Being Present in a World Stacked with War and Pain

by Katherine Dunn

In the northwest part of Jordan, approximately 160,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  All but about 1,000 of them live outside of refugee camps, spread throughout towns and villages. For many of them, the UNHCR help desk is the frontline of contact with the organization’s staff; we answer over 20,000 inquiries annually in Irbid alone. People come to ask about monthly financial assistance, which is available to the most vulnerable, and also to seek advice on other protection issues. Amid such daunting numbers, we risk becoming mechanical in our approach. Each person brings reminders, however, of his or her particular needs and experiences.

One day, a 63-year-old Syrian woman appeared at the help desk of the UNHCR in Irbid to inquire about assistance.  My colleague, noticing that this elderly woman still had her old asylum-seeker certificate in hand, asked her to return the old copy, as a new certificate had been issued. The woman protested. When pressed for the reason, the woman revealed that she had no photograph of her husband other than his ID photo on the old document. They had fled together into Jordan without any of their belongings, and he had since passed away. Learning this, my colleague turned to others in the registration unit. They pulled up the photograph from the registration file, printed a full-page color version of the photo, and presented it to her as a gift.

Sometimes work in the humanitarian field seems daunting, stacked against the massive destruction and pain of war.  But such moments, which show the impact that some of our smallest gestures can have, give us fuel to keep going. Since 2012, UNHCR has distributed over 120 million US dollars in cash assistance to refugees in Jordan.  The system of delivery uses cutting-edge technology—refugees access this cash via iris scan at ATMs—and a robust infrastructure allows 97% of donations to end up directly in refugees’ hands.  Eligibility for monthly financial assistance is determined by home-visit assessments, over 200,000 of which have been conducted since 2012. A series of questions are designed to gauge each family’s level of need, and field staff apply a set of objective criteria. The complexities of refugees’ conditions can make these criteria challenging to apply.

One day, in a focus-group discussion about distribution of aid, a Syrian man said, “Do you see? When this employee comes to my house, he is a guest. I will make sure that he sits in the best chair, and that he is offered a drink. Nothing on the wall will be a centimeter off. These employees will never know to what extent we are suffering.”

In the face of the relentless dignity of Syrians, we can hardly mention the difficulties that we face sometimes as humanitarian workers. That was a trying day, however—a day of watching strong people break down into tears: a father telling of the hunger that taunts his children, a mother telling of the violence that she suffered before fleeing. A day of my often not knowing what to do, not knowing what palliative thing to say. A day of shared anguish—what it means for people’s families to be waiting at home for food that may or may not come; what it means for us to be the face of a humanitarian front with insufficient funds, working amidst the largest refugee crisis in decades.

In these times when I feel like the world is stacked with war and pain, I realize that the only thing I have done, the only thing I could do, was just to be present with these people as another human being and to listen. It is such a small thing—in some way nothing—and yet such a core expression of what humans are. The world still needs an end to the war, and we still await significant funds for humanitarian aid. In the meantime, we continue here the best that we can, and we listen.

Katherine Dunn has served as Associate Field Officer for UNHCR in Irbid, Jordan since 2014. She previously worked in Senegal, Liberia, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq and graduated from the MAAS/JD joint-degree program in 2009 with a Certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies.