Tuesday, January 2, 2018
A Responsibility to Share What We Know
December 23, 2017
On our last night in Jordan, we dined with a Jordanian political science professor who received his PhD from the United States. He currently teaches courses on the refugee crisis and serves as a leader in his tribe. He spoke to us about the history of the Middle East, the U.S.’ involvement in the myriad political crises in the region, and the richness of his tribal traditions. I was struck by the disruptive effect of the artificial borders drawn between Jordan and Syria by European powers during colonization. Tribes and families were split apart when they suddenly found themselves citizens of different states for which they had no say.
Nonetheless, the family links between the two countries remain strong. People with whom we’ve spoken, including this professor, will say they have thousands of family members scattered across the Levant and the Gulf states, divided by arbitrary lines drawn in the sand. When the Syrian crisis started, the professor’s hometown more than doubled in size as his town accepted their Syrian refugee family members.
After dinner, the professor led us on a tour of downtown Amman, pointing out shops laden with spices, toys and crafts as we strolled down streets strung with lights. We tasted, knafeh, a Middle Eastern dessert for which Jordan is especially famous. He invited us, multiple times, to his home to meet his family the next time we visited Jordan. Receiving such hospitality is humbling; and learning from the wisdom accumulated through generations of life in Jordan, a wisdom that is inaccessible in the U.S., is a privilege.
When I reflect on the unique perspective I’ve gained in our 10-day visit to Jordan, I am filled with gratitude. So few people in the U.S. are provided with opportunities like the one we’ve experienced this week: traveling to the Middle East, experiencing a new culture firsthand, and, above all, engaging in meaningful conversations with the people who live there so that we may learn from their points of view.
Our experiences have provided us with insights that make for a more humane approach to tackling the massive problems in our world. Imagine how different our public discourse on the Syrian refugee crisis, and the Middle East writ large, would be if more of our policymakers, and ordinary Americans like me, had an opportunity to build mutual understanding of the humanity of those deemed the “other?” To be sure, it would counter the human tendency to mistakenly classify Arabs and Muslims into homogenous boxes.
Traveling requires humility. As a white Christian traveling in a majority Muslim, Arab country, I have felt keenly aware of not being completely on the “inside,” not understanding all the cues, not speaking a common language, literally and metaphorically. And yet, our hosts went out of their way to make me feel welcome. It’s a humbling experience, a tiny glimpse into what it’s like to be a member of a minority group. It requires modesty to understand more deeply the ways I take for granted the privileges of being a member of the majority in my daily life in the United States. The learning that happens while traveling requires openness and a willingness to allow your perspective to be shifted. There’s growth in allowing yourself to be proven wrong, in admitting that your framework of the world isn’t necessarily accurate.
Our role now is to share the knowledge and experiences we’ve gained here with an audience in the U.S. who has not had the opportunity to learn from those on the ground most affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. Each of us on this trip has been shaped by this experience in ways that will reverberate throughout our careers and lives. It is both our privilege and our responsibility to multiply the benefits of this experience by passing on the knowledge we’ve gained.
Just as the Jordanian professor shared his reality with us in a way that enlightened our understanding of the complexities in Jordan and challenged us to change our perspective, we are now empowered to shape the perspectives of others in America. Person by person, one interaction and one conversation at a time, we can change minds and hearts, slowly building a global community of that will create more humane American policies and a more just world.
-- Joanna Gardner, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Saturday, December 30, 2017
Putting into Practice Self-Empowerment
December 22, 2017
I am sitting in the Queen Alia Amman airport preparing to fly back to America. As I wait for my flight, I can't help going over the details of our trip in my mind. In the course of ten days, I have met with Syrian refugees, international nongovernment organizations, local Jordan direct services organizations, and government officials who each provided me with a unique perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Of all our meetings, the most impactful was our meeting with a local community based organization that provides direct services for women and children in the poorest part of Amman, most of whom are Syrian refugees. We learned about programs to provide education to children and work opportunities to empower women. Losing their homes and sense of belonging drastically affected the women’s outlook and self-perceptions such that they had lost their self-esteem. Listening to their realities was heartbreaking because it is unimaginable to me how a situation beyond one’s control could have such a negative effect. Until you experience involuntary exile due to threat of violence, you cannot fully comprehend the consequent psychological harms.
