Thursday, August 2, 2012

Photo Journalism Continued: Orphans in Jordan

So about a week ago I accompanied my Journalist friend to duar Abdoun, which is considered one of the most expensive and richest places of Amman. We went there because a group of orphans were protesting the way that the Jordanian government treats them. To read about more, click here for the AlBawaba article... I took the picture featured with the article. When we were at the circle, we spoke with several of the orphans' 'leaders.' Most of these orphans are actually no longer considered 'orphans' anymore because they are over the age of eighteen. However, as stated by the article, the government highlights their orphan status in society, making it very hard for them to obtain a job and socially integrate. One girl we spoke with in particularly stuck out in my mind. Her hair was cut extremely short so that she would look like a boy. She told us that she gets less harassment when she is sleeping on the streets. She told us of the terrible treatment she received by the care center that she lived in until she was old enough for them to kick her out. Another thing that struck me was the fact that these orphans were sleeping on the circle (they have been traveling from circle to circle for the last several years protesting their forced and separation from society at the hands of the government)... many were huddled in sleeping bags on sparse patches of grass. When one orphan was explaining to me what protest signs they had hung up at the circle said, he also pointed out a group of men hanging close to the protest. "Those are the mukhabarat," he told me in Arabic. "Take a picture." The Mukhabarat are the secret police in Jordan. One of the things that shocked me most was the fact that all of these orphans were of Palestinian descent, a fact that speaks to the government's continual discrimination against and victimization of Palestinians who live on Jordanian soil.

Fighting to Empower

As I mentioned in my previous posts, Tamkeen has been facing issues with the Jordanian government denying their ability to receive funding from foreign organizations. Not only is Tamkeen pursuing action by writing letters to the Prime Minister to reverse the decision, but also other media outlets and international organizations are picking up their pens to write and spread awareness about the Jordanian government's decision to both interfere with and more tightly control civil society.  Human Rights Watch released a wonderful article that not only provides an analysis of the situation, but also a historical background of the legal framework that allows the government to hold so much influence over a sector of society that is supposed to act as the government's watchdog. To read this article, click here. The Jordan Times, a daily newspaper in Jordan that is generally considered to be pro-government, likewise released an article about the government's restriction. This article is particularly interesting because it includes pieces of an interview with the Director of Tamkeen in which she describes services that Tamkeen wants to provide to migrant workers with the help of foreign funders, but cannot because the government is barring the way. To read this article, click here.

Not only does the actions of the Jordanian government restrict Jordanians' rights to freedom of association, but they likewise even further alienate migrant workers, who, as Christopher Wilcke said at the end of the Human Rights Watch Article, "are among the most vulnerable people in Jordanian society." Although the Human Rights Watch Article emphasized the fact that the government denied Tamkeen's access to foreign funding 'without giving reasons,' from what I have heard and experienced working with Tamkeen, the reasons, while not expressly stated, are perfectly clear. The Jordanian government does not want the fact that human trafficking exists (and to a shockingly high degree) in Jordan to be common knowledge among the international arena. Tamkeen, who expressly states that human trafficking does exist in Jordan and tries to create stronger and more transparent relationships between stakeholders and migrant workers to stop it, blatantly challenges the facade that the Jordanian government has created for the international community. The government simply wants to be able to point to all of the international conventions it has adopted on human rights, and be able to say 'Look! Look! We are champions of democratic values,' without having to actually create and develop the institutions that support, protect, and actualize those values in society. Many government officials, security officers, employers, and sponsors benefit from the exploitative and corrupt system that currently exists in Jordan. They want to mask the fact that Jordan both legally and socially allows human trafficking within its borders. They would lose money if people were actually treated like human beings, and given the rights that Jordan has publicly said they deserve.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sitting in the Office...

