fashionable, and important. How to achieve this when it is basically a matter of the heart? The basic answer to a very complex issue is honest dialogue. A dialogue that needs to happen at all levels, skipping the many ministers and hierarchy systems, in places where no one is there for the photo opportunity, and in rooms full of politicians who play for the favors of the royal family. Where even in a world of hierarchy people are equal in their condition, an island of equity where class doesn’t count or pushes people’s agendas back. In this kind of environment the main understanding to have is that in those especial dialogues elimination of class doesn’t mean eliminating traditional structures or responsibilities, and that if one is to really see the country and its peoples grow, it has to happen. IF I go away form what is truth to my heart I fail to see, and become afraid. What did I see in Jordan? I ask myself, also what did I see in myself? I saw dust and thirst, I saw Italian suits and people begging for change in the old downtown streets, I saw a house of luxury and domestic foreign servants, in a few words, I saw a microcosm of the world, how ironic. I find my personal fears there too, the fear of accepting the invitation to the convenient, the business talk, and the titles that are supposed to mean that one is honorable, the titles that validate one’s intentions, and even worth. I tell myself that I cannot forget these people, I cannot forget my people, and I cannot forget who I am supposed to be myself.

The fatigue of a lifetime of resistance of the ones who live down brings Jordan and the rest of the world together, a fatigue polluted by the perpetuation of some of humanity’s unhealthiest traits, a situation that brings awareness, and impulses cynicism to win. Yet, If I stay in that gray area fed by negativity and tiredness I’ll fail to see love for the land, youth willing to acknowledge real issues, spirits of Bedouins resistance, a smile in a camel’s face, food in a land of need, and life blooming in the middle of the desert. Regardless of whom we are, our hope for a better world brings us together. I chose to not criticize anymore, and to open my eyes and awaken my conscience. It is a humbling feeling, I no longer know where I belong, yet I am at home. Regardless of what the consultants working in a monarch’s land may think of Freire, being in Jordan with its people, working with them even for a minute, and giving the voice of my people, is working and giving a voice for its people, not forgetting is to not giving up because of the people, and to be one of the people wherever I roam is what counts for me. Being in Jordan is part of my liberation, and no one can take it from me, regardless of what the consultants may say. This place gives me two feelings at the same time, and they are the same ones that I carry with me all the time, joy and a heavy heart.

Posted by Tomas Ramirez
Photo credit: Tomas Ramirez

Sunday, August 1, 2010


The following illustration summarizes the UNHCR 2010 report on the status of refugees worldwide:

UNHCR refugee statistics 2010

Threads of Change

“Each member government of the United Nations has a direct selfish interest in the early disposal of this problem. As long as a million persons remain with refugee status, they delay the restoration of peace and order in the world…They represent in themselves political, economic and national conflicts which are symbolic of the work which lies before nations if peace is to be restored. While they remain a solid mass in assembly centres they deteriorate individually, and collectively they represent a sore on the body of mankind which it is not safe for us to ignore.” (Eleanor Roosevelt, United Nations 1946).

Threads of Change nicole meeuwse..

Sixty-four years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt stood before the United Nations and reminded the heads of state in attendance that it served their national self-interest to resolve the refugee situation completely. There is a feeling of urgency to her speech and I wonder if she what she saw in the representatives before her was the human ability to turn away from the living consequences of war.

The urgency Eleanor projected then lives on today. It is picked up as refugees flee only to wait and it nestles in the minds of those who work or volunteer alongside them. While a feeling of urgency is necessary, without practical service delivery it becomes the focus instead of a propelling force addressing systemic issues. Identifying that there are problems with a system is generally not difficult, particularly when those problems include limited resources, inadequate funding, and complaints from participants. What becomes more difficult is to look deeper, to identify areas needing change, and to propose methods of change. Ok, perhaps it is not so difficult to stand around with resettlement co-workers, beverages of choice in hand, endlessly discussing systemic shortcomings with the conversation inevitably leading to the thought, “WHAT were they thinking?? I would …..or what NEEDS to be done is….”. Conversations such as this have merit but they rarely lead to systemic change. Genuine change to a system is difficult; it demands individual sacrifice, rarely is successful on the first try, requires one to create instead of follow a map, and comes with its own set of problems.

