Posts filed under ‘NGOs’

UNHCR Damascus

I asked for the United Nations Refugee office, and the driver took me way out to the edge of Damascus to the UNRWA office. The UN Relief Works Agency, created for Palestinian refugees after 1949, still only serves Palestinians, who have never received the full complement of rights guaranteed other refugees.

One of the guards at UNRWA found another taxi for me, and sent me to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. The driver didn’t actually know where the office was, or much about the neighborhood in which it is located. Syrians do not seem to learn map-reading in school, street names are not generally known (or signed), and people navigate by landmarks. Fortunately, taxi drivers here (all of whom are men) are not subject to the same hesitation so stereotypical among American men that it is a common topic among standup comics. The driver stopped every block to ask someone where the building was, at one point picking up his next fare, who helped identify it.

I spoke with Sybella Wilkes at the UNHCR Damascus office two days after busses left Damascus to return hundreds of refugees to Iraq. My only “research” into refugees was in 1998, while I was waiting to read some other documents at the League of Nations archives and found catalogues of the Nansen papers.  Nansen was a Norwegian working to assure rights for refugees from the catastrophic Great War (1914-18). Chief among the protections he advocated was the right of refugees not to be forced to return to a place where they fear persecution. This right was included in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  UNHCR’s statements that day were very careful. On one hand, they recognized the political pressures that weighed heavily on all the parties connected to Iraq’s refugees. On the other, as Ms. Wilkes informed me, UNHCR’s mission is based on the Refugee Convention. If Iraq remains too dangerous for their UNHCR staff, making it impossible for them to investigate the safety of local conditions, could they really support the busses carrying Iraqis home?

Ms. Wilkes was very clear about the huge role the government of Syria has been playing. The Assad regime has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees. Their hospitality has been hugely expensive. Food, fuel, medical care, education, and nearly everything else in this country is subsidized by the government. That means Syria is paying millions of dollars to host people displaced by a war in which the Syrians had no part. Their generosity is stunning, especially in comparison with the closed doors of almost every other country in the world. (See Human Rights Watch.)

The outlook for the refugees is growing worse. In the face of continuing widespread violence, Iraqis have nowhere to go.  Syria has just recently begun requiring visas that must be obtained in Baghdad. Jordan has closed its doors. In Iraq itself, internally displaced people fleeing violence are no longer allowed into 11 of Iraq’s 18 governorates.

Many of those who made it to Syria were middle class people, professionals, academics, artists fleeing violence. They left behind their homes, their jobs, and all the things that made them like me, Sybella explained. UNHCR uses its limited funds to provide medical care and living expenses to elderly and ill refugees, and to families with no means of support (often women with children but without husbands). UNHCR has produced a CD of Iraqi music by refugee musicians, and there is terrific artwork hanging on the walls in the Damascus office. Ms. Wilkes told me that they had been painted by some of Iraq’s most famous artists, and are available for purchase. (I can’t find a place on their web site where either the CD or the art is sold.)

December 8, 2007 at 6:56 am 2 comments

Ruwwad

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Razan picked us up at our small hotel, and as we drove past the KFC’s, McDonalds, gleaming new office/shopping plazas, and continuous construction of West Amman, she told us that she had worked for GE when she graduated from the university. Two years into the job, a friend asked her for a ride to Ruwwad to tutor that day. Curious, Razan went inside and began reading to some of the children. She promised to return the next day, and soon was a regular volunteer. Months later she had left GE to become Program Coordinator at Ruwwad.

Ruwwad is located in Jabal Nathif in East Amman, across an invisible boundary between the eastern and western part of the city that seems to divide very different worlds. The area has been populated mostly by Palestinian refugees since 1948. The people who live here are very poor, but since the place was never designated as an UNRWA facility, they get no help from UN funds. Until Ruwwad provided the space, the Jordanian government provided neither a health clinic nor even a post office. The government has just recently promised to create a police station. The schools were unimpressive, in sum, Jabal Nathif was a very “under-served” area. Ruwwad has done more than offer services. It has allowed the local children to think about opportunities that they could not have even imagined two years ago.