That so many people back home in America, from politicians to everyday American citizens, vilify Syrian refugees made the experience all the more jarring. Our media and government have turned people in a dire situation into monsters for political and social gain. I can't help but wonder why they teach us in school the famous quote on the Statue of Liberty "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door," while our government's policies towards Syrian refugees directly contradict such values.
Although I am not Syrian or ethnically Arab, I am a Muslim who feels some level of obligation to counter the negative stereotypes infecting American Middle East policy. Islam stresses the idea of the Muslim Ummah - a community that transcends racial, linguistic, and class barriers for the greater good of the Muslim identity. As someone who shares an identity with the majority of the Syrian refugees, I felt a connection that compels me to serve as a cultural ambassador connecting the humanity of the Middle East with the United States.
Although I am upset at how refugees are portrayed in Western media, I can't help but also feel guilty. Being a Muslim is an identity I hold, but so is being American. Although I share an identity with Syrian refugees, I also share an identity with a government whose policies is exacerbating their suffering. I can’t help but wonder how I have been complicit in the oppression of Syrian refugees. I can’t help but wonder when I should have spoken up; or when I was ignorant or lazy when I should have been educating myself and others about the real facts on the ground that debunk the false narratives.
What I have learned, as this trip ends, is that now is the time to do the work I did not do in the past. I have been given this incredible opportunity to come to Jordan and research issues facing Syrian refugees. I have been given the tools and now I need to take every meeting, fact, statistic, and tale I have learned over the past ten days and turn them into action. Writing a policy report the spring of 2018 based on what we learned on the ground in Jordan is the next step in our project.
Almost every Syrian refugee I met told me that they want to see change in their situation. They want to go home and live safely with dignity again. I may not be able to change their lives, but I can try to inform my fellow Americans and hold my government accountable for misguided and misinformed foreign policies. By putting into practice self-empowerment I hope I can inspire others to follow.
-- Omar Rana, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Supporting Community Based Organizations in Human Rights Work: Day 8
December 21, 2017
First, we visited the University of Jordan and met law students in a legal clinic that collaborates on cases with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). The students expressed their passion for helping others through application of international human rights law. They shared with us their work with Syrian refugees and how the clinic leveraged their legal studies towards that end. As the students highlighted the economic and social challenges facing refugees, their empathy was palpable. We heard no resentment in their voices notwithstanding that Syrian workers are competing with Jordanians in an economy with limited opportunities.
When asked what could be done to address the refugee crisis, the students suggested burden-sharing among nations, increasing job opportunities and international development, which directly benefit refugees and Jordanians alike. We sensed that the Jordanian students viewed the Syrians as part of a “family” in their approach to improving Jordan. The goal is to accommodate the whole family, not just Jordanians.
We then met with a volunteer organization founded by a group of Syrian and Jordanian millennials raising money for a carnival for Syrian children. The event raised more money than anticipated such that the youth group decided to create an organization to provide medical and social services for refugees ineligible for government or nongovernment aid. Since its inception in 2014, the organization has raised millions of dollars, thereby allowing it to provide medical aid and social services to approximately 100 people per month. The most fascinating element of this organization is that they are all simply a group of friends driven by compassion to help those in need. We felt proud to see our generation contributing to this cause, and more importantly, became motivated to take part in their initiative. Our conversation included potentially working with them in the United States and helping them get support through one of our legal clinics that works with small businesses. The exchange of ideas further incentivized and validated the importance of our trip to Jordan.
