Lifting All Boats

The hour-long interview was coming to a close, when the grey-stubbled, proud father told me that his severely disabled daughter wanted me to take a picture with her. Throughout the interview, the man, whom I will call Ahmed (I have changed all names, by the way), told me that many foreigners had visited him over the years, taking photographs of his three disabled children and his sparse, ill-lit home beset by poverty, then vanishing as quickly as they came.

After nervously posing with his 24-year-old daughter, Ahmed asked whether I would pose with his twin-boys, who like their sister, were bedridden and mentally disabled. Without hesitation, my Save the Children colleague and I sat on the edge of the boys' bed while another colleague snapped the picture. When we stood, we looked at one another quizzically -- the seat of my pants was wet; her hands, slick. The mattress, it turns out, was soaked. With the little money available to him and his family, Ahmed can only infrequently buy diapers for his three incontinent older children and his two little ones. He cannot afford new diapers. He buys them used.

This interview was my last one of 10; part of a follow-up needs assessment conducted in a three-day span in the Northern Jordan governorate of Irbid, which is only some 15 miles from the Syrian border. It is here that poverty squats on the many rural towns and villages that comprise Irbid; the weight of poverty taxes the already-frail infrastructure, its relentlessness reduces talk of clean water and healthy food to mere rumor, and its indiscrimination leaves an indelible mark on everyone and everything.

When I first arrived in Jordan some seven weeks ago, a member of the NGO community told me that the Jordanian government now requires aid agencies to include Jordanian beneficiaries as 30 percent of all projects targeting Syrian refugees. My initial sophisticated thought: "Say what, now?" Although I was well aware that Jordan had absorbed some 590,000 Syrian refugees since 2011, I saw poverty at the Za'atari refugee camp, I heard tales of Syrian parents being solicited to sell their girls into slavery, and I touched the hands of children afraid to walk to school alone. Surely, this Jordanian policy smacked of misguided opportunism, no?

Back in Irbid this week, with its high concentration of Southern Syrian refugees, I began to appreciate the indirect consequences of the crisis to the north. My "say what, now?" skepticism was under siege.

In Irbid, I also met Ana, a 39-year-old, single unemployed mother. Her 7-year-old son plays in the rock and debris-strewn yard, amidst old cans and seemingly older bread, which she dries and sells to shepherds. Her home is a tiny cave-like apartment: no windows, no running water, and no protection from the elements. Rain and wind enter mercilessly without invitation. Outside of her apartment door, Ana built a makeshift barrier and dug a gutter of sorts, hoping to impede the water from entering her home. The smell of stale water, however, conspires with the odor of the indoor latrine to regularly expel Ana and her son from their home, particularly at night when the cold settles in. We sat outside, where she explained that she needs clothes and food for her son, who at one point during the interview grabbed a piece of cardboard upon which he curled up on the ground.

Just before meeting Ana, I met Hala, another single mother in Irbid. Hala lives in a storage room that was converted into a makeshift apartment for her and her five children, who range from 17 to 5 years old. None of the children are in school -- the public schools are free but the various fees are too much for her to bear. Her apartment is dank and dark. Though she is fortunate to have running water and electricity, Hala and her children have the misfortune of routinely dodging pieces of plaster falling from her ceiling like hail.

Hala, Ana and Ahmed are all too acquainted with poverty's pernicious affects. They are, in many ways, equally impacted. But, they differ. Ana and Ahmed are Jordanian; Hala, Syrian.

Does this matter?

Humanitarian aid works best when it works to serve everyone in need, the obvious and not-so-obvious.

Years ago, while volunteering with a medical relief organization in Haiti, I recall that organization charging nominal fees for its primary medical care services. "Say what, now?" Were we really charging some of the poorest people in the world for medical care?

It turns out that if we didn't, local health care providers would struggle to make a living; those needing medical care could -- and likely, would -- just wait for foreign NGOs to come into town with their free medical services. In addressing one problem, we ran the risk of creating another.

Here in Jordan, we, in the humanitarian aid community, are addressing the myriad, stubborn problems born of the Syrian civil war. Around us, reports abound of Syrian refugees, like Hala, being harassed and accused of taking jobs from Jordanians, while securing services from international NGOs not available to locals. Hala may be burdened with unfair accusations of helping make a bad situation worse, just as Ana and Ahmed may be burdened with unfairly being overlooked as aid rushes in to stanch the flow of crisis-related poverty in Irbid. Both situations reek of unfairness.

The United Nations and its related organizations already recognize the importance of taking steps to mitigate the impact of the presence of refugees on host communities. Perhaps this is what animates the Jordanian government's 30 percent policy? Perhaps all the Jordanian government did was take this "first, do no harm; second, benefit all" principle to another level?

Perhaps mandating that refugee programs benefit a certain percentage of locals forces all of us in the humanitarian world to remember that the measure of our success is not just the refugees we benefit?

Visiting Ahmed, Ana, and Hala enabled me to see things and ask "why?" I suspect that they dream things and ask "why not?" As all of us muddle through that question, let us hope that the answer does not rest on distinctions of no difference.