Finding Connections

THIS BLOG POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON THE MAILMAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH’S STUDENT VOICES BLOG.

It happens so subtly here in Jordan. I enter a taxi, offer some basic greetings, and fumble through my Arabic to give my driver my address. Halfway through the drive, we realize that we are both of Lebanese descent; in fact, our families are from the same street in Beirut. My driver warmly tells me where I can get affordable and delicious Lebanese food, gives tips on fair taxi prices, and insists I call him if I ever need anything.

Enjoying the sunset in Wadi Rum, a valley cut into sandstone and granite in southern Jordan.

During my time here, these small connections have helped my colleagues and me adjust to life abroad. From getting help bargaining the best taxi deal, to sharing countless cups of shia ou nana (tea with mint), I have developed a sense of companionship with those I have met over the past two months. It’s no surprise that we find such importance in building this network and so much meaning in our daily interactions within our temporary home because that is what human beings do—we seek out friendships and connections and turn to those connections for support and assistance. But what happens when the feeling of connection, which is so embedded in the culture and processes of the Middle East, is disrupted by forced migration?

For my summer practicum, I am working with Mailman’s Program on Forced Migration’s Syrian Refugee Initiative to understand the impact of family separation on refugee families in Amman, Jordan. As part of our work here, my colleagues and I have been conducting in-depth interviews with Syrian refugee families to understand their experiences in both urban and refugee camp settings.

Amman, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian Refugee Initiative

Wall art in Jabal Al’Weibdeh area of Amman.

Our first day in Za’atari refugee camp, I saw how families attempted to rebuild this feeling of connectedness to person and place following their forced migration out of war-torn Syria. Caravans in the camp were moved, reorganized, and attached to one another to create a network of shared living spaces as a way to keep loved ones together. During interviews with  Syrian families, young nieces and nephews that had moved nearby ran in and out of the open living room, playing. It is easy to forget you are in a metal box as families welcome you with a warm smile into a space that they have made as comfortable as possible, with traditional Syrian décor and even outdoor gardens. The attempt to maintain some semblance to life in Syria is clear.

Before leaving the camp, we had to stop at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) base camp to process our departure. As we approached, all I could see were dozens of people  huddled against the barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp in the sweltering Jordanian sun. It became clear that this was a group of young men pressed against a fence to push their bodies as close to the barricade as possible, some even reaching their arms through the holes.  All of this was an effort to get their phones as close to the “good wifi” as possible so families could keep in contact with loved ones or simply feel connected to life outside of the camp. Although I was shocked by this image, I was not surprised by the necessity that these men felt to stay connected.

I came to Amman to understand Syrian refugees’ experiences with family separation, and this research allowed me to explore the deep desire for familiarity through all kinds of relationships.

Amman, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian Refugee Initiative

View from the top of the Monastery in Petra. Jordan.

In the interviews we have been conducting, we often hear about the importance of staying in touch online with family members and neighbors despite being on different continents. In fact, the desire to be connected is so strong that many families put themselves in harm’s way in order to fulfill this exigency. Many families leave behind services and support in the camps and head to urban settings, where access to resources are either limited or non-existent, just so they can be with family members that are unregistered refugees. Others have said that despite security risks, they are considering returning to Syria to say goodbye to elderly parents before they pass away or to see the graves of loved ones they have lost. Despite trying to make a familiar house, many refugees are patiently waiting for Syria to become safe in order to return to their homes.

Amman, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian Refugee Initiative, Mailman School of Public Health

In Jordan’s Desert Highway.

Although I am just beginning my career in humanitarian aid work, I can see that we are clearly missing something in our current refugee crisis models. From what I have observed in my short time in Jordan, people will seek out familiarity and family unity by any means necessary, including reunifying in unsafe ways or standing in the heat of the day for a decent wifi connection. It is up to us as humanitarians to address these realities and find creative solutions in order to better protect the human rights of refugees. With limited resources and a system that was not designed for protracted emergencies, we must find new ways to assist safe means of reunification and promote a sense of dignity and belonging for these families.