A rather famous refugee, Albert Einstein, is on record as having said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” While children’s museums and creative writing teachers are arguably too fond of repeating the quote perhaps it is time for refugee programming to elevate the importance of imagination as we seek to solve our problems.

I am not suggesting that refugee programming has been completely void of creative response to the macro (i.e. policy or the economy) or micro level barriers it faces. In fact, there are numerous examples of creative solutions such as the employment training collaborative between United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Manpower or The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Massachusetts. What I am suggesting is that innovative programming is as important as increased funding in improving refugee resettlement in the United States. Approaching systemic issues with creativity and imagination creates an environment where workers and refugees hunt for solutions in obscure places and have fun while searching. Connections, which result from this search, are a web of potential solutions and external insight.

After a year and a half of working in refugee resettlement, it was the quest “to know that which I do not yet know” that brought me to DePaul’s School of Public Service and the International Public Service masters program. Three years later, the same set of reasons led me to sign up for the Refugee Service Management course offered June 2010 in Amman, Jordan. Participating in the study abroad opportunity has been beneficial on several different levels. Academically, it allowed me space to focus for an entire semester on what I do daily but from a different approach, a different frame of mind. As a professional, I work within the system complying with set standards but as a student, I am able to approach my work from the outside. From that vantage point, there is room to pose endless questions and to search for possible answers in a structured manner. However, thinking through every problem and potential solution as a sole individual would take far longer than a semester and it is unlikely that I would be able to step outside both my work and myself enough to attain the sought after perspective. Listening to the questions, thoughts, and perspectives of my peers as it pertained to refugee resettlement was like being multiplied into directions I may not have otherwise gone and with the aid of new thought patterns.

Professionally, the trip offered me the opportunity to learn how refugee resettlement is approached in another country, how the barriers we face are similar, and to compare solution strategies. Specifically, as part of our trip we had the opportunity to meet with several types of women’s economic collaboratives. The programs, generally all having begun at the grass-roots level, provide a means for women to contribute to the economic security of their families in a culturally appropriate, self-directed, childcare friendly manner. The programs work. Whether buying surplus milk from farms and turning it into yogurt or sewing bags and blouses out of the Palestinian keffiyah the women involved have entered the marketplace and, at least from an outsiders perspective, on their own terms. This is not to suggest that economic problems simply disappear or that larger issues, such as the right to return, are mitigated through income generation. Rather, it is recognition of the importance of self-directed employment programming. A programming approach I would like to see be incorporated in the US Refugee Resettlement system.

The question of course, is whether this blog posting is simply a different venue for the conversations had at dinner parties with beverages in hand or if from it – and the course it is based on – a new type of refugee employment programming will come.

Photo Credit: Nicole Meeuwse

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Jordanian Identity and It’s Challenges.

