Drawing the Camp: Graphic Essay of Community Organising, Local Aid and ‘Refugee Humanitarianism’ in Irbid Refugee Camp

Displaced communities – whether long-time residents of camps and urban areas, or newly arrived refugees – are also often hosts, offering support to fellow refugees through community-led initiatives, or simple acts of everyday hospitality. This ‘refugee-refugee humanitarianism’ disrupts mainstream humanitarian narratives, which typically frame displaced peoples as passive recipients of aid. In order to challenge this assumption, the Refugee Hosts project focuses on the everyday lives of displaced peoples to evidence the agency of refugees in diverse settings. This has included adopting a ‘spaces and places, not faces‘ approach to representations of refugees, and exploring what it means to ‘photograph’ and ‘write the camp’ – this is something that Salla-Maria Korhonen (University of Helsinki) has adopted in her own approach to drawing and sketching in/as fieldwork as part of her research with Palestinian-led initiatives in Irbid, one of Refugee Host’s research sites.

By bringing to light these acts of refugee-refugee humanitarianism through methods of visual documentation that attempt to move away from representations of singular suffering victims, Salla-Maria is able to capture the everyday support made available by refugee volunteers at the Al-Farouq Welfare Society. Despite the widespread precarity that exists in Palestinian refugee camps, such initiatives demonstrate the resilience and agency that persists in contexts of displacement. For more on these themes, please visit the suggested readings at the end of this piece. 

Drawing the Camp: Graphic Essay of Community Organising, Local Aid and ‘Refugee Humanitarianism’ in Irbid Refugee Camp

By Salla-Maria Korhonen, PhD Candidate in Social & Cultural Anthropology, University of Helsinki

This graphic essay is based on 11-months of ethnographic fieldwork with volunteers and employees of Al-Farouq Welfare Society for Orphans in a Palestinian refugee camp in Irbid, North Jordan. Following the Refugee Hosts blog series agenda of examining everyday processes of displacement and hosting, in this piece I represent the daily work, visions, and humanitarian responses of the local charity workers and volunteers of Al-Farouq through fieldwork drawings.

The story of Al-Farouq demonstrates aptly the agency of refugees in processes of ‘refugee-refugee humanitarianism’. Al-Farouq was established in 1991 to assist orphans, the disabled, and the poorest members of the community in Irbid refugee camp. Al-Farouq’s main centre is located at the eastern entrance of Irbid camp, which itself was set up in 1951 in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war to accommodate some 4,000 displaced Palestinians. Over the decades, the refugees transformed their temporary shelters into concrete houses. Today Irbid camp is home to over 28,000 refugees and it has evolved to resemble some of the urban poor quarters in Irbid city.

At first, Al-Farouq provided aid to around 20 orphan families within the camp. Over the last two decades, however, Al-Farouq has expanded remarkably: currently the society provides aid to over 2,200 orphan families and offers various health and educational services in the camp and beyond. It is noteworthy that most of the charity workers and volunteers at Al-Farouq are Palestinian refugees from Irbid refugee camp and share their beneficiaries’ experiences of refugeeness, poverty, and orphanhood. In addition to serving and supporting their own refugee community, Al-Farouq assists poor Jordanian families and Syrian refugees. Thus, these local aid workers are simultaneously refugees, aid givers, and hosts for more recently displaced Syrians.

In addition to charitable activities, Al-Farouq has for years engaged in welfarist activism and community organising in the face of authoritarian surveillance on the one hand, and lack of state support on the other. Al-Farouq’s staff take pride in setting an example to impoverished communities on how to ameliorate local problems and improve their lives through community-led organising. Their role here also sets an example to the government on how to provide accessible, good quality services with minimal resources. Al-Farouq demonstrates that voluntary associations can possess surprising resilience and courage in fostering social change.

Next, I will let the drawings talk to the reader-become-watcher about the various encounters that take place throughout displacement and hosting, and about the agency of refugees as both recipients and providers of humanitarian support. It is my hope that my sketches of everyday life – my ‘graphic narrative’ –  can draw attention to the multiple ways in which refugees respond to the daily challenges of displacement and in so doing, transform their supposedly temporal emergency setting into meaningful community places and spaces of assistance, resistance, and resilience.

Camp landscape from the Society’s office window. Al-Farouq’s community-based charity interventions respond to the wider socio-economic situation in the camp, including lack of access to resources, education, public services, and decent housing. The camp residents have managed to craft meaningful places within and against the violent constraints imposed on them and stamp their own mark on the camp.

The main ‘social researcher’ of the Department of Social Affairs, Roqaia, receives and advises beneficiaries at the office.

Al-Farouq aims to ensure the dignity and self-respect of its beneficiaries. This is evident, for example, in the manner the organization distributes kifalaat support money to the orphan families: Al-Farouq establishes a bank account for all its beneficiaries and kifalaat is paid directly to them. In this way, the beneficiary does not need to pick up the assistance from charity organization’s office but can withdraw cash from the ATM like any other employed or self-sustaining person.

The separation between the givers of charity and the receivers of charity is blurred in the context where the aid organization works for its own people and the local community. Although rarely visible in the mainstream humanitarian narrative, the poor and refugees may simultaneously be givers and recipients of aid.