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Laura Zebib is a second-year MPH student in the Department of Epidemiology and part of the Program on Forced Migration and Health. She graduated from the University of Miami in 2015 before pursuing a graduate certificate in geospatial technology. Prior to joining Mailman, she utilized her GIS background to investigate refugee spatial access to healthcare in Europe and the geo-demographic indicators of gun violence in Miami, FL. 

If you would like to be considered for Mailman’s Student Voices, please send a five-sentence article pitch describing your piece to Suzanne Shrekgast at ss5461@cumc.columbia.edu

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Reflections From Jordan: A Call for Reform

THIS BLOG POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON THE MAILMAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH’S STUDENT VOICES BLOG.

The longer I’m here, the less I know.

This is the most honest realization that I can share with you because when you come to a refugee camp equipped with a partial master’s degree and the best of intentions—you really do feel like you can change the world.

But then you sit down and hear people’s stories—stories of incredible hardship and need, stories of long journeys, lost homes, and possible indefinite family separation. These are the same people that you have been reading about for months and years, and you realize that you don’t have an answer for them. You realize how truly complex a complex emergency is and how small you are in the scheme of it all.

Amman, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian Refugee Initiative, Mailman School of Public Health

As a second year MPH student at the Mailman School of Public Health, I spent the summer studying of family separation in Jordan.

This summer, I have been working in Amman, Jordan, with the Mailman School’s Program on Forced Migration and Health to learn about the impact of family separation on Syrian Refugees. Together, my colleagues and I conducted over 80 qualitative interviews with refugees across the country to learn about their experiences.

Syrian refugees here have access to certain rights, but only if they are registered with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Out of 1.4 million, only 657,000 Jordanian refugees are registered and even then resources are limited and there is still a great deal of unmet need. Many refugees have been displaced for years and they lack access to basics like food, money for rent, and healthcare. I am increasingly aware of the many hoops that refugees have to step through to get what they need to survive—and live with dignity.

Even something seemingly as simple as getting registered, and applying for services like food stamps and resettlement can be complicated and perplexing. Many refugees are confused as to why they may not be eligible for certain services, or how to even apply. Humanitarian agencies are overwhelmed and can be unresponsive. Part of me understands and respects that the existing process is in place for a reason, but the another part keeps thinking that we must do better.

Amman, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian Refugee Initiative, Mailman School of Public Health

Taking a break from conducting interviews with my fellow Mailman teammates.

My teammates and I, who live and work together, often come home and debrief about what we’ve been seeing and experiencing. For hours we go around talking about our participants’ experiences and try to come up with solutions. Is it more money? Better policies? Better organization? More decentralization? A complete re-structuring? Who should take on a bigger role?

Historically, the humanitarian system has been set up for short-term emergencies where basic human needs are met. Increasingly, crises are protracted and we have to adjust to meet longer-term needs. A clear example of this, which my team and I have observed while conducting interviews, is that many refugees lack access to secondary and tertiary healthcare. This includes medications for chronic disease like diabetes and hypertension, important surgeries such as those for tonsillitis and kidney stones, and even treatment for illnesses like cancer. Without an end to the Syrian crisis in sight, and other crises emerging, we have to find a way to better meet these refugees’ long-term needs. But how? Here’s where the more personal questions come in:

What can I do?

How can I be useful?

Where do I place myself to create the most positive change?

The answer isn’t simple, but humanitarians like Dr. Paul Spiegel, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Refugee Disaster Response, and Dr. Francesco Checci, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, have been advocating for an overhaul to the existing system. Changing that system involves a shift from short-term techniques to long-term approaches with revised leadership and a focus on efficient, effective, and sustainable interventions.

As part of the future generation of humanitarian responders—still a little green and wide-eyed—I don’t see any option but to overhaul how we’re approaching things now. I am looking forward to working with my peers at Mailman this fall and learning from the experiences of Syrian refugees to find durable response solutions for those in the future.


Hannah Chandler is a second-year MPH student in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health and part of the Program on Forced Migration and Health. She graduated from Azusa Pacific University in 2015 before joining the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security as a Research Assistant.

If you would like to be considered for Mailman’s Student Voices, please send a five-sentence article pitch describing your piece to Suzanne Shrekgast at ss5461@cumc.columbia.edu

Refugee Lessons

This blog post originally appeared on the Mailman School of Public Health’s Student Voices blog.