Within recent years Jordan has worked on their health care, literacy, democratic and economic concerns. Jordan is a country with limited natural resources. They face an immense amount of economic and social issues, and environment concerns. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War Jordan received over 900,000 Palestinian refugees. Since then Jordan has received the majority of the Palestinian refugees out of the other Arab States. After the 2002 Invasion of Iraq by American and allied forces Jordan received a large amount of Iraqi displaced people. Jordan has since classified these people as guests due to political implications. Jordan was afraid there would be a repeat of the Palestinian refugee situation with the Iraqis. Therefore Jordan has not given the Iraqis refugee status but rather guest status. The large amount of Palestinian refugees and Iraqi guests pouring into the country has caused significant strain on the Jordanian Infrastructure.
Regardless of the reasons why certain groups are living in Jordan the main point is there are at least four primary groups that live within Jordan boundaries: The Bedouin, Jordanians, Iraqi Guests, and Palestinian Refugees. These four groups each have their own cultures. These four groups also have beliefs, misconceptions, and biases against each other.
One thing I noticed about my discussions with Jordanians is their crisis of identity. Jordan has a population of Bedouins, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Iraqis. In every conversation the subject of nationality came up. I heard:
  • “I’m one hundred percent Jordanian”
  • “I’m Jordanian but my parents are Palestinian”
  • “I’m Palestinian”
  • “I’m Bedouins and I don’t care about the king or any of them I just care about my people and my land”
  • “I’m Iraqi and want to go home.”
  • “I’m not Bedouin.”
The one thing I walked away from with these talks is Jordan is facing a crisis. Every person who I spoke to in regards to their nationality or lineage had comments and beliefs about the other groups in their society. Some of them were stereotypes, some were misconceptions, and others were statements based on limited truth. However these misconceptions and stereotypes mixed with anger and discontent can create a hostile environment for Jordan, particularly with a growing unemployment rate and limitation to social resources. Jordan needs to bridge a gap and create a civil society encompassing all of these communities.
Benedict Anderson refers to the concept of a nation and nationality in his article Imagined Communities. Anderson states how nations are imagined communities. These imagined communities can be created or destroyed. To create and maintain a nation there needs to be a common value, history, language, or religion.
In order to create a civil society to create a sustainable infrastructure one must create a common identity. This identity can be created through nationality, religion, or common values. Jordan is doing a lot of work trying to work on their infrastructure. However, if they don’t address their identity crisis they may face a total crumble and disentrancement of their society. The inability to solve the Palestinian Refugee and Iraqi Guest situation will only hinder the success of Jordan. If there is no end in sight Jordan must begin evaluating creating a civil society with these societies involved.
While visiting Gregera we learned about a settling project involving the Bedouins. The Bedouins had houses built by the Jordanian Government. However, the project did not approach the societal aspect of the Bedouins. Bedouins feel connected with their land and historically are roamers. Therefore the houses are often empty while the family’s animals can often be found inside the house. What also is important is the respect and acceptance of the Bedouin culture. For instance, the Bedouin schools are employed by teachers that are assigned to the communities. Often, these teachers have no knowledge of the Bedouin society or culture. Therefore, the teachers often seek to get placement elsewhere. This is detrimental to the Bedouin society for several reasons, first the education curriculum gets upset with constant change in teachers, second the Bedouin society can easily feel disempowered due to the fact that their community is considered a bad place to work and fellow Jordanians have no desire to work with them.
Jordanians face a complex of their own. First, many of them face high unemployment. Particularly the younger generation. They also face rising college costs and living costs. Jordanians have limited access to organizations that will provide these services to Jordanians. However, Iraqi guests, Palestinians, and Bedouin societies have INGos and NGOs dedicated to working to get services to those portions of the society. This can create a tremulous environment and even possible violent environment depending on how angry the societies become.
Iraqi and Palestinian refugees are groups of people who have limited ability to participate in Jordanian culture. Many Palestinians have the ability to work however sometimes cannot have traveling papers. However, many Iraqi guests are unable to work and become completely dependent on international foreign aid and the State of Jordan to cover their living expenses and needs.
Jordan is one of the largest hosts of refugees and guests within the Middle East. The percentage of refugees and guests is outgrowing Jordanians. This is causing discourse within Jordan. There is a large amount of unemployed Jordanians who are unable to receive benefits from the government of Jordan. However, refugees and guests are able to receive services from UNRWA and UNHCR as well as other NGOs, INGOs and IGOs who wish to send money to the refugee situation. These groups UNRWA, UNHCR, NGOS, and INGOS AND IGOS need to target their aid programs in a non-confrontational way. They have targeted communities with high refugee and guest populations that also have a high poverty rate. They create a blanket program to cover all those in their target areas and therefore help to prevent dismay and distrust among the societies. There is also another layer being created with this method of outreach. It is creating a central strand among the societies. All of the members of a community will come to a community center to receive whatever services are being provided it will allow for them to mingle and create bonds. This is the beginnings of creating a united civil society and building Jordan’s infrastructure. However, if it is not handled correctly it can also drive these societies farther apart.
Photo Credits: Sylvia Chung
Nicole Adam-IPS Jordan Summer 2010

Integration and Palestinian Refugees in Jordan: UNRWA's role

A few days after returning to Chicago from Amman, I was in a cab. Because I work with refugees from all over the world, I like to play a game with myself where I try to guess where a person is from by looking at their name. I stared at his license for a while, and then asked the driver where he was from. He said, "I'm Jordanian", so I asked him, "Are you Jordanian Jordanian, or Jordanian Palestinian?" He started laughing and asked me how I knew there was a difference. I explained that I had just returned from Jordan, where I had spent some time visiting refugee camps, speaking to Palestinian refugee agencies, and so on. In the end, he told me he was Palestinian. He also told me he felt most Americans understood Palestinians to be only the people living in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, without knowing that most Palestinian refugees live in Jordan.

