The other day the group went to speak with a woman who works at UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency I mentioned two posts before) and I learned a little bit more about the refugee crisis and I've been able to think more about immigration and the refugee situation throughout the region. The meeting was pretty cool the whole way through--it was my first visit to UN property. We had to give them our passports, get our bags searched and had the wand waved over our bodies. The sign out front said, "No weapons allowed on the premises." Duh, but there was a guard out front holding a gun. I guess he wasn't inside the gate, but whatever, I'll get to that irony some other time...
Anyway, so in this meeting, we talked with a woman named Beth and she answered some of my questions. I don't know whether or not I was beguiled by her swanky confidence with the organization, but as a result, I became much more confident with the UN. I still haven't seen a camp, so I may be getting fed information that doesn't follow through... still, here is what I found out:
UNRWA is a humanitarian aid organization and is responsible for humanitarian aid within the camps. It is NOT a political organization concerned with any particular side. It exists only to serve and empower the underprivileged and vulnerable Palestinian refugees. However, the organization speaks truth, which can expose certain aspects of an occupier or unlock some hidden secrets that people may not have wanted to come out. This may not be exaaaactly the free-of-politics case, as can be seen with the resignation of John Ging, the director of UNRWA's Gaza program, and the camps may not be livable, but UNRWA's doing its best.
What I found really super interesting is, according to international law from the Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention, if UNRWA didn't exist, got defunded, lost its funding sources, didn't meet the quota, etc. the occupying power (Israel) would be required to take over responsibility of the work UNRWA does. Article 29 of Part III of the Convention states, "The Party to the conflict in whose hands protected persons may be, is responsible for the treatment accorded to them by its agents, irrespective of any individual responsibility which may be incurred1." And, oh! look! Israel signed the treaty the very day it was finished and officially ratified2. Good thing there's an UNRWA cushion. Israel really dodged a bullet there.
Something about all this still makes me wonder how useful UNRWA is in the long run; it's nice to have a humanitarian agency in place for the short-term solutions, but how much is it actually helping the underlying refugee problem? Could it be further prolonging the situation in some capacity? There are about 4.6 million registered-with-UNRWA Palestinian refugees throughout the region, and 2 million of them live in Jordan. My host family is unregistered with UNRWA, but the folks who have registered are forever branded with a refugee status. Their children become refugees, even though they can't even cross the border into Palestine. Most people I meet have never seen the land they come from--it's generations behind them. Yet, they're directly considered refugees of actions that are distantly behind them (the war, not the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict). Something about this seems peculiar to me.
On a different note, after choir (pun intended) last Monday, I got a ride home with someone who asked what I'm doing here. I rambled off the usual, "uhhhhhhh,studyarabic,seetheregion,neverbeenoutsidetheunitedstates,mymajor,understandtheculture,ihavefriendsfromhereblahblahblah..." and I guess he was impressed with my jumbled answer because he said, "Oh, awesome, I think traveling makes you richer inside..." Cool. Does it? Am I traveling selfishly? Oh jeez. Here we go...
At school I'm part of the Bonner Scholars Program3, a program that gives scholarships to students from lower income families who have dedication to service. I have to log and complete 140 hours of service per semester, and the fact that I'm in Jordan doesn't really matter all that much; I'm still required to complete these hours, which is fine because my program has an internship component and I work with an NGO. So, I'm living here in Jordan, I'm learning the language, I'm studying, I'm working here, wouldn't it make sense that I'm becoming "richer inside," as Karam said? Because I have a habit of second guessing myself or over interpreting the meanings behind what people say or do, I wonder if I'm really doing any good. Also, I might be super sensitive to this subject because I'm constantly trying not to impose, which is hard to do because I'm not the most comfortable with the language and people are forced to accommodate my shitty language "skills." Anyway, through Bonner I have to complete two summers of service (where I work with Seeds of Peace, the real reason I'm here--but that's too difficult to explain to someone giving me a ride home) and I got an email from my coordinator a list of volunteer opportunities for the summer and a bunch of different databases for volunteering abroad. I was like, cool, I know what I'm doing this summer, but I'll check this stuff out anyway. I went to a bunch of different sites and found lots of cool information, but a lot of it was really expensive and the programs only seemed to last for a week or two. At that point though, is it about the underprivileged group you're supposed to be helping or is it about yourself? I don't think that for-profit volunteer groups are the way to do things. For more information about how others feel about the alternative spring break work, check out what Ivan Illich says4.
There are many things to think about. The most pressing one is that I have an exam tomorrow. In Arabic. Here we go.
Picture: A regular ol' sunset in Wadi Rum