- “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.”
Saturday, July 31, 2010
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 . 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.
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.” 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 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)
 2. Amnesty International (2008) Iraq: Rhetoric and Reality: The Iraqi Refugee Crisis. Available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE14/011/2008/en/2e602733-42da-11dd-9452-091b75948109/mde140112008eng.pdf. (1-70)
Friday, July 30, 2010
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)
The Palestinian refugees in Jordan seemingly have a very simple wish: they want to return to Palestine. They want to go home. This simple wish however, could not be more complicated. The politics in this region border on insane. The reality of them returning is minimal. Even with this knowledge, the Palestinian refugees have an incredibly strong sense of home. Frankly, it took me aback a little bit. Certainly I was aware of this sense from my friends, but I really had no clue it ran so pervasive throughout all levels of Palestinian society in Jordan. There are both negative and positive aspects to having such a dedication to the idea of returning to Palestine.
On a positive note, the Palestinian identity is unifying. It is unifying like nothing I have ever really seen in my life. Palestinian refugees in Jordan have had, and are having, difficult experiences. The very knowledge that they have a homeland to dream about, and a people to be proud of unites them incredibly. Because they are united, they are able to better tolerate the conditions in which they live. While many Palestinians in Jordan have fully integrated into society, many more still live separated. It is their identity and shared suffering that keeps them strong. The fact that as a people they have been through trials and tribulations keeps them united. Crisis and persecution will unite a people greatly. Under duress, the Palestinian refugees have created a strong society. Although many of them live in difficult conditions, the refugees are able to keep hope alive. This is perhaps do to their difficult conditions, they can only dream of their homeland. The dream keeps them going, it makes them get up in the morning and face another day of strife and hardship. However, their unity also helps them defeat strife through pure ingenuity. We saw initiative after initiative of Palestinian refugees helping themselves, and ultimately helping everyone in the community. However, there is a downside to the obsession with a homeland return.
Unless it is by a miracle (which could happen), Palestinian refugees are never going to return to Palestine. There is absolutely no way that the state of Israel is going to let hundreds of thousands of Palestinians return to their homes. They are too invested in their own security to allow such a mass return. Israel is in the business of hurting the Palestinian cause and Palestinians. I highly doubt that they will have a sudden change of heart and let everyone they forced out (and their descendants) come back. Moreover, there simply would not be the infrastructure to support such a return to Palestine. As sad as it is, Palestinian refugees are not going home, at least not anytime soon. This is where the idea of Palestinian identity and unity can pose somewhat of a problem. While it certainly is a unifying factor and imperative to morale, the identity can also be detrimental. Palestinian refugees have accepted the cards that have been dealt to them. They live in horrible conditions, but if a way it seems like there is not a lot of impetus to get out of those situations. While that sounds awful to say, it may be partly true. If the Palestinians live in horrible conditions, it gives them more reason to exploit their plight, and it forces the world to pay attention. I am sure that some Palestinian refugees are afraid of fully becoming part of Jordanian society, or accepting Jordanian citizenship because they may lose their Palestinian identity. Also, if they give in and integrate the rest of the world may think that they have given up the idea of returning home. Therefore, there they stay. Stuck in a horrible situation with an identity crisis. They know who they are, and where they came from. However, they have no clue where they are going. They know they can stay in Jordan however, which is more than the Iraqi guests can say.
As opposed to Palestinian refugees, the Iraqi situation in Jordan poses sometimes more difficult questions. While the Palestinians have the right to work, and live in Jordan-the Iraqis do not. They are not classified as refugees. Their identity has been lost. They cannot go home, but they certainly cannot stay in Jordan. The Kingdom simply is unable to support such a large population of people. They can barely support their own people, or the Palestinians. The Iraqis in Jordan are having difficulty assimilating to Jordanian culture. Within Jordan there is a lot of backlash against their presence. They are not welcome, and they know it. They come from a country that was at one time fairly middle-class. They are oftentimes highly educated, and have trouble adjusting. Jordan is just a place of transition for them; their fates lie elsewhere. They can either return to Iraq and face danger, or go to a third country-usually the United States.