Our encounter with Jordanian youth also taught us the value of being multilingual. Their ability to converse with us in English and easily switch between English and Arabic made us realize the limitations of the American education system. Because most students in the United States are not fully bilingual, their opportunities for meaningful engagement with peers abroad are limited. Studies shows that less that 1% of Americans are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom. Although this may not reflect a lack of interest in learning a foreign language, it certainly limits opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges. Indeed, I have frequently heard Americans express an interest in learning other languages. To meet these interests, our classrooms in the United States should start teaching foreign languages at a younger age when it is easier to learn.
Speaking a different language allows for a more nuanced experience. As a native Arabic speaker, I experienced Jordan through a different lens than my non-Arabic speaking peers. I was able to learn and analyze the information communicated to us in English, but I was also able to pick up on small gestures, jokes and comments said in Arabic but not translated, and if explained in English, would lose their meaning. This trip brought home the importance of learning languages in order to effectively work on international human rights.
-- Tamara Anaie, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Thursday, December 21, 2017
Listening to those Most Affected: Day 7
December 20, 2017
In one of the famous parables by the Persian poet and mystic Rumi, he tells the story of the elephant in a dark room. People go into the room, unable to see, and touch only one part of the elephant. Based on that contact, they come up with a theory of what it must be. But none can guess the true nature of the animal using their limited perspective alone.
With each passing day here in Jordan, it feels as though we illuminate a little more of the elephant that is the Syrian refugee crisis. Today, the picture expanded in new ways based on two unique viewpoints we hadn’t yet experienced firsthand. In the morning we met for the first time with someone who could provide insight into the government’s perspective, and in the afternoon, we visited with Syrian refugee families in their home, engaging with the affected population in ways we hadn’t before. Both were eye-opening conversations.
We learned that the Jordanian government is intensely overburdened due to the refugee crisis. The crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time. Jordan was already facing a debt crisis and other economic problems. As an oasis of stability in the middle of a turbulent region, attracting investment to the country is difficult, tourism has taken a hit, and the government continues to subsidize energy, even though its crucial access to affordable gas through Egypt was cut off due to regional unrest.
Yet, the government kept its borders open to the Syrian refugees for five years until 2016 after a car bomb exploded at a government checkpoint, killing six Jordanian soldiers. In our conversation today, the government official acknowledged that this was not in Jordan’s economic best interest, but the Jordanian government couldn’t turn its backs on neighboring Syria as its people were dying.
The government must walk an incredibly fine line in upholding the obligation it shouldered when hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees poured across its borders, while at the same time avoiding the build-up of resentment among its own people who are struggling to find work. The response isn’t perfect, but somehow, for now, it seems to be succeeding in striking the right, tenuous balance.
There have been no incidents of protests or riots against the refugees by Jordanians. As we’ve heard again and again, the Jordanians are a welcoming people. It’s hard to fathom such empathy, especially when you consider negative reactions to immigrants and refugees prevalent in some parts of America. What does it say about our culture, a culture compromised of the descendants of generations of immigrants, that if we in America had experienced such an influx of people, there almost certainly would have been rioting in the streets?
Our next visit was one of the most powerful for me of the trip so far. We spent the afternoon in the living room of a refugee family, visiting with a group of several Syrian refugee women who shared their experiences with us. Life for them is so hard. They struggle to survive in an expensive city on just 10 dinar (about US$14) per person per month, an amount that has decreased as the crisis lingers. The refugees constantly apply to NGOs for aid and are repeatedly turned down or ignored. Their children are in school, they have a roof over their heads, but most can’t work to make ends meet.
A disagreement broke out between the refugees at one point about what the next step should be for them and their families. One argued that resettlement in a third country, like the US or Europe, is the best option. At least there, he said, we could be put on a path to citizenship, work, know what our status is, and create a stable future for our children. Another argued that she would rather have the tools she needs to survive in Jordan until it’s safe to return to Syria. Uprooting herself and her family again to resettle in a third country would mean giving up on the hope of returning to Syria, where her family remains.
