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.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

"Welcome to Tamkeen"

I was standing at Tamkeen's booth at a massive Sri Lankan cultural celebration, passing out information about the rights domestic workers have in Jordan, and how we provide legal help to migrant workers whose rights have been violated, when an old women approached me. "I do not need help," she told me, "but my sister does. She has been raped by her employer and his three sons. Can you help her?" I assured her that we could help and told her to come by our office as soon as she could. After she left, my co-worker turned to me and said "Welcome to Tamkeen. Rape here is normal." Throughout the rest of the day, I heard of the wide spectrum of problems that migrant workers face in Jordan; while many female domestic workers face sexual harassment from their employers as well as the police (One of my co workers told me of two women who had approached Tamkeen about two of their friends who were arrested by police officers and told that they could be released if they slept with the officers), many workers also have trouble obtaining a visa, have substantial overstay fines, have their passports seized by their employers, are paid lower wages then their contracts guarantee, face poor living and working conditions, and are verbally and physically abused by their employers.

I began my internship with Tamkeen just two days ago. I spent the whole of my first day reading the current project proposals and strategic proposals of the organization so that I could get a better idea of the work that Tamkeen does in Jordanian society. What amazed me was how far reaching Tamkeen's work is. Tamkeen reaches out to the domestic workers themselves, educates them on their rights and how to use their rights, provides them free legal representation, and then also tries to connect migrant workers with one another so that they have a system of social and cultural support. On top of this, Tamkeen reaches out to the employers of domestic workers, public security forces, judiciary, and other government officials in order to educate them about the rights they need to afford to migrant workers, as well as other international human rights standards that Jordan has adopted. Tamkeen likewise tries to bridge the gap between the very extensive, supportive, and protective rights afforded to migrant workers through various pieces of legislation and the actual implementation of this legislation. Essentially, Tamkeen is connecting different sectors of society by fostering an understanding, which ultimately gives marginalized groups the voice that they do not have on their own.

In Jordan there is a stigma against domestic workers. Even though there are families and factory owners that treat migrant workers with respect, more often than not, migrant workers are seen as objects, as things that can be used, that can be traded. Many employers do not recognize the fact that these migrant workers have lives of their own, have family, have friends, and have their own desires, goals and dreams. For example, even though it is required by law in Jordan that domestic workers receive Friday off, many employers do not give their domestic worker a day off because they do not believe that the worker has anything to do in their free time.  Domestic workers are especially seen by many Jordanians as simply liars and thieves that should not be afforded any respect what so ever.

I spent yesterday with my co-workers trying to spread awareness to Sri Lankan migrant workers about their rights and how we can help them exercise those rights. The cultural festival that we attended was truly enlightening. There was traditional food, dance, and tons and tons of various activities for all to participate in (I tried Sri Lankan food for the first time...It was fantastic, but very spicy! It was quite different from Jordanian food, which is barely spicy at all). This event created an opportunity for Sri Lankans to strengthen their community, to connect with others, to know that they are not alone. When I had interacted with domestic workers in the past, I had just seen them in the capacity of their work - I had seen them clearing dishes, tending to children - seeing them laughing, smiling, and celebrating their culture was both wonderful and humanizing. The idea that the loving people I saw at the Sri Lankan cultural event were being treated as objects by their employers, the police, and members of the government, broke my heart - the idea that these Sri Lankans were only a few of the objectified Phillipinos, Indonesians, Egyptians, Syrians, and other nationalities that travel to Amman to work breaks my heart even more.

By trying to empower migrant workers, Tamkeen sheds a very interesting light on the changing nature of legitimacy within modern political systems. A government's legitimacy is not only dependent on the trust of the individuals over which it governs, but also on the trust of foreigners who reside within the country's borders. This trust between the government and foreigners is becoming increasingly important in our globalizing world, a world in which all citizens and government are becoming closer and more interconnected. This global integration demands that all people receive basic human rights even within countries that are not their own, especially as migration between countries becomes easier and easier. Because of Jordan's strategic placement in the region, it is a magnet for not only migrant workers, but for refugees as well. Jordan has always had difficulties handling large influxes of people moving across and residing within its borders. The country has made leaps and bounds in addressing these issues through comprehensive legislation as well as through signing onto many set international human rights standards, but the actual implementation of this legislation in society is greatly lacking.

If anything, these past two days have inflamed by desire to help these marginalized groups of people. These past two days have shown me the great importance of making sure that everyone not only understands the basic rights they have, but also knows how to use them to protect themselves and improve their lives. It is also so important for civil society organizations to help build the infrastructure within society that supports and empowers these marginalized groups. I look forward to helping Tamkeen spread awareness about the rights of domestic workers, as well as help domestic workers exercise their basic human rights.