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