With the number of political and societal problems in our world today, it is not uncommon to see the shift of cultures and societies with the now prominent access to globalization. This shift has made it clear that one country or nation is not limited only one culture or identity. This is especially true with a number of refugees produced today. According to UNHCR, there is an unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world who have been forced from their homes — among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under 18 years old. There are also around 10 million stateless people with 20 people being forcibly displaced every minute.
Jordan holds one of the largest refugee intakes in the world. According to UNHCR, Jordan was the largest resettlement operation globally with 19,299 resettlement departures in 2016 and hosts the second highest of refugees per 1,000 inhabitants in the world. A high number of the Jordanian population consists of refugees, making Jordan a country full of cultural difference and adaptation.
Source: ReliefWeb, UNHCR, and HRW.
Speaker: The perspective of a Syrian refugee
He is the founder of his own charity organization Acting for Change Jordan العمل من أجل التغيير, conducting different activities in trying to support and provide basic necessities for refugees. His organisation runs many projects to support Syrian refugees in Zaatari and also conduct education and school programs in the camps. He is also a Syrian refugee who migrated to Jordan.
“In June 2012, I came to Jordan. The situation in Syria has gotten worse, especially for the youth in Syria, so I chose to come to Jordan. I was wanted by the government because I was part of the revolution. I came to Jordan without anything after I lost everything in Syria. You can’t imagine, I owned 300 JD when I first came to Jordan. After the third day I was in Jordan, I started to work in construction. I worked 15 days in Irbid then I moved to Amman and I started working in a child’s clothing store around four or five months there. Then I stopped, I collected some money and I started by myself. I made a mobile phone cart in Jordan and then I started in trading. When I saw something cheap I would buy it and resell it,” he said.
“I then stopped doing this and the first year in Jordan I collected 10,000 JD after that I lost the money, but I didn’t give up. I came with nothing when I got to Jordan. Then I started volunteering with some NGOs and worked in Zaatari helping Syrian refugees because they are my people and I should help them and give them something. I started 2014 with volunteering and in 2015 I started working with an organisation but they shut down and then 2016 I started my own organisation and that was a shock for me coming here to Jordan.
“However, when I came to Jordan, for me, I did not find anything different here in Jordan. I did not have to change my personality of how I was when I was in Syria. However, the things I did before, I forgot and left behind me. Just because I am a refugee does not mean that I cannot do anything. I have the right. I’m not just going to sit on a mattress and wait for an organisation like UNHCR to help me, so I stopped.
“I stopped registering for UNHCR because what the UNHCR gives to the Syrian refugee, it is nothing. I am young, every day I earn 25 JD a day and how am I going to survive with only 10 JD a month from UNHCR? So I said I should go, and I worked so hard. I left my family in Syria and I came alone to support my family. And I did that to get my family out of Syria to move to Germany. Right now, they are in Germany and that is from my money because I support them to leave Syria. So I do many things when I came to Jordan but the main reason why I came without anything and transformed my life now was because I did not give up.
“I hope from the youth, people will see my story and see what I do and do not give up because we can do this. Always we can win and everytime something bad happens to me I don’t give up and go back to Syria, I always say, ‘no, tomorrow will be better.’ That is what happened to me for five years and every day I say tomorrow will be better.
“I made my own way and what I see here in Jordan as refugees, we do not want to forget what they did for us and how they opened the door for us. I found a lot of Jordanian that supports me and I thank them so much. For me, no matter where I go I do not have any problem, I just start from zero. If you are good, you will find good people with you and if you are bad, you will find bad people with you. I do find Syrians who said Jordanian people are bad and I don’t understand that, ‘why are they bad?’ My best friends are Jordanian and they are always with me and there for me. So that is what I see here in Jordan, but that is just my opinion I don’t know about other people.
Floor discussion: how can we get rid of a sense of bias from labels and perceived self-identities?
Comment1: My name is Sky and I am from Syria. I’m an artist, I’m Syrian and I’ve been here for the last 6 years and I’ve been working very hard and use my pain for positive things, not facing society and not trying to let people affect me and just trying so hard to just be myself and see my future as a refugee who came from war, as a Syrian.
Comment 2: I’m not a refugee and I cannot speak about those experiences but working with Kotaiba and seeing everything, I feel the people that have been affected most by the war were children. With young people, we can always try to find the motivation to try and get through the struggles and as kids, it’s just hard for them because they don’t have the education in their lives.
