The Poetics of Undisclosed Care

Throughout our research in Lebanon and Jordan, the Refugee Hosts project has been tracing how, why and with what effect the residents of diverse neighbourhoods have been responding to the arrival and presence of refugees from Syria. In her latest contribution to our Reflections from the Field Series, Refugee Hosts PI Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh draws upon the research that she and other members of the Refugee Hosts team have been conducting since 2016 in Baddawi camp, including interviews undertaken by Baddawi camp resident Mohammad Abu Iyad and reflections by Refugee Hosts’ Writer in Residence Yousif M. Qasmiyeh.

Based on her presentation at the Refugee Hosts-Yale Workshop on Religion and Social Justice for Refugees held in Yale University on 10thMay 2019, in this blog Fiddian-Qasmiyeh outlines a number of ways that camp residents have responded to the presence of refugees from Syria, ranging from the provision of shelter and material resources to supporting local-level rituals of life and death. In turn, she explores what she conceptualises as ‘the poetics of undisclosed care,’ offering critical reflections on both the politics of response and of research in situations of overlapping displacement.

The Poetics of Undisclosed Care

By Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Refugee Hosts PI

A key dynamic that we have been exploring in Refugee Hosts is the process through which people who have themselves had personal or familial experiences of displacement in Lebanon and Jordan are responding to the arrival and presence of people displaced from Syria (what I refer to here as ‘refugees-hosting-refugees’). Indeed, as echoed in the following interview extract, Baddawi camp residents themselves have experienced complex and overlapping histories of displacement and of hosting:

While I was still in Nahr el-Bared Camp, my original place of residence, I hosted five Palestinian families displaced from Beirut in 2006 [during the Israeli bombardment of Southern Lebanon] for a whole month. We shared everything with them, the rooms of the house and food, until they returned to their homes…

When we left Nahr el-Bared [as a result of the destruction of the camp by the Lebanese authorities in 2007], the people poured into [Baddawi] camp in just one day and, the people here [in Baddawi] were waiting for us to lend a helping hand and to help secure shelter for us…

[In 2012] I hosted a Syrian family in my house for fifteen days until I secured them a house of their own. I offered them food, clothes and necessary supplies during that entire period.

Palestinian from Nahr el-Bared camp, resident in Baddawi camp since 2007

Over the course of six years, this Palestinian man hosted six displaced families in his own home and also directly experienced internal displacement and was hosted by other refugees in Baddawi camp: a clear reminder both of the precarity of many people’s lives in displacement, and of the diverse ways that refugees respond to support the needs and rights of diverse people affected by conflict and forced migration (on Palestinian refugees hosting Lebanese citizens in 2006, see Ramadan 2008).

Reconceptualising Basic Needs in Displacement

In addition to providing shelter and material resources – forms of assistance that are often denominated as ‘basic needs’ by international humanitarian actors – diverse local-level rituals are also regularly organized by, with and for different groups of refugees in Baddawi camp.

For instance, before and during Ramadan, local groups of Baddawi camp residents collect zakat donations to prepare and distribute iftar food baskets with which families ‘in need’ can break their fast. These donations – collected by, from and for refugees – are distributed by camp residents to families who have been locally identified as having particularly precarious livelihoods in the camp, irrespective of their place of origin, legal status, or how long they have lived in Baddawi: this includes long-term Palestinian Baddawi residents, internally-displaced-refugees from Nahr el-Bared camp, and refugees who have arrived from Syria.

As Yousif M. Qasmiyeh and I have explored elsewhere, the camp itself has also welcomed or hosted refugees in another way.

There are now five cemeteries in Baddawi camp, with Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis and Kurds now sharing the same soil.

Abu-Diab, the only grave-digger in Baddawi camp, speaks of the pragmatics of dying:

“I dig for the living, and I dig for the dead.”

To live and maintain life, to keep the dignity of the dead and the solace of those who remain.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Qasmiyeh, ‘Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying

These examples demonstrate that supporting key rituals such as observing Ramadan and burying a loved one with dignity can be key priorities for people affected by conflict and displacement; however, it is notable that international aid agencies have often been reluctant, or have even ‘resisted’, displaced people using tarpaulin ‘officially’ designated to be used for ‘living spaces’ to bury loved ones instead (see here and here),

Attention to the significance of religion in displacement thus prompts a reconceptualization of ‘basic needs’ in humanitarian situations (see here): it forces us to acknowledge the disconnect that often exists between policy makers’ and practitioners’ assumptions of ‘what refugees need’ and what they believe is ‘acceptable’ for refugees to prioritise, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, what different groups of refugees consider to be essential requirements, as prerequisites to dignity and justice.

Unequal fields of ‘response’?

Where providing material aid, distributing iftar baskets, and supporting people in times of loss and mourning are increasingly ‘visible’ and ‘legible’ as forms of response, a related question hinted at above is what is perceived as a response and as an acceptable form of response by different actors.

During his reflection on the roles that Baddawi camp residents have played since the arrival of refugees from Syria, a 37-year old Syrian man who has lived in Baddawi since 2011 shared his view that:

I think that the biggest part of the local community does not care about this and their role does not transgress the limits of observing.

In a protracted displacement situation such as Baddawi camp which is characterised by extreme precarity (see here), clearly not all residents are providing material assistance to refugees from Syria, whether because they don’t ‘care’ or are themselves in need of assistance. However, while it might not be denominated an ‘adequate’ response to the needs of refugees, even ‘not caring’ is itself a form of response.

