Episode 3: Working with Refugees

This month’s theme is refugees. In this episode, hosts Ashley and Annika hear from interviews with Fahrinisa Fatima Oswald, Bathoul Ahmed, Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, and Amanda Weyler about their work. We discuss misconceptions about the refugee crisis, caring for yourself while working in traumatic environments, and much more.

All the interviews you hear today are available in full on the Women in Foreign Policy website. A transcript of this episode is also available at http://www.womeninforeignpolicy.org/listen-to-our-podcast/.
If you’d like to support the work of WiFP, please consider donating at Paypal via www.paypal.me/lmgoulet or becoming a patron on Patreon at www.patreon.com/womeninforeignpolicy.
Find your hosts on Twitter at @ashley_e_pratt and @annikaep!
Cheery Monday Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Annika: Welcome to the second episode of Women in Foreign Policy! This is a monthly podcast where we (your hosts, myself and Ashley) tackle a different topic in the foreign policy world and hear from different women. Last month we talked about innovators and trailblazing women in the foreign policy field, and we just want to say thanks! Thank you so much for the warm response and welcome into the podcasting world.

Ashley: Yeah, we heard from a lot of people who were all very kind and said very lovely things about last month’s episode and so we’re so excited to be doing this again this month. This month we’re talking about careers in conflict zones and working with refugees. We’ve got a lot of fantastic interviews, but before we get started, we wanted to make clear that Annika and I are speaking from a place of enormous privilege -- neither of us have ever been refugees or worked in conflict zones, so we are also really looking forward to learning from what these women have to share.

Annika: Yeah, last month we did a lot of talking, and this month, I’m really excited to be doing more listening. There’s power in perspective, and we’re so grateful that these women have taken the time to share theirs with us. Without further ado, let’s hear some introductions:

Fahrinisa Fatima Oswald: My name is Fahrinisa Campana and I am a multi-media journalist originally from New York City. I am now based in Athens, Greece, and I’ve been here more or less since October 2015. I mostly focus on immigration, gender, and human rights issues. Being in Greece is a really great place for me because I can cover all of those, the refugee crisis and also to just cover these issues in other regions close to Greece.

Annika: Our next guest is Bathoul Ahmed. She’s worked in a number of different positions with the UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency and is currently a humanitarian worker.

Bathoul Ahmed: I guess if you want to put a label on it then I guess you could say that I’m an aid worker, a humanitarian worker… Initially I was a communications officer for the UNHCR, that was my official title.

Annika: She’s worked in a number of different positions both with the media and on the ground. We’ll also hear from Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, a barrister who works on Palestinian human rights issues.

Salma Karmi-Ayyoub: Right now I’m focusing almost exclusively on looking at strategic litigation and other kinds of legal advocacy connected to the Palestinian human rights issue, which I do mainly through my consultancy I have with a Palestinian human rights NGO called Al Haq, but I also do some things independently.

Ashley: And, as with last month’s episode, we have one great interview that we unfortunately do not have audio for. At the time of our interview, Amanda Weyler was a Public Information and Reporting Officer for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in South Sudan. She now works for the same office, but focuses on emergency preparedness and works in Geneva.

So, when we sat down to start planning this episode, we wondered: what makes you want to do work with refugees or in conflict zones? What draws a person to that career?

Bathoul: I always knew that I wanted to go into the humanitarian field in one way or another. My family and I were refugees from Sierra Leone, and we moved from there to the UK in 2000, which is when we applied for asylum. I was a refugee, so I’ve always had an interest in these issues. When I was at secondary school in the UK, there was a refugee day centre next to my house. There was a program in my school that encouraged young people to volunteer at this center. And because I speak Arabic, it was useful at the time, because there were lots of Iraqi refugees coming into the country at the time. I would volunteer there at lunch breaks and after  school; I knew then that I had a passion for this sort of work...I knew that I wanted to study stuff along these lines so that I could get into this field somehow.