I relate this story because, in almost all cases, to be a Jordanian Palestinian means that this cab driver, his parents, and his grandparents before him were all refugees. Jordan's Palestinian refugee situation is unique in the world, because most of the refugees who fled to Jordan in 1948 and in 1967 were granted full rights and Jordanian citizenship [1]. Traditionally, in a protracted refugee situation, people are continuously classified as refugees and confined to camps, until they can return home or are resettled in a third country. Accordingly, refugees resettled in the U.S. are only refugees for their first year—after that, they are required to become legal permanent residents. At the same time, refugees from the 1972 Burundian genocide who still live in camps in Tanzania have been refugees for 38 years, and there is no sign this will change any time soon.

But Jordan is a special case. When the first wave of refugees, totaling almost 750,000, arrived in Jordan in 1948, the UN Refugee Convention did not exist, and therefore there was no internationally recognized definition of a 'refugee', and no established system for their protection. The UN did realize that it needed to intervene, and so created the UN Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) in 1950. That was the same year that Jordan granted full rights to the refugees within its borders. However, because there was no established definition of a refugee, UNRWA was left to create one. UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as "a person whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948," but what makes the definition remarkable is that it also grants the right of registration as refugees to the descendants of these refugees.

Because each subsequent generation has the right to register as a refugee, Jordan has the largest Palestinian refugee population in the world, totaling 1,983,733 people. UNRWA shares responsibility for the Palestinian refugees with the Department of Palestinian Affairs (DPA), a branch of the Jordanian Government. According to the Director General of the DPA, over 110 NGOs are also active in the camps, providing vocational training, social services, and advocacy. During my time in Jordan, I had the good fortune to meet Matar Saqer, Public Information Office for UNRWA, who provided our group with valuable insights regarding the Palestinian refugee situation.

Mr. Saqer is a soft-spoken man with excellent English, who was enthusiastic about sharing his professional and personal experience. He introduced himself to our group, and after listing his job duties, he told us he was a Palestinian refugee himself, and had grown up in one of the camps he now helped administer. He focused on three main points: UNRWA's role as a pioneer in education and micro-lending, UNRWA's role in health services, and UNRWA as a political agent. Mr. Saqer explained that UNRWA is tasked with the first 9 years of education in the camps, and administers 173 schools, of which 49% of the pupils are female. A report released for the 60th anniversary of UNRWA credits their excellent school system for "paving the way for economic self-sufficiency for the vast majority of refugees" (Takkenberg, 256). The 49% female enrollment has been true since the 1960s. In fact, while I was in Jordan, I repeatedly heard Jordanians and Palestinians remark that often, Palestinians received a better education than the Jordanians. Mr. Saqer also explained that UNRWA pioneered the concept of vocational training in the region, training over 1300 students in Jordan every year, and since 2003, over 21,000 microloans have been awarded. Although two-thirds of UNRWA's budget is spent on education, the organization also funds 24 primary health clinics. In 2009, there were two and a half million patient visits to these health centers. Perhaps even more significantly, Mr. Saqer stated that all 24 clinics offer family planning services, and that he had personally heard women asking for contraception. Let me interject here with a personal note: I work with refugees who have lived in camps and as refugees in countries of first asylum. The stories they tell are of a lack of basic necessities such as shelter, food, and water, not to mention a lack of education, inadequate or no access to health care (much less contraception), and perhaps worst of all, being relegated to a life that bars them from integrating, from belonging. What UNRWA has done and continues to do, particularly with a $100 million deficit, is amazing.