Irrespective of the presence or absence of material exchange or the ‘provision’ of aid, Baddawi camp residents clearly are responding in different ways, whether it is “observing” the situation of people from Syria, “accepting” the presence of refugees from Syria, offering “moral support” and ensuring that their children “are well among their foreign neighbours,” as a Kurdish refugee from Syria who has lived in Baddawi since 2012 argued in his interview:

It is enough that they allowed us to live among them despite this great population pressure. In my view, the local community is not interested in providing us with assistance. All they have to do is accept our presence in these areas and to offer us moral support. For me, it is enough that my Palestinian neighbour greets me every morning and that I go to work being sure that my children are well among their foreign neighbours.

While the concept of the ‘neighbour’ in Arabic is an ambivalent one – demarcating proximity and charity on the one hand, and yet invoking antagonism on the other, as Yousif M. Qasmiyeh and I explore here– what is pertinent in this context is this interviewee’s usage of the phrase “it is enough” not once but twice to refer to co-presence, everyday encounters and ‘being well’ in a shared space.

Here, the question of whether ‘observing’ without ‘caring’ can be conceptualised ‘as’ a response shifts to whether it can be viewed as an acceptable or sufficient form of response: what is the relative significance – from the perspective of different interlocutors – of the provision of material goods, spiritual support, conviviality, ‘caring’ and sharing space? Who determines what ‘is enough’ in such a situation of overlapping precarity? Is it sufficient, as Yousif M. Qasmiyeh and I have been exploring as part of Refugee Hosts [here and here], for response to be framed around ‘being-with’ and ‘being-together’ (following J.-L. Nancy)?

The Poetics of Undisclosed Care

In parallel with ‘observing’ without ‘caring’ is the possibility of ‘caring’ without being ‘observed,’ including through what I conceptualise as the ‘poetics of undisclosed care.’ In essence, a number of interviewees, when reflecting on the assistance that they have provided to other refugees, and when explaining their perspectives of how local communities should respond to the presence of refugees, drew attention to acts of kindness and solidarity which may be viewed as ‘private’ acts which should not be disclosed to others.

This private dimension of assistance, in the sense of acts undertaken discretely, was described by one interviewee, a 31-year old Palestinian man from Nahr el-Bared who has resided in Baddawi camp since 2007, as being “only for God’s sake”:

We collected clothes… offered food and cash to refugees, but I hope you don’t mention this except for reasons related to your research, because we do this only for God’s sake.

In turn, a Syrian man who has lived in Baddawi camp since 2011 stated:

Those people who offer assistance without disclosing their names deserve respect.

And a Kurdish man from Syria living in Baddawi camp since 2012 shared the powerful saying:

Be like the good tree that gives its fruits and does not ask who took them.

This desirability of discretion, silence and not asking questions was stressed by diverse interviewees in Lebanon, refugees and refugee-hosts alike, in line with the Quran – “If you disclose your Sadaqaat (almsgiving), it is well; but if you conceal them and give them to the poor, that is better for you” (2:271) – and Hadith – those whom Allah will shade on the Day of Judgement include s/he “…who gives in charity and hides it, such that his left hand does not know what his right hand gives in charity.”

This commitment to discrete modes of supporting refugees is as strongly grounded in religious belief and practice as it is a powerful counterpoint to the international humanitarian system’s long-standing preference for hypervisible logos and public announcements of action.

The explicit connection made by the first of these interviewees between the discrete provision of assistance away from the public gaze and the research process, in turn raise important questions of how to reconcile many local actors’ preference for discretion – whether for religious, or safety and security reasons in precarious situations where displacement and religion are hyper-politicised – with the increasing desire amongst academics, policy-makers and practitioners, to better understand the roles played by local actors, including those motivated by religion, in promoting social justice for refugees.

These are processes and dilemmas that Refugee Hosts will be continuing to explore over the coming months, as we simultaneously examine the politics of response and of research in situations of overlapping displacement, echoing the question posed by Yousif M. Qasmiyeh in Writing the Camp:

Who are we to come to you, who are you to come to us?

*

Read more about our Refugee Hosts-Yale project here: Religion and Social Justice for Refugees.

If you have found this piece of interest, read our Reflections from the Field Series, Faith and Displacement Series, in addition to the following pieces:

References

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Presentation to the UNHCR High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, Panel 1, Session 1 on Reception and Admission

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) Refugees Hosting Refugees

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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (ed) (2016) Gender, Religion and Humanitarian Responses to Refugees, UCLMigration Research Unit Policy Brief

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Ager, A. (eds) (2013) Local Faith Communities and the promotion of resilience in humanitarian situationsRSC/JLI Working Paper 90.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Qasmiyeh, Y.M. (2018) Refugee Neighbours & Hospitality

Kidwai, S. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Seeking Evidence to Provide Protection: How Can Local Faith Communities Support Refugees?

Ramadan, A. (2008) ‘The Guests’ Guests: Palestinian Refugees, Lebanese Civilians, and the War of 2006,’ Antipode, 40(4): 658-677

Rowlands, A. R. (2017 ‘Faith and Displacement: Beyond the Faith-Secular Divide? An Introduction to the Series

Wilkinson, O. (2017) Reflection and Connection: Religious Celebration in Times of Crisis

Wilkinson, O. and Ager, J. (2017) Scoping Study on Local Faith Communities in Urban Displacement: Evidence on Localisation and Urbanisation, UCL-Migration Research Unit Policy Brief

Featured image:  An outing to the olive groves. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Jan 2019

One thought on “The Poetics of Undisclosed Care

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s