Salma: I guess somewhere in the back of my mind, before I started law school, I thought I would love to do strategic litigation work, but I didn’t have it clear in my mind what that meant. I just thought it would be great to do cases that have a political angle, something on the Palestinian cause that’s close to my heart, or other issues related to social justice. There was no real obvious way to do that, so I just went through the steps that one goes through, but then by completely coincidence a job opportunity came up at Al Haq, one of the few organisations in Palestine with an accountability project, which is basically a strategic litigation program. The idea was to look into ways to bring litigation, mainly in foreign jurisdictions, against different sorts of actors involved in violating Palestinian human rights. I jumped on that, when I saw it, it was one of those things that I wouldn’t have known that was what I was looking for, but when I saw it I thought “oh my god, amazing,” I applied and I got it.

Ashley : We live lives of staggering privilege, for the most part. I am only familiar with refugee camps from news coverage and more-or-less abstract classroom discussion. I don’t know much about the realities these women face in their work. We wanted to hear from them about what people don’t know about refugees. What assumptions do they want to correct?

Bathoul: The media is never objective and is often sensationalist. No one seems to have an interest in relaying the truth. I am more familiar with Western media and, what is apparent to me, is that the level of deliberate misinformation around the refugee issue is unprecedented. Refugees are portrayed as good for nothing, useless people coming to feed off the welfare system. This is categorically false. I have met people from all walks of life who just happen to be in this label that you consider 'refugees' because they were forced out of their country by whatever circumstances. I have not met a single refugee that has said to me “I wanted to leave my country.” Not one person.
I have worked with refugees since 2011. Nobody – whether it was the Iraqis who were displaced or the Syrian refugees in Lebanon or Jordan or the ones that I met in Lesbos – I have never met one person who wanted to leave their home. Why would we assume that they did? Why can’t we think of them the way we think of ourselves? Would you want to pack your entire life into a plastic bag and risk your life? If you had any other choice you would not do that. It’s the lack of choice, it’s complete desperation!

When I was in Lesbos, I met some people who had lost family members along the way. Some had drowned and some were separated at some stage in their journey. People just wait in the hope to hear some kind of news or hope that their family will turn up, or they wait for the bodies of their children to wash up on the beaches so they can bury them and carry on. Tell me – who wants to do this? Who wants to put themselves in this situation, unless they felt this was their only chance of surviving. These people obviously feel like this is their only chance to survive in some way. What really upsets me is that none of the reality of the situation is actually portrayed in the media. Sometimes, I don’t even want to read the news because it’s not true.
A lot of these people have sold everything they own to get on that boat and make it to somewhere safer for their children. They’ve literally sold everything. If they had land, they sold it. If they had a house, they sold it. The journey is very expensive – its about €1,200 per person to get on that little dingy boat. That’s why you see a lot of single men, but you know, the media, the way that they portray these single men, “oh look at all these single men from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan coming, they’re going to be terrorists, they’re going to be ISIS coming… They’re coming to these European countries, they’re going to make a mess,” then you’re like - wait a minute, question yourself. Why is it only a single man on his own leaving Afghanistan to come? It’s because the rest of his family couldn’t afford to come so they sold everything to send this one person so he can help his family.
So then you speak to these men, you have grown men crying, saying “I’ve left my wife, I’ve left my kid, because we couldn’t afford for all of us to come,”  or, “my family saved to pay for me to come because the Taliban would take me.” I would sit with these people day in and day out in their tents and these unfinished buildings, you know, I could sit there for hours, and it would be like I’m having a conversation with my friends or with my family. I saw no difference. And it was really important to me to try to show the human beings behind these numbers. Often we forget that.

When you say ‘refugees’ - I know you need a term to label this group of people who are on the move, but these refugees are people. Refugee is just a label.