Toddlers ran around the room playing with us while we visited. Time can be difficult to put in perspective, but when we were told that these children were born in Jordan as refugees, the force of just how long this displacement has lasted really hit home. We were handed a beautiful newborn to hold, and as I looked at him in my arms, I wondered what his future held. My heart broke thinking that his mother must look at him and wonder the same thing, without any answers.
Yesterday’s blog post talked about empowerment, the idea that the real solution to the refugee crisis isn’t actually one solution; it’s getting to a place where the refugees themselves can decide their future, based on what they need and want. The discussion today shows that not every solution works for everyone. In a perfect world, and a more sustainable one, the lasting solutions would be the ones the refugees choose for themselves.
All the refugees we spoke to agree that the life they are living right now in Jordan is not sustainable. I couldn’t understand the words they used without interpretation, but I could hear the anxiety in their voices, the desperation of not knowing what would come next and of mounting economic pressure. They had middle class lives in Jordan. Now they’ve been living in poverty and uncertainty for six years, with no end in sight.
During our visit, espresso-sized cups of delicious Turkish coffee were passed around the room, one for each of us in our group, an expression of hospitality by people who have nothing. True generosity is not giving from surplus, but giving when it’s everything you have. Jordan has done that for the Syrian refugees. The Syrian refugees today did that for us.
-- Joanna Gardner, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Education, Empowerment, and Kindness: Day 6
December 19, 2017
Today, our experiences focused our attention on ways to address the refugee crisis and what the Syrian people want—an approach frequently overlooked. We first experienced this while meeting with a community-based organization in a poor neighborhood in Jordan whose work is centered around helping Syrian refugees and their low-income neighbors integrate into society. They offer supplemental education for children and adults who have not had access to school for long periods of time or who lack basic education.
We learned that many of the Syrian families who fled to Jordan have low levels of education because they came from poor, rural areas. As they continue to live in poverty in Jordan, it can be difficult for them to understand the importance of education for their own children and not fall prey to temptations like sending their children to work instead. The organization we visited developed an innovative solution: each child is given 1 Jordanian dinar to attend school each day. The money allows families to afford keeping their children in school, and has thus far been effective in achieving this goal.
Throughout the day, our attention continued to focus on different ways of addressing the refugee crisis. One of the people we spoke to told us that if you ask a refugee what they need, they will tell you that they do not need food, water or a first aid kid. They need empowerment, something that is not offered through mere donations or sympathy.
It made me question what empowerment really is. Does it come with education and having a job that helps sustain your life? Or is there something more. Does it also include allowing someone to feel as if they genuinely belong in a country or that they have the option to live freely within the country? For instance, the community-based organization offered programming for women's empowerment by assisting them in creating handicrafts to sell, while also working on developing their self-confidence and business skills as entrepreneurs.
Perhaps it has something to do with avoiding making the Syrians feel as if they are a project that needs saving. For example, we learned that during the beginning of this crisis, many Syrians avoided registering as refugees with the UNHCR because they wanted to avoid being labeled as a member of a vulnerable community or to perceive themselves that way. Can empowerment simply be given in the way we perceive and portray a Syrian person?
A recurring theme that echoes through the cities of Jordan is the kindness and generosity of Jordanians. I believe these traits might also be a contributing factor to addressing the Syrian crisis. As the blog post mentioned yesterday, we do hear about the tensions between the Jordanian and Syrian people living in Jordan, and it is understandable. Many Jordanians live in poverty, and the international community is slowly starting to realize that in responding to protracted crises like these, it is just as important to support the refugees as it is to support their host communities.
