Inside Jordan's Refugee Camp: What Does It Take To Empower Refugees?

Nam Phuong Thi Doan '18

 Entrance to Za'atari Refugee Camp. Courtesy Sitashma Parajuli

Entrance to Za'atari Refugee Camp. Courtesy Sitashma Parajuli

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 22.5 million refugees in the world by the end of 2016, more than half of which are Syrians displaced as a result of the country’s Civil War. The majority of refugees live in vulnerable living conditions, lacking access to many essential resources and opportunities, such as healthcare and education.

Sitashma Parajuli, a first-year student from Nepal, recognized a lack of mental health in the mainstream discourse of the Syrian refugee crisis. Driven by her interest in psycho-social care and women’s rights, Parajuli decided to do her first Field Work Term at a refugee camp in Jordan and explore the living reality there.

 Sitashma (bottom left) and the midwives at the women's health center. Courtesy Sitashma Parajuli

Sitashma (bottom left) and the midwives at the women's health center. Courtesy Sitashma Parajuli

Jordan is one of the top refugee-hosting countries. However, ninety three percent of refugees in the country live below the poverty line. The organization Parajuli worked with is called Jordan Health Aid Society and based in Amman, while the refugee camp is located about two hours away in Za’atari. The camp started out as an emergency response to the refugee crisis in Jordan and gradually turned into a permanent settlement for the displaced Syrians.

As soon as she started working at the family-planning center and the women’s health center inside the camp, Sitashma Parajuli was taken aback by how open the refugee women were to talk about seemingly taboo topics, such as birth controls and sex. “It was impressive to see women walking into the family-planning center asking for condoms […] They were also very open about their sex lives,” Parajuli says.

At the women’s health center, Parajuli helped register women for pre and post-natal care, assisted doctors with providing childcare information, and watched babies being born. Even though the work was not directly related to mental health, Parajuli was exposed to the “raw emotions” of the refugees living inside the camp through not only hands-on work with them but also their daily stories.

“The women talk about their abusive husbands and what happens at home,” she continues, “One story I remember is there was this woman who came in and told the midwives: ‘I’ve been fasting for a week because my husband told me I was fat and ugly. He wants to marry someone else and leaves me.’ Then she started laughing.”

According to Parajuli, the laws of Jordan allow men to marry up to four women. She was surprised to discover that a lot of women chose to divorce their husbands, even though divorce might not be positively perceived in their culture. Yet, the women opened up about how they were still ridiculed by their neighbors to the midwives and doctors, who did not know what to do with the women’s emotions, stress, and feelings of being excluded within their own community.

“That was frustrating,” Parajuli admits, “the fact that I couldn’t openly talk about mental health and how it was such a blurred concept. But it was also helpful to see what support they were lacking.”

 Inside the family-planning center. Courtesy Sitashma Parajuli

Inside the family-planning center. Courtesy Sitashma Parajuli

Growing up in Kathmandu, Nepal, in a household of social entrepreneurs, Sitashma Parajuli was soon exposed to lives different from hers in the most remote villages of Nepal, which she claimed to give her a reality check on her own privilege and motivation to make a difference in the world. Her father runs an organization committed to building a sustainable community in Northern Nepal’s rural villages. The organization provides healthcare and education to the “blacksmiths,” who are isolated and looked down upon by their community. Her mother ran a sister organization to his father’s that trains women to be artisans and breadwinners of the family. Together, they build schools, healthcare centers, and train students to become doctors, teachers, midwives, so that they could have more agency, autonomy, and the ability to give back to their own community in the long run.

Thinking back to the living conditions for the refugees not only in Jordan but also in other parts of the world, Sitashma Parajuli questions the humanness of refugee camp as a concept, and whether it reflects the nation-state’s lack of infrastructures and metrics to deal with mass movements of displaced people.

“I had to travel two hours away from Amman where I was living everyday to reach this middle of the desert, in proximity to absolutely no other villages, in a caged environment, where people had to feel okay living in caravans,” she says.

Refugee camp is a designed solution to the refugee’s vulnerable political status. According to the UNHCR, camps have evolved significantly throughout history, and “are no longer simply rows of tents,” but “communities filled with people preparing for brighter futures.”

During her internship, Parajuli had a chance to walk around and have coffee with the refugees living in caravans. The “raw emotions” she witnessed came from life histories, trauma, loss, and resiliency. On one hand, Parajuli expresses respect to the host country Jordan, which takes in more than half of the world’s refugees; on the other hand, she was grappling with how a group of persecuted people, who were forced to leave their homes, could cope with the living conditions in such an isolated place.

“The UNHCR and IRC are getting a pat on the back for doing such a great job helping the refugees,” she shares, “Sure, you’re aiding them, but also in an… animalistic way in which you’re caging them, feeding them, and expecting them to feel okay with the situation.”

 Inside a caravan. Courtesy Sitashma Parajuli

Inside a caravan. Courtesy Sitashma Parajuli

In his article “We Refugees,” Giorgio Agamben quoted Hannah Arendt: “Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people.” In today’s context, “the avant-garde of people” can convey firstly, how the refugee as a political concept and a testimony has the power to call out the limits of our political economy, policy, and community, while demanding a better design for refugee crisis treatment and immigration laws. Secondly, refugees can form a counterpublic (*), a public in opposition to the dominant public and social/cultural norms, that manifests collective resistance, active participation instead of ascriptive belonging, and puts forth social transformation.

Sitashma Parajuli offers two ideas on designing a better system that improves the living conditions of refugees in host countries. The first question to solve is “how can we help refugees develop ideas and train skills?” A lot of refugees she talked to in the camp wanted to come back to Syria after the wars—what does it take to make sure that they have the skills and resources they need to build a stable life when they return to their communities? “It’s necessary to look at the problem through an economic lens, not just humanitarian lens,” Parajuli states.

The second questions is related to women’s empowerment through creativity. “Like anywhere, it’s a patriarchal world,” she admits, “and women have such little voice.” Refugee women became the subjects of emotional abuse stemming from their husbands’ frustration of unemployment. Witnessing this reality reminded Sitashma Parajuli of how her parents dealt with these deep-rooted issues by training women to be breadwinners through creative endeavors.

“There are organizations helping women but they’re still not giving them the tools to be empowered, to have more agency,” Parajuli continues, “I just think that it’s a very unsustainable model—[these women] were fed by so many international organizations and became dependent upon them. Once the organizations pull back, what are they going to do?”

Parajuli has a vision of combining her interest in art and fashion with social impact. She believes that fashion has political power and can generate quality jobs. “I can take designs to the camp and work with the women there,” she imagines, “teach them skills like sewing or pattern-making, make a clothing line that sells wherever it sells, and bring the money back to the artisans. That way, I can maintain my passion for art and fashion and still be a part of a bigger change.”

Sitashma Parajuli is rethinking a system that connects different needs across populations, without excluding her own. Can the refugee crisis be tackled in a more creative way with both economic and civic empowerment initiatives, which will not only benefit refugees, but also lay out new possibilities for a more just and sustainable political-economic system of the host country?


(*) The concept of “counterpublic” was originally coined by Michael Warner and adopted by Cristina Beltrán in her article “Going Public: Hannah Arendt, Immigrant Action, and the Space of Appearance.”