I am sitting in the office, surfing the web for international conventions on the rights of migrant workers. I look up, and see a small, frail domestic worker (I believe she is from Indonesia), showing one of the attorneys who work in our office her bruises and injuries from a recent beating she received from her employer. She just removed her hat; the attorney is taking pictures of cuts she has on her head. She unbuttoned her over shirt, and now they are taking pictures of her beaten shoulders, her cut cheek, and other bruises on her face. She turns and looks at me while they are taking pictures of her injured ear. Her face is swollen both from the beating and crying. She tells the attorney that 'Mama beats her every day.' She has been here for 8 months.  Her hair is cut very short... Even though it is considered shameful for a woman to cut her long hair in Indonesian culture, Jordanian employers often force their domestic workers to cut their hair against their will. This woman's passport was taken and held by her employer. This is a common occurrence among domestic workers; the employers hold control over them when they seize their worker's passport. The worker cannot travel without it. This tiny woman looks like a broken doll. The attorney tells her not to be afraid. The worker begins miming what her employers have done to her. She grabs a water glass and pretends to smash with over her head. She pretends to fall, and then mimes being kicked while she is down. She tells the attorney she is not paid her salary. She keeps pointing to different objects, and mimes being hit over and over again, on her head, her shoulder, kicked over and over again, on her ribs and legs.... She says that 'Mama' beats her with cords around her waist....

Earlier this morning, I went with my fellow American volunteers to a neighborhood on the outskirts of Amman to interview more Egyptian Migrant workers. I became angrier and angrier throughout the morning because Jordanians kept coming up to our street interviews, interrupting the Egyptian workers, and threatening them. One Jordanian man even took a video of the Egyptians we were talking with and told us he was going to turn the video in to the Muhabarat (secret police). He told us that he was angry because Jordan is 'hosting these workers. They should not be saying these bad things about my country.' He apparently assumed that since Jordan was giving them work opportunities, they should not criticize the terrible treatment they receive during their employment. We had one Egyptian worker tell all the others not to tell us anything, to only say good things. He was clearly scared. He went up to a male American volunteer towards the end of our discussion with the group of Egyptians and began to cry. "I received a diploma," he told my other researcher. "I am highly educated, and I am here begging in the streets for jobs. The conditions here are so bad that it would be better to die than to have to work in them. But the conditions here are still better than in Egypt."

I feel like many people (no matter if they are American, Jordanian, or from any other nationality) often forget that migrant workers are the back bone of society. Because they generally tend to perform the menial jobs in society that no one else wants to do, they fade into the background; they are not considered as human beings, but rather as inanimate objects that perform necessary functions for the more valuable human beings. Many Jordanians treat migrant workers as they would treat the plate they eat from, or the chair they sit on. This approach to Migrant workers likewise desensitizes Jordanians; if a plate breaks, an owner shrugs and buys a new one. If a Migrant worker is injured on the job, the employer shrugs and picks up a new one. Many Jordanians likewise expect that migrant workers act like a plate or a chair; to be silent, complacent, and simply perform the function they are meant to perform. Migrant workers should not complain! We are giving them jobs!

What many do not realize is that the treatment an employer needs to afford a Migrant worker is no where near the same as the treatment an owner gives a chair he sits on. Unlike a plate or a chair, a Migrant worker has a life filled with experience, a family he/she needs to support; a Migrant worker has opinions, has beliefs, has faith. Migrant workers, no matter where they are from or what work they perform, are people.  We need to start listening to what migrant workers have to say. We need to make sure they have a voice.

Monday, July 16, 2012


I would first like to apologize for not having blogged in the past few weeks! My life has been insanely busy with my internship as well as other activities, and I plan to provide a very extensive update below!

For the past two weeks my fellow volunteers and I have put our research project on the state of Egyptian migrant workes in Jordan on hold - Tamkeen had to release its Quarterly, Midterm, and Third Annual report in quick succession, and so the past weeks have been a whirl wind of data compilation, language translation, graph creation, and editing of both the English and Arabic versions of the various reports. What compiling these reports has shown me is just how pervasive rights violations against domestic and migrant workers are in Jordan. One of the biggest problems facing migrant workers here is the inability (or unwillingness) of the Ministry of Labor, the Public Security Department, and the Judiciary to enforce the actual legislation in place that provides protection to migrant workers. This legislative gap locks migrant workers into a perpetual state of victimization, and makes it extremely difficult for non-governmental organizations to build and develop the infastructure necessary to actually implement the inalienable rights guaranteed to migrant workers through the international and regional human rights conventions that Jordan has adopted and incorporated into their national law.

