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It matters whose story you’re listening to.
Helpless. Powerless. Voiceless.
As we are bombarded with images of the daily horrors of Syria’s staggering and mounting humanitarian crisis, it is easy to get caught up in the seeming hopelessness of the situation. It is easy to associate the human cost of the conflict with the words above. As both a humanitarian and an advocacy organization working to uphold human rights, it is important to us at Oxfam America that we recognize one important thing, however.
We are not “giving a voice to Syrian refugees.” And why is this?
They already have one.
The Voice project of the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development-Legal Aid, an Oxfam partner, is one such example of voices in action. The Jordanian non-profit is working with four groups of citizen journalists inside Za’atri Camp who are sharing information with Syrian refugees and giving them a space to express themselves and their stories in their own words. (For more citizen journalism on Syria, see also Global Voices’ Syria coverage, as well as UNHCR’s page for more stories.)
Storytelling about one’s concerns, daily struggles, and aspirations in this context matters because it helps people maintain a sense of dignity and resilience. It is also an important means of engaging the national, regional and international actors like Oxfam working to meet the needs of Syrian refugees, as well as those who are calling for a diplomatic and political resolution to the Syrian conflict.
For example, the Voice project asked five Syrian women, what does peace mean to you? Their varied answers were then summed up on a piece of paper and shared on the Voice website. (Follow the link to see the English translations.)
“I felt that this project gave me back my humanity that I’d lost for a while. It let me scream out loud,” says Hamida, one of the members of the Voice project.
At its essence, storytelling can support people to articulate and hold a vision of the possibilities that lie beyond the reality that faces them.
With Syrian refugees voices ringing out, our first job then as humanitarians is to listen. Our second job as advocates is to amplify them if we can.
An example of this listening and amplifying was shared by Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser when he returned from Lebanon and Jordan last week:
“Jeff Silverman, Oxfam’s social mobilization, gender, and accountability specialist, is in a sense, a fixer of problems. He is respected by the Syrians…[and] walking 100 yards with Jeff through Za’atri is a lesson in community organizing. He plays with kids. He listens intently to community leaders. He delegates management decisions to staff. He offers kind words to all passersby. His philosophy is simple: “People want to be heard,” he said. ‘I help residents have a say.‘
“Indeed. When some of the camp’s toilets and shower stalls had been vandalized, Oxfam and Jeff changed the camp’s approach to delivery of water and sanitation services by engaging the residents in design and installation of this essential infrastructure. Since then, 48 toilet and shower blocks, as well as water taps, have been installed in the camp’s eastern district, opened in the spring to accommodate an influx of 90,000 Syrian refugees. Each block—the size of a two-car garage—is adorned with tiles painted by children who use the facilities.”
This approach on the ground is what has informed Oxfam America’s work on aid effectiveness over the years. We talk about how imposed solutions are often wrong for the context, that even when they’re right, successes can’t be maintained without local buy-in. The story about the camp’s story block may be small when you consider the millions of Syrian refugees and internally-displaced people, but it demonstrates that people in crisis have dignity and ownership of their lives in situations of high vulnerability. Asking people to tell their stories and ensuring robust accountability and feedback mechanisms is what results in more effective deployment of resources during humanitarian crises.