The Palestinian refugees and Iraqi guests may share different pasts, and different futures, but they are both stuck in the same place. When it comes down to it, Jordan is a pretty good place to be stuck in. It may not be home, but at least it is safe and stable. Until the refugees and guests can go home (if ever), Jordan will have to remain their safe haven.
Photo Credit: Timothy Scheel
All three UN agencies function effectively and efficiently, which being the UN did not surprise me. However after meeting with various national organizations, NGOs and their teams on the ground, it was apparent that in order for an international, and especially a Western, organization to function smoothly it must be keenly aware of the cultural dynamic inherit in the local communities. While both UNRWA and UNHCR worked within this dichotomy, UNRWA was better equipped with the social and political capital to do so. This, could be argued, is related to UNRWA’s “special” status within UN agencies, and for that matter the international community. Our presenter, a UNRWA staff member who is a Palestinian refugee born in a camp, informed us that UNRWA is a stand alone agency, in that it was created to assist one target population, Palestinians. Decades after al-Nakaba (the catastrophe) UNRWA is an integral piece of Jordanian society and it continues to be a much needed agency; moreover, he explained, UNRWA’s uniqueness is largely in part due to its symbolic nature; the agency’s continued existence is a gesture to Palestinians as well as Palestinian refugees that the world has not forgotten about them. Another part of its uniqueness is that it is funded primarily by various international governments. UNRWA needs 100 million dollar annually to continue its services; their budget is not part of the general UN budget and it received funding for the budget primarily from donations of various governments. The officer explained that the UN is paid by assessed fees of member countries; USA provides 25% the budget and the European Union provides 40%, while low income countries budget accordingly. It was clear during the presentation and discussion that donating to UNRWA is both political and symbolic.
Beyond the uniqueness of UNRWA, it is important to note that while Jordan hosts the highest number of refugees, and is home to various refugee service agencies; it is not a signatory of the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention. Such a thing can happen because of the high level of coordination and cooperation supplied by the Jordanian government. For years Jordan has been able to have sustainable collaboration between the monarchy, various internal government agencies (such as ministries) as well as a network of diverse international government agencies and non-governmental agencies. In order to provide best service the government has created different ministries, which assist various organizations, persons, and development initiatives. We had the chance to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Social Development. Both were fascinating insights into how government agencies work separately yet collectively to serve their country. During our discussion at the Ministry of Social development a deputy minister explained that all organizations, including those categorized as non-governmental, must be registered with one of the ministries and that they must seek ministry approval for all funding. He explained that “if an agency does not reveal their funding, then they must be doing something wrong.” While I think there is more to it than just that, I was pleased to hear that the ministry listened to suggestions of those reporting to it. The ministries had recently put into motion a ruling that if an organization did not hear from the ministry within 30 days, then their funding request was approved. (If they did hear, then something was amuck.) Such high regulation was a bit shocking to me after hearing and learning about such cohesion and collaboration on all levels, but it also occurred to me that the success Jordan has had with cross-institutional cohesion does not come from an ambiguous government – it is established through defined boundaries.
While I may not always agree with what the Jordanian government (or any government!) believes is a best practice, I do believe that the monarchy, government UN agencies, as well as the plethora of other service agencies, promote good stewardship of resources. To demonstrate this, both UNRWA and UNHCR, discussed the symbiotic nature of their relationship with the Jordanian government and monarchy. Each organization was acutely aware that, in order to best serve their target populations, they need to fit seamlessly into the workings of Jordanian life, culture and politics. They especially need to allow the government to realize and come to terms with the fact that they are capable of absorbing high populations of refugees, or “guests”, and that the absorbed population does not pose a threat to the Jordanian people, not out right at least. The relationship between the UN agencies and the government is delicate. However, it is apparent that they each appreciate that they cannot do the task individually. This, I believe, touches on the Jordanian culture of collectiveness and working as a unit, and that these agencies have mastered what it means to work in a cross-cultural world.
Photo credits: Cathleen Evans