“Call me Galib”: Navigating Gender as a Local Humanitarian Aid Worker

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Rawan Arar was a pre-doctoral ACOR-CAORC Fellow for the spring of 2018. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California San Diego soon after the fellowship, and she is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Rawan’s research contributes to scholarly debates about states, rights, and theories of international immigration. She critiques global inequality and studies the interrelated politics between states.

Informal tented settlement, 2016, all photos courtesy of Rawan Arar

Jordanian aid workers were indispensable to the humanitarian response as hundreds of thousands of refugees entered Jordan after the start of the Syrian conflict. Unlike many members of the international humanitarian staff, Jordanian aid workers could communicate directly with refugees. They shared cultural and religious norms with Syrians and, most importantly, spoke the same language. Interactions between Jordanian aid workers and Syrian refugees reflect the daily experiences of displacement and refuge. Still, predominant narratives about the Syrian refugee crisis neglect quotidian life, and instead, focus on the scale and scope of displacement. The study of Jordanian aid workers has fallen outside the scope of scholarly or journalistic analyses (for an exception, see former ACOR-CAORC fellow Patricia Ward’s forthcoming dissertation).

In this essay, I describe the experiences of one Jordanian aid worker named Galya. Galya was drawn to humanitarian work because she saw an opportunity to do something good in the world. Humanitarian work seemed exciting and important to her, even patriotic and Islamic. But with an unemployment rate around 40% among Jordanian youth, any job with the opportunity for advancement would have been appealing. Like many Jordanian women who have entered the humanitarian workforce, Galya has experienced new physical and emotional demands. Aid work has become a space in which she negotiates gender norms are confronts gendered expectations.

Dressing the Part

I met Galya in 2014 at a Starbucks on the affluent side of Amman. We didn’t order anything, but instead, sat in the dimly lit coffee shop talking about refugee aid. Galya has long dark hair that she often swept off her shoulders into a high messy bun. She wears little makeup, save for her signature black eyeliner, which is thick and winged at the edges. At the time, Galya had just started a new job in Za’atari refugee camp. She worked to connect Syrian refugees with social workers, health care providers, and protection officers. Her gregarious demeanor and ability to trouble-shoot made her a natural for the job.

Galya and I spent a lot of time together over the past four years. When I began to visit refugee camps with her, she gave me advice on how to dress. “See how my shirt covers my butt?” she asked me. Galya always wore jeans and long, baggy shirts with sleeves to her elbows despite the oppressive summer heat. Clothing served a dual purpose for Galya: it protected her from unwelcomed stares in the camps and was her way of showing respect to a conservative community.

Despite the cultural and religious similarities among Syrians and Jordanians – those that were especially stark compared to members of the international staff – there were also some notable differences. When I asked Galya why she always wore her hair up, she explained that one day a little boy in Za’atari followed her around the camp with a pair of scissors. Someone instructed him to cut off Galya’s long hair, claiming it was awra, an intimate part of a woman’s body that should be covered to avoid sexual attention. Galya is a Muslim woman. She fasts during Ramadan and turns to prayer when times are tough. Still, it was clear that Galya’s practice of Islam differed from some of the refugees she served.

The story about the little boy with scissors was an outlier. Galya often built upon shared Islamic beliefs and values to establish rapport with refugees and provide counsel. I watched Galya invoke Quranic verses to comfort grieving refugees and, in an extreme case, make a promise to reunite a refugee man with his child with God as her witness.

Navigating Gendered Expectations

Galya was promoted within her international aid organization, and with this responsibility came increased travel throughout Jordan. She began to serve refugees in informal tented settlements (ITS), which are informal refugee camps comprised of small Bedouin-like communities living in tents. Families and their extended relatives usually live together in these camps, which are often established next to Jordanian farmlands. ITS residents are nomadic. People follow seasonal farm work, often traveling from the south of Jordan to the north. But, a nomadic life in exile has several challenges. Syrian families often forego access to resources, including education, that may otherwise be readily available to urban dwelling refugees and those who live in formalized camps. Farmlands are far from schools and the necessity to follow seasonal crops means that families do not stay in one place long enough for children to attend formal schooling. Galya’s responsibility was to reach Syrian children that were out of school.

While her official job description required that Galya provide children with education, she did much more. Galya worked long hours helping to pitch the school tent, create the curriculum, and train the teachers. She facilitated doctor’s visits, advocated for refugees with legal issues, arbitrated disagreements between refugees and farmers, and represented her NGO to international visitors in an effort to solicit donor funds. She was the main contact for Syrians in the ITS camps that she visited. She carried two cell phones and both rang often, sometimes simultaneously. Galya always answered. 

Occasionally, Galya benefited from conservative gender norms. On one of our visits to an ITS, Galya and I were offered water to drink. This can be an awkward position for an aid worker. Galya did not want to refuse the offer for fear of being rude to the Syrian family that had invited us into their tent. So much of Galya’s work depended on the close relationships she developed with Syrian refugees. She also sincerely cared about the people that we were meeting, many of whom she had known for years.

