3 questions for Rasha Jarhum

Rasha Jarhum, an Aspen New Voices fellow and a member of the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security. Photo by: Nabilah Al-Zubair

When Rasha Jarhum, an Aspen New Voices fellow and member of the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security, started working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan in 2014, she saw the war in her native Yemen escalate, and her family were forced to leave.

The numbers of people fleeing Yemen are still rapidly increasing — more than 100,000 people have fled the country since March 2015, when the conflict between forces fighting for the exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels, known as Houthis, erupted. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of people now forcibly displaced from the country currently stands at around 2.5 million.

In an interview with Devex, Jarhum discussed the lessons learned from work in this context, noting that these populations need tangible opportunities for upward social mobility.

“These must go beyond short-term humanitarian interventions for support for subsistence, and should be more sustainable and longer-term, focusing on education and skills, access to finance and decent housing, improving livelihoods, and other such opportunities,” she said.

Here are some more highlights from our conversation:

What role can development and humanitarian organizations play in helping refugees to better integrate and what strategies appear to be working?

It is critical to uphold the dignity and maintain the identity of refugees in order to successfully integrate them into the larger mosaic of society, particularly as they have experienced dramatic changes given their displacement and exposure to violence.

Strategies that adopt a careful mechanism to understanding these issues, and to working with the refugee communities to facilitate remedial support — as well as initiate dialogue with host communities — are often more successful than others. This is a challenge not only for refugees in Western countries but also for refugees in Arab countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

Social cohesion programs for refugees and host communities are very important. In Lebanon and Jordan, joint capacity building activities and training courses targeting both refugees and host communities have favorable feedback. There are also cultural exhibitions and activities; I cannot stress the importance of involving both refugees and host community member to design those programs.

Advocacy and awareness campaigns are also important — particularly those that lead to a paradigm shift and change negative misperceptions.

What does the mass movement of populations mean for development and humanitarian aid in the coming decades?    

It can be looked at as both a liability as well as an opportunity. There are experiences where refugee populations remain dependent on the international community's support for extended periods of time — for example, the [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] — due to the lack of a sustainable development perspective that focuses on their development and well-being.

Similarly, where such views were adopted, we saw that refugee and displaced populations can be an important factor of stability and growth in their new geographic areas, and serve as a demographic asset to their new host countries.

What does the "road ahead" look like in this field?

The complexity of the issues in this sector are unprecedented, not only because of the size of the crisis and the needs, but also in terms of scaling up the response to provide workable and viable solutions to these crises. Therefore, I feel that the current response falls short in creative ways and establishing partnerships that are critical to addressing these issues.

It is actually devastating for me to think that we, in this decade, still witness man-made humanitarian catastrophes and that our humanitarian interventions are still reactive instead of proactive.

Every winter we know refugees in informal settlement camps in Bekaa, Lebanon, might freeze to death. We know that refugees will resort to illegal migration and take the “boat of death” to Europe. We know that any refugee crisis is protracted and may last an average of 10 years.

Addressing these issues needs collaboration from all stakeholders, but more importantly they need to effectively engage with refugees themselves to find a solution. Humanitarian agencies could consult refugees on whether the food items distributed were sufficient, whether the hygiene products were of good quality, but refugees are not consulted at a higher level, at policy level, where the interventions are designed and strategies are made.

To build a stable and successful future we need good governance and mutual respectful dialogue, as well as efforts to deal with the main causes of refugee crisis, and permanent peace and social justice.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

About the author

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    Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is an Associate Editor at Devex. She has a background in human rights, radio and journalism, and has written for a variety of international publications while living and working in Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. She is now based in Barcelona and supports editorial content on campaigns and media partnerships at Devex. She is currently studying a master's degree in contemporary migration.