However, at the beginning of this week, myself and my fellow volunteers have resumed our research project. So far we have interviewed men and women from different sectors in society that hold a stake in the state of Egyptian migrant workers in Jordan; I cannot mention the specific agencies and organizations from which these men and women are from because they requested to remain anonymous. I can assure you however that those who we have interviewed have experience in many different areas regarding migrant workers. What has been the most frustrating with these interviews in particular has been the interviewees polishing their words and speaking in euphamisms. Just yesterday we interviewed a man who continually kept talking about the experience of a slim (and when I say slim, I mean less than one or two percent) number of Egyptian migrant workers in Jordan. This minority, he told us, was accepted by all, treated equal by all... he also told us that Egyptian migrant workers experience no exploitation here in Jordan. The information he spoon fed us was contrary to all the information we had received up to this point, contrary even to our observation of Egyptian migrant workers on the street. The worse part was the fact that this man was a human rights legislative consultant.

This consultant's unwillingness to discuss the reality of Egyptian migrant workers speaks to a larger problem facing not only migrant workers in general, but the non-governmental organizations trying to give them a voice and fight for their protection. The way Jodanian labor law with respect to migrant workers is written, as well as the common practices of the employers, Public Security officers, and governmental employees create and environment in which migrant workers easily fall prey to forced labor and human trafficking. For example, Jordanian law states that if a migrant worker leaves his/her work (i.e. quits his/her job), the employer can file a 'police notification of absconding from the workplace,' and the police will then track down and either arrest the worker or force them back into their old job. This, in every sense of the word, is slavery. Not only does it put a huge amount of power in the hands of the employer and steals away one of the only ways a migrant worker to protect himself or herself from exploitation and victimization (i.e. protect himself/herself by leaving the abusive working environment), but it also discriminates against migrant workers simply because of their nationality; if a Jordanian worker leaves his or her job, he/she is not arrested or forced back into employment.

This is one of many systemic examples of human trafficking, forced labor, and modern slavery inherent in the Jordanian legal system. However, rather than acknowledge the breadthe and depth of this very serious problem, the Jordanian government is choosing to pretend as if it does not happen; for them, it is easier and more beneficial to let this pervasive exploitation grow and thrive. This government mentality had directly affected the work of  Tamkeen as well. Tamkeen tries to raise awareness about this issue of human trafficking; they want all sectors of society to recognize it so that it can be directly address and resolved. However, this stands in direct opposition to the government's desire to claim that human trafficking does not exist in Jordan; as such, the government has recently denied Tamkeen's ability to receive funding from anyone, including international organizations. The government told Tamkeen that they should change the scope of their work so that it does not focus on migrant workers. Tamkeen should try to help Jordanians. While Jordanians do face many problems that do need to be addressed, the fact that the government is blatantly trying to marginalized and dehumanize the plight of migrant workers by making them a non-issue absolutely shocked me. It shocked us all.

As part of our research we have also started talking with Egyptian migrant workers themselves. Today we went to the down town area of Amman and spoke with several Egyptian men who are currently working in Jordan. What was most surprising to me was the fact that all of these men we talked with had been living in Jordan for more than eight years; they all were married and had families back in Jordan. All of the men we spoke to were irregular (illegal workers). A migrant worker is considered 'irregular' when they begin to work in a different sector or for a different employer than the one specified on their working permit. If a worker is caught working in a job different than the one listed on his permit, he will be arrested and deported. This inability for workers to change sectors is like wise a huge problem for migrant workers, especially since the illegal brokers who bring workers from Egypt tell the workers that they can work in any sector they wish.
Besides my work at Tamkeen, I have become involved with a local news agency as an amateur photographer. I recently accompanied two journalists to Atorra, a village that lies on the border between Syria and Jordan. We went to interview Syrian families who had recently smuggled themselves over the border into Jordan. The experiences that we heard were absolutely heart breaking. Many Syrians refused to let us take pictures of them, even to know their names, because they were afraid that if the government saw that they had spoken out, the government would target and kill their families back in Syria. Many told us of lost loved ones; a girl who was no older than sixteen but appeared to have aged a lifetime told us in a very solmn voice devoid of any emotion about her friend who had been raped and killed in front of her mother and father. We were shown several video recordings of the aftermath of government invasions of villages; we were told that Homs, a city where violence is at its peak, has maybe one family living in every ten houses. The other families left because the bodies of their fellow Syrians were being buried in the empty houses, making the entire city reek of death.