But our meetings today were deeply moving in the ways they showed how generous and welcoming Jordanians are. The community-based organization we visited today serves low-income Syrians and Jordanians equally. One phrase I kept hearing whenever we asked about any tension was that, “there is no Jordanian and Syrian when asking for help; there is only human.” It was extremely uplifting to hear these words and realize that although tensions here surely exist, the compassion of Jordanians is strong. We hope to continue to let the Jordanians touch our hearts and teach us how to better coexist and be more tolerant. One quote that I think captures this well is one we saw painted in a mural on the streets of Amman: “Alone I am fragile, together we are strong.”
-- Tamara Anaie, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Monday, December 18, 2017
Dispelling False Assumptions: Day 5
December 18, 2017
Never assume something is true until you get all the facts. How one person perceives the refugee crisis, what one person decides is a solution, and general impressions are not always the whole story.
Today was a busy day of meetings in Amman. Going into our meetings, I had two preconceptions: 1) Jordanians are supportive of Syrian refugees and 2) resettlement, particularly to the US, is the most desired solutions to the refugee crisis. I was quickly disabused of these assumptions.
We shared with the stakeholders our general impression that Jordan has a very different narrative for refugees than the United States. That is, refugees are far more welcome here in Jordan than in the U.S. Everyone agreed that Jordanians are generally very hospitable.
At the same time, one stakeholder laid out a critical context that could create points of tension, including the long history of protracted refugee crises in Jordan, including the Gaza Camp still hosting Palestinians who fled their homeland in 1967. In addition, an economic crisis, saturated job market and the scarcity of potable water imposes significant burdens on the Jordanian population.
Another stakeholder explained that some Jordanians believe Syrian refugees have been limiting their access to health care. Nearly 85% of Jordanians are insured, most of whom receive government health care. Jordanians who are not insured can access government subsidized health care.
Some Jordanians believe Syrians are also subsidized by the state, which is not true. Because they are not Jordanian citizens, Syrians must pay full cost for health services. For low income displaced Syrians and refugees, this makes access to care prohibitively costly. As a result, international organizations are providing financial aid specifically for the medical treatment of Syrian refugees. Contrary to popular perceptions, such external aid does not adversely impact Jordanians’ access to health care.
The stakeholders also pointed out that although resettlement is an option, the scale of the crisis (there are over 5 million Syrian refugees worldwide) makes resettlement an unsustainable solution. The international community should look at more sustainable solutions like creating flexible funding for neighboring nations like Jordan. This allows the Jordanian Government to address the needs of refugees as well as the needs of low income Jordanian citizens without creating tensions.
At the same time, resettlement is still considered important. There are some refugees who want to be resettled, and as one stakeholder pointed out, everyone should be able to define the path to their self-development. But more broadly, resettlement provides benefits to host countries such as the U.S. – the more the host population develops relationships with people from around the globe, particularly conflict-ridden areas. As we better understand the circumstances of Syrians most affected by the conflict, the more our government is able to support and advocate for effective and sustainable foreign policy solutions.
We ended our day with a lovely dinner at a Syrian restaurant. Our dinner guests were a local couple – a Syrian refugee and his wife. Before walking into dinner, I expected the conversation to be depressing. It turned out quite the opposite. We talked and laughed about nearly every topic under the sun from camel races to Bollywood movies, and we even celebrated one of our group members’ birthday. Of course, at some points, sad and difficult topics came up. The refugee talked about the harsh atrocities he and his family faced while in Syria and the harsh living conditions some of his family members continue to face living in a refugee camp in Jordan. These stories left us all in a state of wonder at how this person could have gone through so much but still be optmistic.
He had a smile on his face because that is what worked for him. It is entirely believable that when we met him he would have been the glum refugee that is portrayed in the media. And those people probably exist. But just because that is one person’s story, like how one person can present a solution or a perception, that does not mean every person feels that way. Is what I learned today now going to reverse everything I was told before … absolutely not. If anything, today taught me that the most important part of human rights lawyering is gaining as many perspectives as you can because not every human is going to think the same way.