But, drinking unfiltered water can be a health risk – one that Galya has taken and regretted in the past. To navigate this social situation, Galya politely declined the water and said to our host: “I have to tell you something, but it’s a little awkward, so please forgive me for saying this. You see, I am traveling with these boys all day in the car. (There were two male aid workers with us on this day.) We leave at nine in the morning and sometimes we don’t get back to Amman until six at night. And you know, as a girl, I am too embarrassed to tell them I have to use the bathroom. So please forgive me, but I have to avoid drinking anything.” She continued jokingly, “Could you imagine if I had to tell the boys to stop for me to use the restroom?” Everyone laughed as if this were an absurd suggestion. Whether or not our host knew that Galya was deflecting her kind gesture, these gendered expectations allowed both Galya and our host to accept an alternative to drinking unfiltered water.

Za’atari refugee camp, 2016

Reimagining Gender Roles at Work

Galya was very comfortable in the car with the male aid workers and never hesitated to ask for a bathroom break. Galya relied on Waleed, whose formal job description was “the driver.” The day I met Waleed, Galya, who was sitting in the passenger’s seat, made the introductions. “This is Waleed, but we call him Leedo,” she said to me, but looking at him mischievously to watch his reaction as she divulged his nickname. Galya then turned her entire body around to face me, “He knows every narrow road in Jordan. Every alley. Even every rock.” The “rock” comment made her laugh, which made Leedo laugh too.  We left the humanitarian organizations’ headquarters early each morning. We’d stop to fill up gas and stock up on snacks for the long drive from Amman to the outskirts of Mafraq and Irbid. This became a ritual. Leedo always ordered a cup of Turkish coffee, heavy on the sugar, and Galya bought two bags of Lays Max Chili potato chips. They fought over who would pay, and every time, Leedo refused to let Galya pay for our snacks. This too was gendered. The male aid workers we traveled with would never let us pay for snacks if they were in the convenient store.

Galya often said she felt like “one of the boys.” “Don’t call me Galya,” she joked, “Call me Galib.” Galib is a man’s name and a play off of her name. The name change was not only in reference to hanging out with men all day, but was also a remark that aid work was labor intensive and dirty. We often spoke about how the dust collected in our hair and how sand gelled to our skin. “When I shower, you can see the dirt collect on the floor,” Galya said.

After work one day, we decided to have dinner with another female aid worker, Nisreen.  We parked in front a restaurant specializing in hotdogs that served every conceivable topping one could ever want. We ate in the car with music blasting and talked about new developments at the Jordanian-Syrian border. Nisreen confessed that she would never want to work on the border – it was too dusty and too many days away from home. “We are losing our femininity out here,” Galya said and Nisreen agreed. Nisreen explained that, a few years ago, her family would never have imagined her, as a woman, doing this kind of work.

Conclusion

These short vignettes are important for several reasons. First, they depict everyday life in Jordan. The mundane aspects of refugee reception are often neglected for eye-catching headlines that enumerate the traumas of displacement. Despite the unfathomable losses that refugees have faced, many of the mundane joys and pains of an unsettled life happen in moments like those described above. For example, when Galya answers her phone, she takes responsibility for the needs of the person on the other end of the line. Something as simple as listening to a refugees’ concerns and searching for solutions can make a big difference for those who are dependent upon aid.

Second, Galya’s experiences draw attention to the contributions of Jordanian aid workers whose stories routinely fall outside the scope of analysis. Jordanian aid workers are central to the humanitarian response in Jordan. So often, the discussion of the “Syrian refugee crisis” neglects the particularities of each host country, especially when referring to states in the Middle East as opposed to the West. Syrian displacement in Jordan should not be conflated with Syrian displacement in other parts of the world because the politics of each place matters.  

Third, these short stories highlight the complexities of aid work when humanitarians and refugees share cultural, linguistic, and religious similarities. Jordanians and Syrians also sometimes share familial and business ties (for more on labor migration ties between Syrians and Jordanians, keep an eye out for Ann-Christin Wagner’s research in progress). Galya’s grandmother, for example, is a Syrian woman who spent most of her childhood in Syria. However, these shared attributes do not negate important distinctions between Jordanian aid workers and Syrian refugees that can also fall along cultural and religious lines.

Finally, gendered expectations are renegotiated when Jordanian women take on new roles in their society as humanitarian aid workers. Galya invokes familiar gendered expectations to navigate social situations while at the same time recognizes that ascribed gendered expectations have been changing. Ten-hour shifts and hard, dirty work has given her a sense of accomplishment and self-reliance. In her role as a refugee advocate, Galya has entered masculine spaces (including government ministries) and spoken up to her male superiors with confidence. Still, Galya also reminisces about a more “feminine” version of herself, who she once envisioned she may become. These stories provide some insight into the emotional work that humanitarian aid requires of Jordanian women.

*All quotations have been translated by the author from Arabic to English. All names were changed to protect the identity of the participants. This research and data analysis were conducted with generous support from the National Science Foundation, P.E.O., Marye Anne Fox Endowed Fellowship, and the American Center for Oriental Research.

You can learn more about Rawan Arar’s research from https://watson.brown.edu/people/postdocs/arar

By Rawan Arar, Ph.D.

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