I’m nearing the end of my time in Amman, Jordan, on my summer practicum, meaning I only have a few weeks left to experience as much as I can: deserts, mountains, seas, cities, delicious food, and wonderful, welcoming people. I’ve been keeping my family updated on sights and experiences through instant messaging apps like Whatsapp. “This is Petra! It’s beautiful!” I’ll send them with a picture, next to which little blue checkmarks indicate they received it instantly. Isn’t technology amazing?

What’s great about using these technologies in Jordan is that it makes the distance between family shrink. But I wonder if it would feel the same if I didn’t know when I would see my family next?

Petra, Amman, Jordan, Syrian refugee
Two of my Syrian Refugee Initiative team members and I climbed over 850 steps to reach the Monastery, the largest monument of Petra.

Before arriving in Jordan, I studied the basics of the spoken Levantine Arabic dialect (Marhabaa! Ismi Lainey!) in Beirut for one month. There I met a young lady, Ayah, who is soft-spoken, yet strong-willed, and incredibly kind-hearted. She told me she wants to be a veterinarian and spent her free time at a local pet-shop. Over the next few weeks, Ayah and I met in cafes and studied together: myself, Arabic, and her, German.

Ayah is from Syria, and her parents were resettled in Germany. When she applied for reunification to be with them, her request was denied. She had just turned 18, and Germany considered her a self-sufficient adult.

Germany’s policies for family reunification — and most European countries’—prioritize children, but only those under the age of 18. After 18, separated young adults must prove dependency (emotional, physical, or financial) in order to be considered for reunification. So, Ayah learns German while waiting on updates. Like me, she is currently communicating with her family via Whatsapp, but unlike me, she has been away from her family for over three years.

Even if Ayah was 18, does it make sense to keep a family separated? Would it be better for all of her family to be together? It seems counterproductive to the purpose of asylum if her parents are provided protection, but worry about their daughter alone in Lebanon, a small country that faces a myriad of challenges related to hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees. (These challenges include social tension, discrimination, insufficient financial support, and the government’s decision to suspend registration of refugees in May 2015.)

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In July 2017, I camped in Wadi Rum, a protected desert valley in southern Jordan known for its incredible night sky.

As it happened, my friendship with Ayah personalized an issue I have been working on here in Jordan with the Syrian Refugee Initiative. I’m here with seven Mailman classmates and Jordanian colleagues to understand and document refugee experiences like Ayah’s in a country that faces similar challenges to Lebanon. We’ve been conducting in-depth interviews with Syrians separated from family members, looking at the barriers to reunification — including countries’ logistical, procedural, and legal requirements — and the impact that separation has on families.

Germany’s age requirement is far from the only hurdle. For example, family sponsors who apply for reunification three months after their status determination must prove sufficient living space, health insurance, and financial subsistence for themselves and their family members. Spouses may be asked to prove they are able to communicate in German on a basic level before entering the country. Germany also suspended family reunification for two years for those issued residency permits under “subsidiary protection” status after March 2016.

Amman, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian Refugee Initiative

The hills of Amman, Jordan taken from the Amman Citadel downtown.

With support from the Columbia Global Center in Amman, the Syrian Refugee Initiative was commissioned by UNHCR to assess the impact of separation on families’ livelihoods and their overall wellbeing. In Ayah’s case, safety is a major concern. She told me she does not feel safe in Lebanon without her parents, mainly due to discrimination. It has also been next to impossible for her to find a job since work permits are limited to just a few sectors such as construction and agriculture.

I believe our research is important not only in elevating the voices of separated refugee families, but also in supporting the global community in crafting policy responses. This research will allow us to engage in evidence-based advocacy in an effort to improve current family reunification programs. We aim to disseminate findings to policymakers, academic journals, humanitarian actors, and other communities of practice.

While technologies like WhatsApp have been so important in keeping families in communication, I am hopeful that in the future, policies will make it unnecessary by allowing Ayah and others to reunite with their loved ones.


Lainey Freels is a second-year MPH student in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health and part of the Program on Forced Migration and HealthShe graduated cum laude from UCLA in 2012 before joining the University’s International Education Office as an International Programs Advisor. From 2014 – 2015, she was a Princeton University Fellow with the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation in Vietnam.