There is a lot of structure in their lives that could have been there with education. I think what we have seen is a moment of resilience with the people we work with in Zaatari. In terms of identity, we work a lot with one of the tribes there. In a host community of 10,000 Jordanians and 15,000 Syrians, the weight of the Jordanians with these Syrians to live side by side, I believe that is also a form of cross-border identity.
Q1: In your experiences, how did you have to deal with leaving your old culture behind and having to integrate to a new one? Was it a big challenge or did you have to give a lot of things up?
A1: For me, I did not see much difference between Jordan and Syria. Our cultures are quite the same so there was not a big difference. Also, I always say if you come to any country, the first thing you want to know is the culture and the law and then after if you want to work, then you can do it but there is not a big culture difference.
A2: For me, when I came to Jordan it was very risky. I stayed alone on the street and was away from my family. For me, I didn’t focus so much on society because I was trying to focus more on myself and keep going and that is what is going to get me there. Once I was done with that process, I just stopped talking to people in Jordan and I started doing weird stuff and I kind of just disappeared, studied a lot, danced, and did what I could to try to inspire and help people. However, this is less about me being a Syrian but more about somebody who ran from a war and I can’t stop, I need to just keep going and keep fighting. I am just trying to be patient and go-with-the-flow and I think I am now well integrated with my society but as an artist, I feel like I have reached my time here.
A3: My name is Tobi, I am Nigerian and it is amazing being here today. I came to Jordan around two years ago to study and it was difficult at first because I was a Christian and I’m not white. It was a bit difficult because I couldn’t speak Arabic and I had to move to places, buy things, and was constantly ripped off. What got me out of this was like what Kotaiba said, it was like Syria, but it was completely different with me, I had to be very open-minded and patient because I learned so many different cultures here. And you get to know the people better here.
It took me months to actually try and understand the Jordanian culture and I really love it. You will not believe how many people I met and invitations I got just because I really love mansaf. It was amazing, and I think the openness and patience with people, as well as to learn more is the best way. I used to live in an area where nobody spoke English and we had to communicate via sign language. So I think it is just the patience and openness that really got me through.
Q2: I have two questions, in your experiences, how does the experience of women differ from yours as a refugee because I have been doing research about this for a while I have noticed that a lot of basic freedoms are lost when people are migrating, especially for women, so when you think of female relatives, how does it difffer from yours?
And my other question is, in terms of negative experiences in Jordan, what do you think is the cause of that? Is it fear is it hate? Why and what kind of people were accepting and not and why do you think that?
A1: I am working with Kotaiba. I lived in Canada and UAE and I am Palestinian Jordanian, so basically I have a lot of knowledge and experiences around this area. To answer your question, I’m a Muslim and being in different cultures it is hard but if you give respect to people, they will respect you. I have a personal friend who fasts every day with me and they are Christian and they will give me a place to pray as well.
The second, I work with UNDP where I have to teach Syrian women to be instructors to teach women to create their own small business in the local area. So I had women who do not want to work because they think that ‘[Jordanians] do not want us.’ However, we need to think of Jordan as a small country with limited resources with many refugees, so Jordanians think about it as ‘I can’t have my own career because somebody else is going to take it for less money.’
It is just like any other country there are always fights about opportunities and when they see that Syrian refugees are getting help in an area where they can’t, this is the problem. And for women refugees, they actually have more chances than the men because women in general here are more energetic and want to gain more. Another thing is, if we start to communicate and be honest with each other, from any country, it’s all about communicating where we can get to the point of you accept me and I accept you. Even for me, as a woman and wearing a hijab, I get many questions but it’s basically not about gender it’s more about if you are going to do it you are going to do it. So it is a mental thing; if we understand the people in front of us and just let them do it without thinking of anything else, then things will be better.
A2: Can I answer your second question, when I was talking to someone about how people react to people they don’t know and it’s like you are in a dark room where you don’t know anything. Many people here said I was the first black friend they had. And I experienced direct racism here but then I got to know them.They don’t understand or know if I’m really human, and their best defence is an attack. Then after a while, some people that were like that in Jordan got to know me and now, have best friends amongst people. So it’s all about willingness to learn, because these people, they don’t even know me, so it’s all about the willingness to learn.