Fahrinisa: I think the biggest thing that I’ve come to see is that we have this mistaken idea that all refugees are victims. It’s been really detrimental to think like this because when you treat someone like a victim, they begin to act like a victim. You’ve removed their power. Something as simple as deciding what you are going to eat, well, when you live in one of these camps or the hot spots, you have to queue every day three times a day for about for three hours to get whatever food they hand out to you, and often it’s inedible. These people don’t even have the opportunity to decide anything for themselves. What to wear, even. They get clothes handed out to them as donations, they can’t even choose what they want to wear. We have this idea that they’re so desperate that they don’t care what they wear, but actually if you ask some women, they really do care. I’ve had lots of female refugees ask me if I can pick up a mascara for them, or a bronzer, or something like this and your first thought is, “Why do you care about bronzer if you live in a refugee camp?” And I’m guilty of that too, but then the more time you spend with these individuals, you realize that of course they care about these things, because life does continue. That’s also why they continue to have babies. Some people are very critical about refugees living in camps having babies, but it’s like, they’ve been in these camps for three years and they have no idea when they’re getting out, what did you expect them to do?  Life goes on and you make the best of what you have. I would say that us thinking that they are all these helpless victims of war and atrocities is really actually detrimental. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to empathize or sympathize with them, it mean that you’re going to treat them in a different way, and then they end up treating themselves as a victim and so you take away their power and they become disempowered and they cycle goes around and around. What I have seen as the best approach to dealing with refugees that are in a location for a long time is to empower them. Whether that’s by teaching them a language, English, Greek, whatever it is, wherever they live; teaching them skills, or giving them back confidence as well. Showing them that they are capable of doing things, and taking care of themselves, and making decisions for themselves - and actually there are several programs here in Athens that help empower especially female refugees and it’s been really successful.

Annika: That reflection is so powerful and is a message that we really need to hear more often. This work is so often informed by experience.  It’s always hard to know what you are getting into before you arrive. There’s so much we don’t understand, and often taking jobs, particularly in the field, can be somewhat of a leap of faith. We wanted to know: What is one thing you wish you’d known before you started working in this field? Amanda told us, “If you work in the public sector you always have to ask yourself if what you are doing is useful for the people that you are there to serve. That sounds straightforward, but it can be extremely hard to see if you are making a difference in a complex setting, like a civil war or a fragile country. I find that being aware of what smarter people than me have thought about power, international politics, development and justice has helped me understand the UN’s work better, and be clearer about my own role in it.

My first job was with the UN in the Central African Republic, where I was the Special Assistant to the head of the UN’s development and humanitarian work in the country. Most of what I know about working I learnt there, especially what it means, concretely, to be good at your job. I learned to be proactive, to hold myself to high standards, to have the backs of my teammates, to be open to new ideas, and that it’s possible to have a great time in the office. It was a great school.”

Ashley: I know from experience how important it can be to have the kind of office environment that’s supportive and that’s healthy and that lets you get what you need out of it. I am super committed to self-care, in all the forms it can take. Especially in careers where the line between professional and private life can be blurred, like it can be when you’re working in the field, how do we take care of ourselves? How do you maintain a balance so that you still have the energy left to do your work?

Salma: In a bizarre way, I think dealing with those issues through the prism of being a lawyer is a coping mechanism. I think here I’m much more distant from all of it. When I was working in Palestine, it was often upsetting. You’d go and speak to victims who had just had people killed, or had their homes demolished, and you would be reading these testimonies full of the most horrendous stuff. Often when I’m engrossed in that, it is fairly horrible, but what I find quite helpful is to be looking at everything with the forensic eye of a lawyer. It gives you quite a lot of distance, and you don’t get so engrossed in it, you don’t get emotionally attached, because you can’t - you have to have your professional hat on.

A certain amount of resilience is definitely useful, I think it’s very important to have good people skills, actually, which is something people don’t focus on at all, that it’s necessary because you need to be adaptable enough to deal with different sorts of people in different situations, you need to be able to adapt to the culture you’re in, to talk to colleagues who are on the same professional level as you and also speak to victims in the field who are uneducated. And I think you need a good grasp of politics, it’s really important. If you’re going to work abroad in the human rights environment, it’s really important to read up on politics and read up on the place you’re in and really understand what it’s all about and to be sensitive to that.  