As terrible as these experiences were, what was heartwarming was how the Jordanians living in Atorra came together and accepted the Syrian refugees without question into their communities. These Jordanians told us that Syrians were their brothers, they were no different than Jordanians. On top of this regional community bond reminiscent of pan-Arab solidarity was the fact that these Jordanians were pullign from their own pockets to provide homes, food, and basic amenities to these Syrians. Our guide was a wonderful Jordanian man who ran a charity for Syrian refugees in the village; in every single family we met with, he handed 20 JD to the children to give to their parents. He told us that the whole village will keep supporting these refugees; however, their resources are wearing thin, especially as more and more families (reaching the thousands) cross the border every night. The people of Atorra are very worried especially because Ramadan is quickly approaching, which will even put a greater toll on the resources they are able to give to Syrians who cross the border. If you would like to read more about our experience, here is the article the journalists I accompanied wrote... The featured picture is one I took. For more pictures, see that pictures page of this blog.

On top of this, I have been trying to travel outside of Amman on the weekends to see what the rest of the country is like; tourists, expats, and Jordanians often get stuck in the 'Amman bubble' and do not get to see or experience all of the other beautiful places in the country. This last weekend I traveled to Umm Qais, a village on the Jordanian border with the Golan Heights. Umm Qais is an absolutely breathtaking village nestled in rolling mountains and hills covered in olive trees and other forms of vegetation. It also has amazing ruins that overlook the Sea of Galilee. I posted pictures of Umm Qais on the picture page of this blog... make sure to check them out!

Also, as a side note, Linda AlKhabash, the director of Tamkeen, was quoted in a recently released Jordan Times article talking about why domestic workers still flee. To read the article posted in the Jordan Times, click here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Raising Awareness

This post might seem a little chaotic and without a clear focus. However, this chaos reflects the feelings I have been overwhelmed with since last night.

Yesterday my second week working for Tamkeen ended wonderfully. Myself and my fellow American volunteer were told that we would start working on a research study that would raise awareness about the conditions and hardships that Egyptian migrant workers live in and experience when they leave their country to come to Amman. We will be conducting field visits to various places throughout Jordan where Egyptian migrant workers work, conduct focus groups with Egyptian migrant workers, interview them, and talk with members who work at the Ministry of Labor and the Egyptian Embassy about the state of Egyptian migrant workers. We will be conducting quantitative research as well in the form of passing out questionnaires to gain information on the what motivates Egyptians to travel to Jordan to work, how they get here, whether or not the Arab Spring has affected migrant workers, and the problems they face once they get here. This study is comprehensive and covers a lot of ground; it does so in order to raise awareness and provide recommendations for how the lives of migrant workers can be improved in Jordan. This study will hopefully be illuminating and enlightening, especially because I have yet to find a recent study that focuses specifically on Egyptian migrant workers in Jordan. The audience that this study is targeting is not the general Jordanian population, but rather other non profit and civil society organizations, the international community, and Jordanian governmental organizations. My boss actually told both of us that normal Jordanians tend not to care about migrant workers. "If they read anything," she said, "it will definitely not be about the depressing state of Egyptian migrant workers." I immediately felt an immense desire to change that mentality, that lethargic perspective and reluctance to change. I have always believed that change starts with galvanizing the general population; if we can make the general public aware of what is going on, anything is possible.

But more specifically, this study will shed immense light on the plight of Egyptian migrant workers. I was talking with a Jordanian attorney later in the day, and after I told her the research I was conducting, she told me that she was surprised. "Everyone here normally focuses on domestic workers," she told me. "I don't normally even recognize that Egyptians working here are migrant workers." She explained that herself and others usually think this way because domestic workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, etc., normally experience such a greater discrimination than Egyptians. The negative stereotype against these domestic workers, and the problems they have to face, are much more present and greater than anything Egyptian workers face. While I agree that the problems faced by domestic workers are heart breaking, I likewise believe that the problems facing Egyptian workers are likewise just as hard and difficult to solve. Because Egyptian workers are Arab, they do not stand out as much as domestic and migrant workers from other areas of the world do. Even though they are different from Jordanians, from Palestinians, from Syrians, from Iraqis, Egyptians have a solidarity of identity simply because they are Arab and speak Arabic; while they face discrimination and poor treatment here, they are arguably more socially accepted and integrated than other migrant workers.

