Communication is Key to Fostering Empowerment in a Humanitarian Response | The Center for Victims of Torture

Communication is Key to Fostering Empowerment in a Humanitarian Response

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Marie Soueid is CVT policy counsel.

Yehya was turned down at several international organizations in Jordan when he was seeking services because, as he was told, some organizations do not serve Iraqis. He wondered aloud, “do they think I carry a well of petrol with me?” alluding to the misconception that Iraqi refugees are well-off. Yehya’s belief that he was turned away because of stereotypes of Iraqis is problematic and representative of the wider communication gap in the humanitarian response; he is not alone in his frustration. The Arabic proverb, “One who leaves his home, loses his dignity” was often repeated in interviews with refugees in Jordan.

In a series of interviews conducted from January 2014 through October 2015 with refugee clients in Jordan, my CVT colleague and I were surprised to learn that many noted their discontent, not with the lack of aid, but with the dismissive treatment and lack of communication. By withholding information and ignoring survivors’ entreaties and communications, well-intentioned actors can inadvertently disempower them from making informed decisions about the future. International emergency response must be built on dignity and respect.

As first responders to an overwhelming and ongoing humanitarian crisis that remains deeply underfunded, the international humanitarian community is responsible for providing basic necessities to as many people as possible to help them survive. Five years into the Syrian crisis and decades into intermittent war in Iraq, the displaced need more than basic survival; they need a chance to live. They want an education and future for their children. They want to be treated with dignity and respect. They want work opportunities and to be empowered to fend for themselves.

In Reclaiming Hope, Dignity and Respect: Syrian and Iraqi Torture Survivors in Jordan, CVT recounts the stories of former clients and their hopes for a better future. As the crises in Syria and Iraq continue and worsen, uncertainty has arisen as a stressor, at times debilitating, in the context of the humanitarian response. In Reclaiming Hope, CVT recommends that the international aid community improve its systems of communication to avoid doing harm to the mental health of survivors and to empower them to make decisions for themselves and their families.

Qassem, who tearfully described to me both physical and psychological torture, including sexual humiliation, in two Syrian prisons, says he has “given up” on his resettlement application. He tried for months to reach individuals responsible for resettlement, by phone, email, even in person, to no avail. Other interviewees also described the difficulty they have in reaching anyone regarding their resettlement applications and then receiving no reason as to the delays or rejections despite repeated attempts. The situation leaves many feeling uneasy and apprehensive.

Although resettlement will only be an option for a select few refugees, many rest their hopes on this process. When they do not receive status updates or communications from either UNHCR or the proposed country of resettlement for months or years, the anxiety dominates their daily lives. Saeed and Mariam, who were repeatedly threatened in Iraq and had several family members kidnapped, pondered throughout their interview why their resettlement application was rejected. They had not received any explanation for the rejection and were left to ruminate over the seeming insufficiency of their suffering. Lack of information is a stress factor that leads to uncertainty and despair. Saeed says he feels “paralyzed” because he can’t support his kids. “The man should be the source of strength for his family,” he says, “but I feel I am the weakest. Instead of me helping them, my son must help me.”

Still others felt that they had received mixed messages regarding both aid and resettlement. Khadija and Yasser described having several humanitarian aid officials visit them over the past year to assess their level of need. They are both Syrian torture survivors and they suffered from war trauma. Yasser has high blood pressure, diabetes, is in a wheelchair and cannot afford the medicine he must take. Their 21-year-old son, and only child, Adel, tried to work for a few days, but was discovered and threatened with deportation because of restrictions on refugees working in Jordan. Adel’s cash assistance was cut off with no explanation, and they have not heard anything from the social workers who carried out the assessments. Yasser described the anxiety associated with the ongoing delays in his resettlement application and mixed messages on his son’s eligibility for resettlement. The family was visibly upset by the lack of responsiveness saying it had caused the most anxiety.

Without understanding why aid is being cut or why resettlement petitions are rejected or delayed, individuals are left frustrated and disempowered. It causes confusion, rumors and false information to spread. Instead, the ongoing humanitarian response must acknowledge the power of refugees to support themselves and make informed decisions. Such an approach fosters the resilience of individuals. In addition to the facilitation of communication by the humanitarian aid community, opening up spaces for refugees to work formally can contribute immeasurably to their resilience.

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