Fahrinisa: Umm, I am still figuring this out. I can’t say that I’ve found one particular thing that works for me. I have gone to see a therapist regularly for many months. I realized that the way that I manifest second-hand trauma and stress and the heaviness of the work that I do is in my body as physical pain, so over the past several months I’ve had to see a chiropractor and osteopath on a weekly basis because I have just been destroying my body physically from the emotional trauma that I’m carrying - which is secondhand trauma, it’s not really my own trauma, so I want to make that distinction. On the one hand, I used to feel like, these are not my stories, this is not my reality, I don’t deserve to be upset or in pain from what I’ve heard from all these people over all these years. But I had to go back and reassess my thinking on that because it’s not accurate anymore - of course it’s not my reality, but these are horrible stories. I needed to recognize that having people put their awful experiences on me was affecting me to a certain extent. Once I recognized that I could begin to address it. I think that through therapy, through physical therapy, I’ve begun to be able to manage the stress that I carry from my work and not spiral down into panic attacks when I hear or see something that triggers a memory from an interview, for example, that I’ve done.

I have to have some way to take care of myself when that’s happening and I didn’t know how at first. Over the months and the years I’ve begun to see that even something so simple as deep-breathing really, really helps. It also really helps me to think about all the things that I’m grateful for and thankful for, so that kind of puts a more positive spin on the things that I’m listening to and thinking about and recreating for the people to read. But I also think that it’s really important to have a strong group of supporters around you, whether that’s your family, your friends, or your colleagues - whoever it is, it’s really important to be able to have them, to be able to call someone up and tell them, “Hey, I’m having trouble right now because of x y or z,” or “hey, do you have a minute to talk, I just wanted to hash something out with you,” or even to ask advice, sometimes I call colleagues who have been in this profession for far longer than I have and I ask them, “How did you deal with this, when someone told you that they witnessed their whole family being killed in front of their eyes” - in great detail. Because they don’t just say my family died, they tell you exactly how. So you begin to be able to picture these things. They stay with you. For a long time I was having nightmares about other people’s stories. I had to fix that. I don’t want to say that certain journalists are weaker or stronger than others. It’s just the way that we take in these stories and process them. I just realized that I’m going to experience the emotional impact of this work in a very different way than my colleagues will, and that’s ok as long as I find a way to deal with it. If I can’t take care of myself, if I’m unable to do my job because of the emotional impact on myself, I am of no use to anyone. Why am I doing this if I can’t handle it? It’s really about finding a way to deal with everything you have to take in on the job. The longer I’m in this professional the better methods I’ll have, but right now it’s a combination of having a solid group of friends I can depend on, a therapist, and doing physical therapy.

Ashley: Amanda said, “The most rewarding part is to get to live in so many fascinating places and meet so many interesting people. Every time I feel tired of my current job in Juba, I go down to one of the camps for internally displaced people to write a story about the people living there, and it instantly makes the work feel meaningful. The least rewarding aspect is to be far from my family, and that moving to a new country every two years can create a sense of being rootless.”

Each woman we interviewed had a different approach, which I think is crucial. Self-care only works if it works for you. No two people are the same, and so no two people replenish their store of energy in the exact same way. You have to experiment a little to figure out what works and what works when. We had a lot of candid responses about the challenges you might face emotionally and what it does to your mental health to work in this field.

Annika: Another one of the challenges they might deal with is gender. Particularly in conflict zones, we’re wondering how it’s possible to balance being a woman in a conflict zone with gendered expectations of behavior and job?