Comment 3: I would like to express my admiration to Kotaiba for what you have done because you do not blame others and you are considered as a role model. You are taking a lead and you are starting to solve the problem. This is a very nice thing to hear and your attitude is not just for role models but for all of us and it is very very good. I want to praise you for this.
Comment 4: So basically, I went to an immigration office a few weeks ago and the immigration officer asked me where I was from and I said I was from Sweden but originally Palestinian and he said I did not look Swedish. I was sorry that apparently I was not white enough for him and I was not in the mood to tell him that I migrated from Palestine from Gaza as a refugee, I was not in the mood to tell him that I had given up my identity, what I want to say is labeling and categorizing labels is the most inaccurate way to judge somebody.
Comment 5: Thank you so much for that point you made, I 100 percent agree with it. I feel like a lot us culturally are still stuck with one way of thinking. If you are this person you categorize into this box, but there are many of us where I am sure we have all these different experiences. I, like yourself, am a mixed raced person, I am a Muslim and even when I tell people I come from Britain, people tend to not believe it because I don’t look a certain way. And often times, I’m judged for the way I look, for the way I dress, my level of education and I tend to shatter people’s stereotypes of what they expect to see or think I would be like. We are in 2017, I think khalas with the labels and boxing and identifying people, we are global citizens now.
A3: I want to second the gentleman’s comments about what you, Kotaiba, and the people that work with you are commendable and I do think there is a lot to say about the resilience and I think it is more of your personal experiences and it is great, but I do want to acknowledge back to the first question, there are definitely existing structures of inequality for refugee communities, specifically for women.
Yes, women do and are awarded opportunities in Jordan, but we do live in a society where there are conservatives and patriarchal societies so there is already distorted power dynamics amongst gender and we have an ingrained inequality and a lot of issues and trauma of being refugees, then it compounds the issues. So a lot of women refugees who become head of the household for whatever reason, tend to have to stay home and take care of their children while sending off some of her other children to work. So you do have higher incidents of child labour and early girl child marriages. I would like to point out it is usually just something we regard as a coping community as women.
I wanted to point out a more realistic view but again, as said before, there are some amazing work out there.
Comment 6: My story is when I was a kid, I was innocent and I have learned labels planted in my mind. When I was a kid I had no idea what was the difference between Jordanian, Palestinian, Syrian, etc. And people call me Jordanian because I was born in Jordanian, but I was also half Syrian because my mother is Syrian and I am also half Palestinian because my father is Palestinian. And I am three halves so far and all these labels from different countries, they were planted here in our minds that we cannot cross the borders between a good reason. It is all one place, we are all one, we are all humanity, we are all human. What is happening these days is very heartbreaking because we are all human and this planet is our home and we have the right to work and get money, etc. What labels can affect our minds and I think we need to find ways to eliminate these goals. If you’ve succeeded to eliminate these goals, that will be great.
Q3: Something I have noticed about Jordan, you need to look at the spectrum, it is uniquely more opening and hospitable and there is a culture built with waves of refugees and it is not like if you come as a refugee you are not a fish out of water, but I wonder if there is anybody here willing to speak about a situation when they were a refugee and the environment was not as welcoming as Jordan? Because there is so many fake information out there. And with so much hostility — often these people don’t want to learn. How do you deal with people who want to hate or dont want to learn?
A1: I have never been a refugee, but I am definitely a diaspora child and many times in the place where I grew up, I felt very unwelcome. I am British born with no British blood per say and not Christian. So I do not think this is just a refugee experience but an experience of global citizenship and how we move around the world to try and ahieve a better life. So this concept of countries is starting to disintegrate. What am I if not British? Am I from where my parents are from? My parents are from two different parts of the world. Is it from where you are born?
What is national identity is the real question? Why are people hostile? Why is it the motivation to reject others? Maybe because your national identity is starting to crumble, as what was said before, it was all one land that colonialists just draw a line across and suddenly we are divided. So I think that is the real question about what is national identity, especially when you put mixed race into the question, cause at that point I exist and you can not tell me that I have to choose, so it is not about nations and identity anymore.
A2: I will try to answer your question. I think identity comes from ourselves. When we put labels, it is because we are afraid of something we do not know. So labels are just a way of making people feel comfortable. So we must accept ourselves, our history, origin and just respecting ourselves and that is how we can accept others. As for refugees, I think we need to redesign the concept of how we see them because, in the media, they are often portrayed as people who are needy who need charity. We can shift that in a positive way as a contributor to the economy, so it is all about perspective.