But UNRWA is also a political symbol. When asked what that meant, Mr. Saqer responded that he thought UNRWA had neglected the refugee relationship—that somehow, it had bred dependence rather than active participation or partnership. For the majority of its sixty year existence, UNRWA has been a place-keeper of sorts: defining all the descendants of Palestinian refugees as refugees, regardless of their rights or integration into Jordanian society, also guarantees their right of return. This was echoed by Wajeeh Azayzeh, Deputy Director of the DPA, whom I met on the last day of our trip, who stated that UNRWA must continue to exist because it represents the stance the international community took when the refugee situation first began.

I admit that I am torn about this perspective, because my work in the U.S. focuses so much on the idea of integration. The primary reason that refugees apply for resettlement is because they recognize that they will never be able to go home, and in that regard, attaining residency and then citizenship grants them the rights they were being denied in their country of first asylum. Resettlement is one of the three durable solutions that the UN advocates for, the other two being to return home or to integrate (i.e., become citizens) in the country of first asylum. At first glance, it seems that the UN achieved this second durable solution with most Palestinian refugees in Jordan. And yet, through the continued existence of UNRWA and the classification of descendants as refugees, this protracted refugee situation continues and in fact grows with each subsequent generation. Of course, nothing related to this issue is simple; when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began, no one knew or imagined that it would last this long, especially the Palestinians. I spoke to a camp director who said that many of the 1948 refugees still had the keys to their houses in Palestine, and his aunt, whom we met on the streets of the camp, told us that all she wanted was to go home to Palestine so she could die in her homeland. While I do not know her exact age, she must have been six or seven when her family fled to Jordan.

There is no easy resolution, I do not even know if there is a complicated one. The Palestinian refugees in Jordan came from over 450 towns and villages in Palestine, and those refugees and the refugee workers we spoke to all stated the same thing: they want to go home, to their home, to their house. They are not ungrateful to the Jordanian government for the freedoms and protections afforded to them, but they do not feel Jordanian. Before going to Jordan, and particularly before meeting with Mr. Saqer and all of the other men and women who work with and serve Palestinian refugees, I know I equated citizenship with integration, with the idea of a new beginning, of belonging. Now, I'm not so sure.

Lauren Pérez

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan: Fear of Becoming “Palestinised”

Although Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the government, national civil society, and multilateral organizations are highly involved in the multidimensional work of protecting and assisting Iraqi and Palestinian refugee populations.  During our stay we heard many Jordanians talk about the fear of the “Palestinization” of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan.  Quite understandable, considering that twenty percent of Jordan’s population are refugees and acknowledging the impact this has, not only on the infrastructure of the already resource-poor country, but on the attitudes of its people and the stability of the country.  There seemed to be a national understanding that Iraqi refugee protection in Jordan is an interim solution and that repatriation, or third country resettlement, is the preferred solution to local integration.  This was most obviously observed in the national rhetoric of labeling Iraqi refugees as “guests” rather than acknowledging them as refugees.  Although this sounds very welcoming and hospitable, it unfortunately undermines the seriousness of present day security issues in Iraq and the fears that many Iraqis have of returning to their homes.  Amnesty International reported in 2008 that “The reality is that the crisis for Iraq’s refugees and internally displaced is worsening and will remain a problem requiring international attention for years to come.” [1] 

During our stay in Jordan, we never really had the opportunity to talk directly with Iraqis to ask them about their own fears of becoming “Palestinised.”  A 2009 report from the Refugee Studies Centre explains how “Most (Iraqi) refugees in Arab host countries feel they are marooned, faced by the prospect of long-term exile and declining interest from governments and support networks.”[2]  As the world’s attention shifts away from Iraq to Afghanistan and elsewhere, Iraqi refugees must feel increasingly more isolated and abandoned.  In Jordan, Iraqi guests live along side the estimated 1.9 million Palestinian refugees[3] who are still fighting for their right to return home, sixty years after having been expelled from their country.  I imagine that for Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, the proximity to the Palestinian refugee crisis must prompt a degree of introspection into their own realities and contemplation over whether this scenario could also happen to them.   

We met with various organizations working with Iraqi refugee populations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Organization for Migration (IOM), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and several national civil society organizations.  Along with the Jordanian government agencies, these organizations are doing a tremendous amount of work and are concerned about the security and protection of Iraqi human rights issues.  UNHCR provided valuable insight into what have been the key components to effectively working with Iraqi refugee populations. Improving intergovernmental and interagency collaboration and communication as well as remaining flexible and innovative in their approach to new refugee populations were top on their list.  