Ruwwad was Raghda Butros’ dream. When we met her in 2003 she was a Humphrey Fellow at the University of North Carolina, in transition between jobs. After she returned to Amman, she decided she could actually carry out her project. Of the many things I admire about this woman, one is her ability to do things that I would find unlikely at best, and probably impossible.

When we first saw the Ruwwad site in the summer of 2006, there was little but a shell of a building and Raghda’s dreams to fill it. Now, Razan was taking us through three stories filled with children, volunteers, staff, and a flood of remarkable ideas they seem able to implement almost as soon as they arise. Raghda explained that the staff had decided to move its offices out of that initial colorful structure, leaving the first building to the programs and the children who had, by that time, moved into every inch of it. They found that the children followed them into their offices in a neighboring building-–Raghda’s has not only the desk, books, and computer one would expect in an NGO director’s space, but also puzzles, books, and bean-bag chairs for the children who drop by to hang out while she is working.

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Ruwwad opens into a library full of children’s books. (They could always use more…) It is brightly painted, and furnished, like most everyplace else in Ruwwad, by the refurbished castoffs that the volunteers and staff collect, clean, repair, and decorate with great imagination. (The kids even designed the ngo logo.) After an existence of less than two years, Ruwwad’s two buildings today offer a computer lab, a library, courses, a preschool, a furniture-refurbishing shop, and a large meeting space.

The programs that fill the place, though, are the most exciting. “Windows” offers local kids an opportunity to do art, usually available only to Amman’s wealthier children. Adults attend literacy classes in Arabic and English classes offered by volunteers. The large conference room on the top floor is the setting for monthly discussions about topics chosen by local high-school and college-age students, conversations often taboo and unbroached at home or in school.

These older students are often recipients of Ruwwad’s scholarships. Each scholarship student, in addition to attending community college or university, is required to volunteer for the organization. These volunteers provide the labor needed to improve local homes and to build new ones (with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter).

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Rami was with us as we toured the facility. At 17 and in 11th grade, he has made a gradual transition from a local ringleader to one of Ruwwad’s big neighborhood supporters. His friends have followed him, providing a huge support to volunteer efforts to rebuild the community. He came along as we went to a neighbor’s house for sweet, minty tea. Our host has four daughters and three sons. The youngest child, Sarah, is four months old.; the oldest is in her 20s. We met three daughters, including one about to take her exams to get into the university. The family’s house used to consist of one room, an entryway beside a small, walled-off toilet, and a moldy kitchen. After Ruwwad’s volunteers moved the toilet onto the patio and installed a shower, they recreated the entryway into a second room, essentially doubling the usable size of the house. And they treated the mold and repainted the kitchen. Our host, now in her 30s (she married at 17) seemed quite delighted–and delightful. After tea, she urged us to stay for coffee and lunch; when we declined, she insisted that we return another time.

Still less than two years old, Ruwwad now employs 23 people. The programs seem both remarkably innovative and very comprehensive. I keep deleting the words here, because I seem unable to convey the complexity of the program that Raghda and her staff have created. I am used to writing in a linear way, but the varied parts of Ruwwad’s program seem so connected to other parts, it would be more comprehensible with a diagram than a paragraph. I’ll try to give a sense of it. Their varied activities enrich the lives of residents physically (improving living quarters, providing job skills through volunteering, and finding funding for urgent medical situations); academically (offering scholarships, tutoring, literacy programs, English lessons, and encouraging reading); socially (providing volunteer opportunities, creating community cohesion, offering youth a space and resources to talk about important issues); and emotionally (improving living conditions, creating community, responding to urgent local needs). All who benefit are expected to give back through volunteering, which, of course, provides more resources to the Jabal Ndif community. Why didn’t we all think of this decades ago?

The Ruwwad web site does a much better job describing this remarkable place.

November 29, 2007 at 3:51 pm 1 comment


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