I believe that this 'solidarity of identity' might be one of the main problems that allows poor living conditions and treatment of Egyptian migrant workers to persist. Because they do not stand out as much, Jordanians like the attorney I was talking with, often forget they are even there. This phenomena of 'blending into the back ground,' of being left in the corner of society and your pain forgotten, is a phenomena that is pervasive in Jordan. Forgetting and ignoring pain seems like a facet of Jordanian culture. Jordanians seem to mask pain with happiness, to try to forget the the death and destruction happening all around them in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon. Every single day refugees flood into Jordan, every single day this true melting pot of different cultures receives a harsh reminder that pain is ever present. And so they try to forget, try to trivialize what they are facing just so they can emotionally survive another day, just so they can carry on their daily lives.

But it is not only Jordanians that try to forget, try to ignore the pain that is so clearly present within their lives. The entire international community is. Last night I had the fantastic opportunity to go to the Royal Film Commission and watch the documentary 'The War Around Us.' This documentary is about the experiences of the two Al Jazeera reporters who were in Gaza during the Israeli invasion in 2008. I encourage you to watch this movie; it will change your life in ways you never thought possible. The death and destruction I saw in this movie; the women and children, mothers and fathers and daughters, these innocent civilians I saw trying to survive.... It broke my heart. I have always gotten into arguments with my Jordanian friends about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have always been one who believes that this conflict can be fixed through understanding of all parties, of the Israelis, of the Israeli government, of the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. I have always tried to compartmentalize these groups, and explain to my friends here that they are all different, and all play different roles in the conflict, and have different levels of responsibility for the deaths that happened. I never understood how my Jordanian friends could take such a black and white perspective of the conflict, how they could tell me that it was religious (Muslims vs. Jewish) or ethnic (Palestinians vs. Israelis). I never understood until last night. In the documentary, the footage they showed of Gaza, a prosperous, cultural, and cosmopolitan city before the attack, being hit by the Israeli air strike, made me understand. Even though they said the missiles were supposed to only hit targets where Hamas fighters and weapons were suspected of being held, Israel was openly killing innocent civilians; they bombed a U.N. school; they told civilians to get inside buildings in Zeitoon (a nearby city) and then bombed the buildings. This wasn't a war on Hamas; this was a blatantly illegal and systematic killing of innocent Palestinian civilians. Footage showed Israel shooting white phosphorous onto the streets of Gaze where innocent civilians walk every day. This act is a blatant violation of international law. To see the families broken, to see these people enduring, to see their tears... it broke my heart. I had never seen footage like this; my experience with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had come through text books and newspaper articles. This documentary humanized the conflict. I finally understood why people could not compartmentalize the conflict as I did. When civilians are dying in such blatant and horrible ways, and when no one in the international community is outraged, when no one even tries to help or change the situation, there is no compartmentalizing. There is only trying to survive, and fight for the lives of the people you love.

I also have begun to understand why people around the world try to forget pain. When you experience atrocities like the Israeli strike on Gaza in 2008 on a daily basis, all you can really do is try to forget. I was sitting, watching this documentary, and crying at the pain I saw on the peoples' faces. I was crying partly because I could not believe that human beings could do this to each other and justify it, but also because I felt helpless to stop it. This helpless this, this loss of faith in your fellow human beings... it is arresting. You almost feel like you cannot breath. And so you desensitize yourself to it. You find ways to cope.