In 2006, when the major influx occurred of Iraqi refugees to surrounding Arab nations, a Human Rights Watch report detailed the dire circumstances of Iraqi refugees in Jordan.  The report exposed how Iraqis had no legal status, no access to work, were unable to travel, had inadequate schooling options for their children, and that many refugees were failing to register with UNHCR due to limited access to information and fear.  UNHCR responded by informing government agencies of the scale and seriousness of the crisis and began building stronger relations with the Jordanian government, host governments, and destination countries for resettlement.  Since 2006, UNHCR has been successful in collaborating with the Jordanian government to create government departments designed to protect and assist Iraqi refugees, to organize trainings with the police force and government officials on national policies regarding refugee protection and how to communicate this information, and to sponsor informational seminars at educational institutions around the region. 

The Iraqi refugee crisis has required agencies and governments to rethink what they know about refugee protection and service provision.  UNHCR realized that former methods were not going to be successful in reaching Iraqi refugees dispersed in urban, rather than camp, settings.  Iraqis have been hesitant in trusting the Iraqi government, host governments, and agencies such as UNHCR because of past trauma and present uncertainties and misinformation.  Fear of detention sweeps cause many to remain invisible with hopes of surviving and finding work in the informal economy until they can return back safely to Iraq.  UNHCR has adapted strategies to incorporate outreach programs as their key component in reaching communities of Iraqi refugees and field workers spend time going to neighborhoods, educating refugees on their rights, and slowly building credibility. 

We didn’t have many chances to talk directly with Iraqi refugees during our stay but we were able to attend an International Refugee Day event at the Princess Basma Youth Resource Center, coordinated and attended by Iraqi refugees.  We were given front row seats, were gifted with t-shirts, mugs, candies, coffee and tea.  Throughout our trip I felt extremely handicapped by the fact that I do not speak Arabic, however I understood so clearly how this event was a combination of celebration, suffering, and remembrance.  This kind of emotion is universal and transcends language. A woman recited a poem repeating the words “Iraq” and “Baghdad” over and over in an expression of longing and nostalgia, a grandmother performed a skit where she sat singing traditional songs to her grandchildren as a lesson in honoring tradition and retaining a sense of where you come from, and an Iraq trivia game with prizes rewarding those who answered correctly and helped retain collective memory and celebrate culture. 

As the event came to a close they invited us all to join them on stage and we joined hands and danced in a circle.  As I looked around me at the colors, the faces, and the celebration that was happening all around us, I struggled tremendously.  I became very present to the fact that our governments actions in the region have caused this crisis and with the knowledge that the U.S. has done too little too late with the capacity and resources they could utilize to find more expeditious solutions to the crisis.  I knew that the only thing I was capable of doing at that moment was to listen, to observe, and to be a witness to their testimonies, and their celebration.  I hope that our presence was seen as an act of solidarity, a shared desire for a just outcome, and a silent apology.

Photos (Sarah Cunningham)

[1] 2.  Amnesty International (2008) Iraq: Rhetoric and Reality: The Iraqi Refugee Crisis.  Available at   (1-70)

[2] 2. Refugee Studies Centre.  “Iraq’s Refugees – Beyond ‘Tolerance’”.  Dr. Philip Marfleet and Dr. Dawn Chatty.  December 2009. (1-29)

[3] UNRWA. Jordan.  Accessed July 23, 2010.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Balancing Politics and Culture in Refugee Service

The article, “Political Limits to Nongovernmental Organizations in Jordan”, illustrates the struggles that many non-governmental organizations face in attempting to not only provide services for their communities but to also advocate social issues that are addressed within those communities. Advocating human rights or peace issues in many countries, including Jordan, is a real challenge. How is any organization that is supposed to aid refugee populations to effectively uphold its mission due to its very nature of being a social, political, and human rights issue? How much does the ancient value of ‘collective obedience to the state’ affect expectations for Jordanians today to sacrifice Western values of independence for the greater good of the country?