In the first drawing (L), the society’s maintenance lady Huda organizes Roqaia’s desk. While Huda is Al-Farouq’s staff and one of the core organizers of the society’s charity distributions, she, as a widowed woman with several children, is also one of Al-Farouq’s beneficiaries. Al-Farouq’s staff understand and indeed, share their beneficiaries’ struggles.

Above right, a view into the garden of one of our beneficiaries from the van window. We drove to the home of the beneficiary in order to return a huge cooking pot which she had lent Al-Farouq a few days earlier for one of the society’s charity events. The suffering victim may well be an active member of the community.

On the top right, our office corner during a quiet afternoon. On the wall at the back of the room hangs a mirror, decorated with Palestinian embroidery. At the office, I often contemplated who draws which camp? To some, refugee humanitarianism and camp charity may evoke exoticized images of endless tough work amidst desperation and hardship. Yet as in any working organization, Al-Farouq’s social workers and volunteers also find time to enjoy coffee in the afternoon, check their WhatsApp messages, and socialize with one another, as captured above.

6a

Food distribution is one the most intimate and concrete forms of Al-Farouq’s charity, depicted above. Charity distributions often take place in a storage hall or mustauda next to the Society’s centre. Below, widows queue at the office. The women in these two drawings are some of the most vulnerable members of Jordanian society, yet they are rarely treated as victims or with pity. Al-Farouq’s staff understand the needs of the locals as well as cultural values and expectations related to charity and the giving and receiving of aid.

6b

Al-Farouq’s charity work offers an alternative image of everyday refugee humanitarianism and communal camp charity different from the standardized imagery and discourse of victimhood and helplessness common in international humanitarianism

Drawing as a fieldwork method is not just a graphical documentation, but also a way of doing research and obtaining knowledge. Drawing in the field can generate dialogue and collaborative material.

The drawing above left is based on a picture of one of the employees with her niece. I was asked to draw the picture as a gift to the girl.

The drawing above right was made in collaboration with Yasmina, the daughter of one of the widowed volunteers and my good friend Wejdan.  For me and my informants, drawing became a form of entertainment and socializing.

As the call to the prayer or adan echoes through the camp from the mosque nearby, social workers and volunteers retreat from the office to wash themselves and pray. During busy days, the employees take turns to pray at the office. Faith is an important – though not the sole – source of strength and inspiration for most of the charity workers to help their fellow human beings.

Much research on Muslim charity has focused on the motives and desires of the aid givers – often wealthy or middle-class donors –while situations in which Muslim poor are involved simultaneously as givers and recipients of charity have remained unexplored. In Irbid camp, the complex motivations and the ethics of piety, relationality, and humanitarianism of the poor or disadvantaged refugees – the ’humanitarian poor’–  dominate the aid scene.

Al-Farouq is known in the camp not only for its charity work but also for its numerous community improvement initiatives including self-development and life-skills courses for youth, vocational training for women, and communal gatherings. Above left, volunteer Wejdan is enjoying a meal during a celebration at the Society’s Hall. Above right, Maysoon, the manager of the Department of Social Affairs, is distributing gifts to the widows during a Mother’s Day party.

Al-Farouq’s refugee-led initiatives exemplify the active role of refugees in shaping and improving their environment and communities themselves.

10a.png

Drawing of a picture of a Palestinian refugee boy hanging on the wall of Al-Farouq school, next to the English alphabet. Many Palestinians refugees have a conscious and political sense of place, for the camp is not home. Like this picture of a refugee boy, many symbols and images in the camp and homes of exiled Palestinians testify that Palestine is considered today, as always, a place Palestinian refugees can truly call home.

Above, unfinished sketches of the refugee camp and the messy electric pole speak of the temporality of the camp, where its residents are dreaming of a possible future return to home while building better lives for themselves and their community in the here and now…

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Featured image: a sketch of Irbid camp (c) S. Korhonen

Read more pieces from the Refugee Hosts blog:

Adams, H. (2018) ‘Syrian and Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon and the Emergent Realities of Return

Carpi, E. (2017) ‘Syrians in Akkar: Refugees or Neighbours?

Davies, D. (2017) ‘Urban Warfare, Resilience and Resistance.’

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) ‘Refugee-Refugee Relationality: Hospitality and ‘Being With’ Refugees

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) ‘Palestinian and Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Sharing Space, Electricity and the Sky

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2018) ‘Refugee Neighbours & Hostipitality

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Representations of Displacement Series: Introduction

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying

Harsch, L. (2018) ‘Historical Photos of Hamra, Beirut

Lokot, M. (2018) ‘Mobility, Hope and the ‘Appropriation’ of Space: Reflections from a Photovoice Project

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) ‘Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Turkey

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2016) ‘Writing the Camp

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Refugees are Dialectical Beings Part One and Part Two

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2018) ‘The Hands are Hers

Sharif, H. (2018) ‘Refugee-led Humanitarianism in Lebanon’s Shatila Camp

Stonebridge, L. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Time Machine: Stereoscopic Views from Palestine, 1900

Wafai, J. (2018) ‘Al-Mustaqubal in the Space of Refuge

Zbeidy, D. (2017) ‘Widowhood, Displacement and Friendship in Jordan

 

 

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