As we were leaving, the wife of the Syrian refugee said that if there is anything that we should get out of our research to take back to America is that Syrian refugees should not be stigmatized just for being refugees. Rather than labeling all Syrian refugees as potential security threats, everyone should take the time to learn new perspectives.
That is sound advice that I’ll remember throughout the course of my research, and my life.
-- Omar Rana, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019
Sunday, December 17, 2017
Coexistence in Jordan: Day 4
December 16, 2017
Our fourth day in Jordan was another combination of sightseeing and work, and the last one we will have like that for a while. The next several days are full of stakeholder meetings that will leave less time for sightseeing. It’s been inspiring to see the beauty of this country while at the same time learning about its response to the Syrian crisis. Sometimes those two things overlap.
Jordan is a country that is rich with religious history. For me personally, as my first visit to a Muslim-majority country, it has been beautiful to hear the adhan (call to prayer) echoing across the city, a constant reminder of spirituality throughout each day. Even as we drove from the airport, the number of mosques, lit up green against the night sky, was striking.
Christianity, too, has deep roots in the country, and our sightseeing today took us to some of these sites. We toured two ancient Christian churches in the city of Madaba just outside of Amman—one Greek Orthodox and one Roman Catholic. Both churches are famous for their ancient mosaics. During our visit, we ventured beneath one church to see its Byzantine foundations, dating from the 6th century. Our third church visit was to Mount Nebo, a holy site for both Christians and Muslims, who share a common devotion to Moses as a prophet.
Islam and Christianity exist side-by-side in Jordan, their common histories intertwined. In Madaba, Muslims and Christians share neighborhoods and mosques are across the street from Christian churches.
The Jordanian response to the Syrian refugee crisis seems in many ways to reflect the coexistence that is built into life here. It would be naïve to think that any time two differing cultures intersect it is always harmonious, and it is true that our conversations (and survey data collected by the Jordanian government) have not painted a uniformly rosy picture of Jordanian-Syrian relations. And yet, in our individual conversations with Jordanians, we continue to be impressed by the level of compassion we hear for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees that have poured into the country over the last six years.
Today’s conversation with a Jordanian who works with an international NGO once again reflected that perspective. She told us that Jordanians are a welcoming people; the diversity that has existed in their country for decades has helped to make them that way. Most people she knows, she said, feel compassion for the refugees, even if their own economic situations are difficult. What’s needed, she told us, are programs that meet the basic needs of both Jordanians and refugees, with a focus on jobs. (Unemployment is a problem in Jordan, and we have heard in other conversations that it is one of the points of tension between Jordanians and Syrian refugees).
The portrayal of Syrian refugees by the mainstream media in Jordan is also generally positive, focusing on the humanitarian needs of Syrians and the Jordanian spirit of welcome. Even if local media is not always regarded as entirely trustworthy, the media narrative on refugees sets a tone of receptiveness and welcome.
Our conversation today also reinforced the importance of listening to local voices in communities affected by crises. We talked today about how international NGOs sometimes fail to address the real priorities on the ground because of the perception that “we know best” and a failure to listen to what the community says it needs or to put local people in control.
One example we discussed is the flurry of NGO activity around the problem of child marriage among Syrian refugees. While no doubt a major problem, the person we spoke to today expressed some frustration that the money used for these kinds of interventions could be better spent meeting Syrians’ basic needs, since it is severe economic pressures that drive parents to marry off their girls young in the first place. But instead, foreign donors latch on to a secondary problem that fails to meet the real need or make a lasting impact. The failure to address the priority needs of refugees reveals a lack of insight and an attitude of condescension and lack of respect for the ability of local communities to assess their own needs.
Western international NGOs and their funders would do well to learn from the Jordanian model of coexistence. Living together, learning from each other, and mutual respect are the only ways that meaningful and sustainable work can be done to address human rights needs around the world.
-- Joanna Gardner, Rutgers Law School, Class of 2019