Salaam-Al-Eekam UCI Law

Rachel Khalili
J.D. Candidate 2015, UCI School of Law

Shaleen Shanbhag
J.D. Candidate 2014, UCI School of Law

Caroline Reiser
J.D. Candidate 2015, UCI School of Law

Over Spring Break, Caroline, Shaleen and I were incredibly lucky to travel to Jordan on behalf of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). We spent six days in Amman meeting with representatives at the International Organization of Migration, the Catholic Jesuit services, the Dutch Embassy and several NGOs. Most importantly, we got first-hand interaction with Iraqi refugees like those we represent through IRAP. It was truly an experience of a lifetime, and one of many opportunities that makes UC Irvine School of Law remarkable.

IRAP is a policy advocacy group, an active student organization and a pro bono project at UCI Law. Under the supervision of generous attorneys, we help Iraqi refugees navigate the immigration rules and processes of resettlement in the U.S. Some of the refugees we represent served alongside the U.S. military as interpreters in Iraq. Others are families living in fear of harm and persecution in their country. Since they cannot return home, Iraqi refugees have been given temporary refuge in nearby countries like Jordan. Between 70,000-100,000 Iraqi refugees are currently displaced in Jordan.

Our trip took us to the outskirts of Amman to visit the Catholic Jesuit Services, an organization that provides education and humanitarian assistance to refugees. We had tea with an independent advocate who described to us how he risks his life every day to provide assistance to refugees, regardless of their religion or nationality. We spent one afternoon observing the International Organization of Migration’s (IOM) cultural orientation for refugees, which takes place during the final stage of their resettlement process to the U.S. We met with the Dutch Embassy in a beautiful eco-friendly building in the Western part of Amman and learned about their government’s financial aid to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. On our last day, we spoke to influential Arab business leaders at the Rotary Club of Amman luncheon. They invited us to tour the local hospital where a team of U.S. doctors donate their time and resources to operate on Iraqi children with congenital heart defects. Then, the business leaders took us for Kanaffe – a delicious Jordanian dessert made of pistachios, baked cheese, and sweet sugar syrup.

Jordanians have a rich history of generosity. The people we met are motivated leaders with genuine desire to help their neighbors in need. Spring break 2013 is a week I will always remember with special appreciation to IRAP, the country of Jordan, and UCI Law.

–Rachel

Perhaps the most eye-opening and rewarding part of our trip was our meeting with the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development-Legal Aid Office (AARD-LA) in Amman. A newly formed NGO, the organization is much like the legal aid offices in the United States, providing a variety of pro bono legal services to members of the local communities. Refugee work makes up a significant part of the organization’s caseload.  Although AARD-LA’s first refugee initiative specifically targeted the Iraqi refugee crisis, it has since partnered with the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to serve the wider community of refugees present in Jordan.

We were fortunate enough to have a one-on-one meeting with Souzan Shami, the Programs Manager of AARD-LA. Interestingly, she is neither an attorney nor of Jordanian background, the latter a reflection of the diversity in Jordan due to the many recent refugee crises. Ms. Shami is of Palestinian descent, and painfully told us how her parents lived in refugee camps in Jordan after fleeing their home country. After leaving the business world, Ms. Shami and her sister (a corporate lawyer at the time) used their personal savings and money their father left them to create AARD-LA, the first Arab organization dedicated to protecting human rights and fighting injustice. Ms. Shami spoke of the political hurdles she had to overcome in order to start the organization, which is partially a result of the negative perception of pro bono legal services in Jordan compared to corporate law – something we are more than familiar with. It was inspiring to see (for the first time during our trip) a woman leader in the Middle East. What stood out the most was Ms. Shami’s passion, dedication, and attachment to every issue and individual that she spoke of.

Although our meeting was only scheduled to be ninety minutes long, we sat in the conference room for almost three hours, asking question after question and listening intently to her answers. Ms. Shami occasionally left the room to take calls about potential clients, one of whom was an Iraqi refugee whose landlord had been charging him an obscenely high electricity rate. After explaining his situation to us, Ms. Shami listed the various ways in which refugees are exploited because they are unaware of their legal protections.

While we in Irvine feel pain for our clients, it is nothing compared to what people like Ms. Shami experience, as they live with the realities of the Iraqi, Syrian, Somali, and Sudanese refugee crises each day. It was an amazing opportunity to listen to Ms. Shami, and to learn about her work and motivation for starting this incredible organization.

–Shaleen

                  Beyond meeting with these different organizations and the passionate people who run them, in the evenings we were able to explore the city of Amman. The city is made up of two contrasting parts. West Amman is a relatively wealthy, modern suburb. Our hotel, however, was located downtown, an area we later learned is considered by the locals to be the most conservative. This was apparent in the dress and demeanor of the people on the street, specifically the women. It was rare to see women by themselves or walking without a man. Almost every woman was completely covered, from her ankles, to her wrists, to her head. Concerns crossed my mind that I have never considered before, such as if it was disrespectful if I wore a ¾ length sleeve so that my wrists showed, or if I wore my hair in a bun so that the back of my neck was exposed. I’ve also never felt so in need of a companion when simply walking down the street in broad daylight, and I especially observed the difference it made when a man accompanied our group of three girls. I very quickly got used to not making eye-contact, a habit I had to consciously break myself of when we returned home.

The first time we exited our hotel to explore, I was quite nervous because I simply did not know what to expect. However, I really need not have worried because everyone we met treated us with the greatest kindness. This spanned from locals laughingly helping us cross the busy street which was devoid of cross-walks without our having to ask, to not ripping us off when we (alright, when I) tried to pay 20 Jordanian dinar for 4 oranges when you can buy a full meal for 5 Jordanian dinar, to politely pointing out that we probably were trying to order the juice with lunch, not the hookah. All this of course included a few eye rolls at us, the silly tourists (especially from the poor guys who worked at our hotel and had to deal with our new questions every day), but no more than would be expected, and with a lot more patience than we Americans generally give those tourists visiting California.

The best thing about staying downtown in my opinion was hearing the call to prayer. Five times a day. The mesmerizing sounds emanating from the different mosques (including the one right across the street from our hotel) overtook the constant honking of cars stuck in traffic. It was a nice way to realize that our jetlag had worn off when we finally slept through the 4am call. We were lucky enough to explore the Amman Citadel during an evening call to prayer. Within walking distance from our hotel, the Citadel is a National Historical Site with ruins from overlapping civilizations, starting 7000 years ago and including structures such as a Roman Temple of Hercules, an Early Bronze Age cave, a Byzantine Church, and an Umayyad Mosque. The echoes of the different mosques bounced around the nine hills which name the city while puffy clouds brushed back and forth over the sun, revealing different layers of white stone neighborhoods in soft light and cool shadow.

For someone who depends on independence, it was very difficult for me to understand the culture in Amman. I feel like here we keep our beliefs beyond separate walls in the name of respect for our differing views, while in Jordan their everyday life is steeped in their beliefs. Neither way is right or perfect of course, but taking even a week to experience another way of living is always interesting. In addition to meeting really great people and developing a better understanding of the refugee crisis in the Middle East, I will never forget this brief look into life in such a different country.

–Caroline