Fahrinisa: For the most part when I am working with refugees, i am genderless, I am sexless. So I am, again, kind of immune to expectations from these different cultures about how I should act. I have had certain people from Afghanistan, for example, they’ve asked me are you scared as a woman to be living here without your family? Or are you sad that you’re not married yet and don’t have kids? It’s actually funny, I’ve had a lot more pity from women, from female refugees. I feel sometimes that they pity me more than anything else because I am here living alone, essentially without my family, I am unmarried, I don’t have kids, and I’m turning 34 this year, and to them it’s crazy. They actually feel sorry for me. That’s a funny thing that I run into a lot. As I start to talk more and more to these women I tell them, “No, it’s actually great, I have all of this freedom.” And they’ll kind of come around and be like, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” Because for them, they go from their father’s house and their father is their master to their husband’s house where their husband is their master. There’s no in between and there’s not a lot of freedom, so when they see that I’m here and alive still, they can then take a step back and say, you know, “You’re lucky, we’re lucky, everyone’s lucky.” Or, on the other hand, “Nobody’s lucky.” That’s something i’ve run into quite often from female refugees, particularly from the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan.

Annika: As we’ve heard throughout this episode, this work is… well, a lot. We’ve talked about self-care, but I have to imagine that the work is also rewarding too.  We wondered about stories or experiences that were affirming to this work.

Fahrinisa: I am currently doing five different stories and all of them are pretty heavy stories. I am trying to do everything that I can not to get weighed down by it. I’m doing a story on an Iranian political refugee here who is a survivor of torture. He spent 4 years in prison, they kept him in the dark for 4 years so his eyes were severely damaged, and they beat and tortured him a lot, so he has back problems, shoulder problems, you name it. When I started this story, I was really scared about how it would make me feel, would I be able to handle it? Would I do this story justice? But every time I meet with this guy, I leave the interview so uplifted. What I realize is this is why I do it, it’s for these stories of resilience, perseverance, and survival. You hear and see the worst of humanity in the stories they tell about their torture or their abuse or the civil war in Syria. You hear the worst, but then the person who is sitting in front of you is a physical testament to the strength of human beings. So you also see what it looks like to survive and to be the best of humanity as well.

So this Iranian guy has gotten to the point now - it’s been four years since he was released from prison. He’s been in Greece for two years, and is going through a very holistic program of therapy. He has gotten to the point where, I saw him three days ago, he retold a story of when he was in prison being tortured, and he laughed so much about now but couldn’t have laughed about it when it was happening to him. I was witnessing what it means to be able to heal and to move on with your life. In a very selfish way, it made me stronger, and made me more hopeful. But I have to hope that when I retell his story, it has the same effect on those who read the story. For him, I’ve asked him so many times now, “Are you sure it’s okay to use your full name? Are you sure it’s ok to show your face?” I don’t want to put him in any more danger than he already is. And he said, “No, I’m sure, I want me story out there, I want people to read my story, I want people to know what’s happening and you are the one that is going to make this happen for me.” That’s what he’s getting out of it as well. When someone tells me that, then I remember - this is also why I’m in it. To be able to have this type of effect on the person whose story I’m telling, but also on the people who will read these stories.

Ashley: So, after listening to all of that, if you still feel like this is something you want to commit your life and your career to, you’re probably wondering, “How do I start this career path? What organizations can I get involved with? What degree or maybe even multiple degrees should I get?” We talked to these women about how they started in this field in the hope of providing you some answers.  

Bathoul: I studied Human Geography for my undergraduate degree, and I focused on population movements, demographics, migration and so on. I did it at Queen Mary University of London. I was never really sure what I wanted to go into. I then went on to do an MSc in Violence, Conflict, and Development Studies at SOAS in London.

After my masters, I wasn’t sure what to do, I applied for an internship with UNHCR in 2011. I got the internship in Lebanon, in the resettlement unit.

Ashley: and Amanda added, “I was extremely lucky to get my first job in the UN. I had just finished my undergraduate degree in International Relations and was studying German in Berlin when I heard that the head of the UN in the Central African Republic was looking for a Special Assistant. I wrote him an email, he offered me an interview, and a few weeks later I was on a plane. It’s an unusual way to get into the organisation, and I am very grateful that he was prepared to take a chance on a completely untested graduate with very little experience. Once you are in the UN, you have to organise your own career, which can be difficult. I’ve been lucky enough to meet colleagues in different jobs who have helped me move on to new posts. But it is one of the difficult parts of this kind of career, especially if you have a partner who is in the same field and you want to move together.”