What I had mostly seen during our trip gave the impression of progress and hope of capacity-building and social development. When touring either the Princess Basma’s Youth Resource Center (PBYRC), the Ecumenical Studies Center (ESC) or any other social service provider, I was struck by some apparent commonalities between each organization. From general appearances, it seemed beneficiaries were appreciative that their basic needs were being met, each NGO worker had a presentation ready with figures and achievements, and although each organization may have been struggling due to a lack of funding, social services were continuing to be provided and in fact, expanding. If there was any redress to be dealt with, the government was not openly criticized for it whilst in our presence.

An objective for myself was to listen to our various hosts without having much expectation or biases of what I would see or hear in regards to its relationship with government agencies . I couldn’t help but wonder, however, whether our group of American students were spending time equally with various sectors of society; the policy-makers and administrators, service volunteers and educators, foreign NGO workers and donors. We did witness the fulfillment of allowing social and cultural NGOs to operate and provide for local communities. During our trip, I felt a slight government presence among us, but not an imposing one. I felt the shadowy presence with our police driver who chauffeured us around, which was a gesture of Jordanian hospitality, and of course by seeing portraits of the royal family most places we went. As I was learning about this country and its culture, I initially did not know what to make of it other than thinking that tribes, ministries, government agencies, citizens, refugees and the royal family were very much interconnected. How much of this was due to a facet of Arab culture being a “group culture” and how much of this was due to a government that sees its role as paternalistic, a “father-figure” that tries to do the most general good?

Many NGOs such as the ESC, display photographs of the royal family, depicting the interconnectedness between national government and local society.

This sense of the Kingdom being extra vigilant of the people and organizations within its borders seems to be a protective measure. Protective because there are many economic, geographical, and political threats to the stability of Jordan’s government and NGO infrastructure as well as the surrounding region1. There is no doubt that the Jordanian government and society as a whole has to contend with external political factors, such as conflicts in neighboring countries that push asylum-seekers across its borders. This migratory wave may even sometimes also push political issues across borders that result in new internal conflict such as the 2005 hotel bombings. There is also no doubt that Jordan is dealing with economic and resource scarcities that are further strained by a mass migration of refugees.

This view of an overbearing government should be taken into consideration also with the Arab culture of unity. Arab culture is historically a culture that values family, the “group” structure, and unity rather than individualism. The “group mentality” that permeates throughout Jordanian society and government seeks to be inclusive and to protect as well as provide. There is a collaborative gap though between small organizations that provide services to refugees and their surrounding communities, such as Al Baqa’a Women’s Multi-Purpose Cooperative and the Ecumenical Studies Center with the government. The work that the women in the Al Baqa’a camp are doing is self-sustaining and the work that the ESC is trying to do is raising young leaders and peace-building. The terms “peace” and “human rights” may trigger caution as many types of activism can be seen as threatening by a government. And although there are many agencies with beneficial programs, the monarchy heavily funds royal NGOs more so than organizations such as Al Baqa’a or ESC. Supporting royal NGOs is a potential platform for spreading a government agenda. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is one such organization being used as a political platform by the government.

The Palestinian case is by default a national security, economic, humanitarian, and political interest to Jordan. According to UNRWA’s Public Information Officer, Mr. Matar Saqer, himself a former refugee, UNRWA provides “quasi-government” services and is supported by (limited) finances and advocacy by the Kingdom. Because it is a national interest to Jordan and a way to plead the Palestinian case in Jordan to the world, UNRWA is allowed to be the pioneer for conflict resolution and the teachings of human rights from childhood. In contrast, as the article mentions, the “education of” human rights and the ability to advocate it are two separate and not necessarily cohesive notions.

The government plays a vital role in making sure the proverbial “pot” of NGO dynamics in Jordan that could have political activism is not stirred, which may upset the current political dynamics in Jordan. And Jordan does this somewhat successfully by investing in the socioeconomic sector as well as by appointing government overseers in many NGOs1. To the outsider, Jordan’s focus on social development may appear as a success, but digging deeper, Jordan is trying to maintain stability within itself and the region. There is still a yearning by poor Jordanians, local NGO workers, refugees, and other citizens for growth in social service programs but also for independence to research the needs of their communities and to advocate for them.

(Photo Credit: Bemnet Yigzaw)