Comment 7: What is a refugee? A refugee before they cross their country is a nationality of their country, it is only when they cross that border they become a refugee, or so we label them. And since we are speaking of labels why are we calling them refugees? Why not survivors or something more human? They had a home like you and I, but the word refugee seems to strip them of all of that. So instead of refugee, I will like to call you survivors.
Comment 8: I want to talk more about your question of how can we deal with the negative attitudes we face. I think creating hate towards people is much easier when you don’t know people. For example, like a place in Germany, the number of refugees are more concentrated in a specific place and most people they interact with refugees and people just assume that they do all these bad things, even if is not true. And it does not matter that it is not true because it has already been internalised. Places like the US, with a large Somali population for decades now, communities will constantly say that you face issues but over time, I feel like if you get integrated to these things people start talking to each other more — and of course it’s going to take a long time — but I think even just saying that you have a friend and telling other people will help. That is how you overcome those type of stereotypes.
Brainstorm: sustainable solution in stereotypical views of labelling and cultural differences
We want to start with a question, I would like anyone from any of the groups to answer. Why are people [in the Middle East] called foreigners and westerners in the Middle East called expats?
One of us actually said it is a discrimination of white supremacist.
The word migrant can actually be a good word if we use it in the right way. It might be positive, it might be negative. Might be problematic when there is no personal acceptance of our labels.
Learning to understand things better and educating the society, like Civic Service and volunteering.
We were talking about labels and its definition and whether if it is negative or not. I said it is more of a national effort that needs to be made. For example, like the Civic Service programs back in France where people from different cultures and nationalities are forced to meet and it made me realize how diverse France is. I was just busy living in my little bubble in the west suburbs of Paris and we can all live together with different cultures and nationalities. So the Civic Service is a great way to get people to turn labels into a positive thing.
There is also this thing in my country where people who graduate university is forced to serve the country for a year in a state the government will assign you to where you live and work there for one year. So it makes people come together and understand each other, we call it the National Youth Service Corps, that also works on a national level. Also, just making sure people get more experiences and exposure.
Q1: Refugees and people moving into different countries tend to have the hardest when they are children, as somebody mentioned before here, what do you think we can do in terms of the education system to help integrate people?
A1: When we say education and exposure, there is a different type of education we need to work on which is awareness. We cannot let those labels define who we are and that is something quite difficult as a kid and if you keep calling a child a name or a label, it is going to be hard to do that growing up but if you make them self-aware of what they are exactly and what they are capable of, by the time they grow up labels will go away and people will become more accepting once they grow up. So you need to make them more self-aware and not devalue themselves.
A2: I think if we update the curriculum system to talk about refugees and how to integrate them or make spaces for host communities to help socialize to refugee communities. It seems possible in Jordan because for example Jordan and Syria have similar cultures and some organizations might already be doing it.
A3: I just want to mention something one of us said that I feel really summarized how I myself managed to adapt to the different cultures here, which is ‘work it.’
There are many solutions that I have been working on in trying to help people and communicate with each other. Refugees, we need to just talk to each other. Whoever it is, we should just approach people and share a conversation. We need to help each other to speak. Be fully present with the moment with people and not focus on labels.
We touched on a lot of different topics, on different state systems and it being problematic. As refugees, we need to recognise them as people first. We tend to take these things for granted, people who stand against everything this gathering represents is an issue and it is not ok. Whether it is perceived aggression or pure aggression, there are different problems about how people feel threatened; how they blame different groups and try to either escape goat people as the source of their anxiety. And I have never seen this level of anxiety. The challenge is how do we address these anxieties.
Also, as a refugee, you need to work hard and not give up. Our speaker expressed concern that the international community might be killing that entrepreneurial spirit and might be too dependent. It is important to talk about these things because this is history and this is how our world happened. The people that are looking to help people in need may need to translate their efforts into policy systems.
We touched on a lot of things most of the other groups already touched on, but we mostly talked about education and concentrating on a prime school way would be to focus on the education system. And also that labels are not exactly positive things but they do not have to be negative things, they are just ways that we people organize our lives and thoughts by putting things into categories, so instead of trying to get rid of it, try to educate people on looking for similarities rather than differences.
We also talked about fact-checking. There is so much misinformation in the media that lead to all these stereotypes, so this is a skill that is highly needed.