Annika: Beyond the specifics of their own career paths, we also wondered what more general advice these women would give.

Salma: It’s so haphazard. I remember being so frustrated, hearing people say this to me, and thinking “there must be a path,” but there isn’t a path. Now I really understand what they mean - I honest to God haven’t got a clue what I’m doing day-to-day or what the next phase of life is, so I can’t pretend it’s all so controlled and so directed. The only thing I would say, the thing I’m glad I did, is try, if possible, to develop a skill set in something or other, something you’re interested in. If possible, have a discipline, such as law, academia, or engineering, that you can lend to what you’re interested in. Have a general skill set that you can then apply to the thing you’re interested in. In my experience, it’s safer, more secure, and more rewarding to have a profession behind you, which you can bring to the area of work you want to pursue. Otherwise it’s too nebulous.

Annika: Amanda told us, “My main piece of advice is to choose your boss carefully to ensure you will be working for someone you like and respect, and then to not be afraid to work really hard to make your team shine. I would also advise getting skills that will make you useful to future employers: learn a couple of languages; become really good at Excel or at building websites; teach yourself how to make beautiful infographics or become an expert in a specific country or topic. Every team needs people with practical skills, and they are surprisingly hard to find.  The toughest lesson I have learnt is that no matter how hard you try, your work won’t necessarily have a lasting impact because the problems facing the world’s poorest and most fragile countries are so enormous.

Ashley: Honestly I could listen to these women talk about their careers for the rest of the day. I think it’s utterly fascinating what they do, and it’s the kind of career that takes a certain sort of person because what you do is you go to these places that are so different from what home feels like for you and you do your best and give all that you can possibly give and you have to be this endless well of mental and emotional strength for people to draw on. And then sometimes you don’t even get to see any results from that. I can’t imagine how difficult that has to be, to go to work and come home and live at work in a lot of ways, and then not get out of it what you were hoping to get out of it, not just in a business sense, like, “oh darn, the investment didn’t make back as much as we wanted,” but in a really profound “people are living and dying based on how successful we are” kind of way.

Annika: I think there’s also a tremendous amount of sensitivity with this work that is to be commended. Both for the folks who are coming in to do the work and for the communities that are supporting them that they’re working in. You’re really coming in and doing an enormous amount of emotional labor to empathize, to try to understand, and to know that you’re not the one coming in with all of the answers but that you’re really there to listen and to help foster and facilitate solutions and greater peace. There’s a tremendous amount of emotional labor and to be honest, courage, that goes into that on both sides.

Ashley: Something that’s come up a lot between you and I ask we put together this episode is the idea of working in refugee zones and conflict zones and not being a white savior, or a first world savior. Trying to an empathetic impulse, if not a purely altruistic one, balancing that with the legacy of colonialism and the legacy of imperialism that often creates these refugee crises or these conflict zones that we then try and fix, again, and I think that's a really hard balance to strike and I don’t think there’s an easy answer to whatever that question is. But I also think that it’s something we do need to keep interrogating as we talk about refugee zones and we talk about development, conflict zones, and conflict resolution.

Annika: Exactly, it’s a conversation that needs to continue happening, and so we’re really looking forward to hearing what all of you, as listeners, have to say. We want this to be a conversation, so come talk to us on the internet. We’ll be back at the end of September with episode 3, but in the meantime, we’re on Twitter at @WomeninFP, and my personal Twitter is @annikaep.

Ashley:  Yeah, we absolutely want to hear back from you about what you thought about this episode, what you think about the podcast in general, what you’d like to hear in upcoming episodes, so give us a shout! I’m  @Ashley_e_Pratt. If you like the work we’re doing, please consider supporting us via PayPal at lmgoulet or on Patreon at Women in Foreign Policy.

Annika: See you next month!
Ashley & Annika: Bye!