If I want you to take away anything from this blog, I want it to be that, even though there is this helplessness, there is still hope. Even though people have told me that there is no hope, all I can do is believe, believe that raising awareness and cultivating understanding will strengthen human beings morality and make them realize that we are all alike, all trying to live, laugh, and love. We all need to start believing that there is hope, that their is the possibility that one day everyone will be able to exercise their fundamental rights in a society free of conflict. We need to realize (especially in this globalized world) that our identity as human beings transcends our gender, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. The value of my life is equal to that of a Palestinian, an Israeli, a domestic worker. Even though forgetting the Egyptian worker, forgetting the Palestinian child orphaned after the Israeli air strikes helps us mentally and emotionally survive on a day to day basis, we need to start opening our eyes. We need to push ourselves outside our comfort zones, and try to start trying to understand the other perspectives of these issues. These issues are not just about politics, are not just about religions. I am determined, more than ever now, that these issues can be solved through understanding, through humanizing the 'other.'

The other night one of my friends asked me what my main goal in life was. I told her immediately that it was to change the world. She laughed and asked me what my real goal was. I told her the same thing again; I want to change the world through cultivating understanding and finding balance. Understanding and balance will in turn foster empowerment.Tamkeen, in Arabic, means empowerment. I think that now, as the world is becoming closer, and cultures are trying to find a way to integrate into other cultures, every single human being should make tamkeen their goal.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reaching Out to All

I just started my second week working with Tamkeen, and I have had a wonderful experience so far. Because of our efforts to spread awareness about migrant workers' rights and how Tamkeen can assist victimized migrant workers, we have had an influx of migrant workers contact us throughout the last week for help. Besides trying to sort and catalog these new cases, I have been put in charge of writing the strategic plan for the 2013 year. In 2013, Tamkeen hopes to expand its current program to include providing greater social assistance to migrant workers, as well as lobbying to change current legislation in Jordan so that it is more fair to both legal and illegal migrant workers in Jordan. With respect to the social assistance program, Tamkeen hopes to create culturally specific social networks for the migrant workers that the workers can turn to for support. Many migrant workers are socially isolated in Jordan because they do not know anyone here and do not speak the language. By connecting them with other migrant workers from their same culture and home country, Tamkeen will help them create a family here. Whenever migrant workers are depressed, stressed, or need someone to talk to, they have someone who understands that they can turn to. As for lobbying, Tamkeen is trying to change current Jordanian legislation so that it is fair to migrant workers and domestic workers across the board, no matter if they are legal or illegal. Tamkeen is also trying to change the migrant worker sponsorship program that is currently in place. Under this sponsorship program, employers are responsible for the migrant worker. Employers are in charge of renewing the worker's residency as well as paying for their working permits. This puts a huge amount of power in the hands of both employers and recruiting agencies, and easily allows for the exploitation of migrant workers. Even though Jordan has come a long way in adopting various international human rights conventions, they have yet to adopt the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families. Tamkeen is trying to spread awareness to government officials on how important it is to adopt this Convention.

I also was put in charge of updated, adding to, and maintaining Tamkeen's blog, which provides on the ground information on the state of migrant workers in Jordan. Tamkeen is trying to make its blog more accessible to its people by encouraging people to post their opinions on the state of migrant workers on the blog. I have written an opinion post titled 'The Media's Perspective of Migrant Workers' (you can find it here!). I plan on writing many more for the organization. I am also in charge of creating a Social Events page for the blog. This page provides information about the different cultural events for migrant workers that happen throughout Amman. This page is very important for building and strengthening a supportive social network that migrant workers can turn to when they need help. I am also working on building another page called Diaries of Migrant Workers. This page presents the accounts of the migrant workers that contact Tamkeen for help through first person narratives. I am currently writing these narratives and will post them on the blog soon. Even though I enjoy story telling through writing, my heart continues to break at each new case I read; there is one case in particular about a man who was banned from working in Jordan because he helped plan a strike in the factory he worked in after a female worker was brutally beaten by the factory supervisor. Back in his home country, this man is alienated by his family and friends, seen as a disgrace because he has no job to provide for his family. He believes that he has nothing left except suicide. The purpose of this page is to raise awareness about the experiences and hardships that migrant workers face in Jordan. Essentially, this page takes one step closer to change the stereotype of migrant workers that exists in Jordan. Many people (both those who employ migrant workers and those who do not) believe that migrant workers play a negative role in society; they are seen as thieves and trouble makers. Many do not realize the rights violations and victimization that these workers experience; many do not see them as being equal, as even being human. This blog is just another way Tamkeen is trying to provide and amplify the voices of migrant workers so that they are heard and recognized by all.