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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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