In this post, my colleague Israa Sadder and me share an email exchange in which we discuss conducting research with Syrian refugees living in Jordan. The exchange describes the relationships developed both between researchers and intermediaries, and between researchers, intermediaries and their interlocutors. These research relationships raise multiple questions regarding how working as an intermediary is experienced by Israa, and how Israa’s feelings and perspectives change throughout the research. The exchange provides an insight into how intermediaries experience the research process, a perspective that is not often brought to light.
‘How Did it Feel to Ask those Questions?’ – An Email Exchange about Experiencing Research on Displacement
Blogpost published on refugeehosts.org on June 23, 2020
It’s been almost exactly a year since we met for the first time in Amman. A friend of ours connected us because I was looking for a translator for my PhD interviews in Jordan. After an insightful first meeting, we worked together for two intense weeks in the summer; often conducting several interviews per day. You established contacts and organised interviews, advised me on my interview questions and most importantly, spend dozens of hours in Uber taxis and in peoples’ homes translating interviews for me. This way, we drank litres of coffee and lemonade together, went through the same informed consent form many times and listened to sometimes similar and sometimes very different experiences.
During all those interviews, it was you who did most of the work: you introduced us, made small talk, created trust between the respondents and us and decided what to translate and what not. Oftentimes, you also shared your own life experiences and comforted people and sometimes, you could give advice. While you were doing all this work (and when I had given up on trying to interpret gestures and words), I had time to observe you and our respondents and to wonder how you perceived those interviews. How did it feel, as a Syrian, to ask other Syrians about their flight and their lives in Jordan over and over again? And how did it feel to be the ‘bridge’ between researchers, who do not speak Arabic and don’t know the culture, and their respondents?
And since you are working on many other projects in the field of refugee studies, how do you perceive the added value of such studies? Sorry, I know that this is an unfair question. And I know that the role of academics is to describe the world, and not necessarily to change it. But isn’t that a too easy way out when the research is about asking people to share their lives and current challenges?
Again, I am sorry for those grand and fairly intruding questions. You might not want to answer any of them, which is the prerogative of every interviewee. But I at least wanted to ask.
All the best,
Thank you for the heartfelt letter. And thank you for being interested in knowing about my personal experience as a Syrian field researcher and translator.
My first work as a researcher was only a job to get done. I had to make 200 phone-based surveys with Syrian activists. It took me one hour to finish each survey, which means that I spent 200 hours talking to Syrians, whom I do not know in person, on the phone. This was my first encounter with Syrians. I was in contact with people doing voluntary work for refugees who were happy and proud to share their activism and I had others who were angry just because I asked details about it. They felt that their privacy was being hacked and started questioning my identity and the institution I worked for. And as much as I was upset to be this fresh graduate who is doing phone calls without knowing what exactly the meaning behind them is, I learned much about my people (Syrians) in Jordan. I was given access and knowledge and being paid for it. Who does not like that? I even became friends with one of the respondents. It was crazy to see them at first as numbers since I was counting surveys, but I was filled – remotely – with their voices, reactions, laughs, disappointment, dialects and with their transformation in Jordan from refugees to activists.
After working with Rana, Zoe, you, Swati, Hedi, Sauzan, Ayo, Oroub, Anna, and Krystina, I have always, deep inside, been excited to conduct the research. My drive to learn a new thing about my people was something I was always thirsty for. I live in Jordan with my mom and dad only and all my family is back in Syria. Meeting Syrians in Jordan allowed me to reconnect with my people from different parts of Syria and made me feel like I am home again. Hearing their memories, struggles and hopes made me feel alive and made my nostalgia for Syria less – knowing that they are as much nostalgic. I have always regretted not growing up in Syria. Growing and learning and crystalizing my character in my country. I always wanted to go back and meet my country with my new self but with doing this research. I was face to face with the new face of Syria, a face of loss and hopes of refugees. It was like looking at your own mirror.
Being the “bridge” is a fantastic cultural exchange, empowering, gives me leadership, self-respect and others’ respect. Being the bridge made me humbler, more humane, made me believe that authentic human connection can happen regardless of language boundaries. Being the bridge has changed my perspective a lot. I now see people as humans and (stories).
It is true that the role of academics is to describe the world and not necessarily to change it. However, we have given the people we met a chance to be “heard”. We showed them that their voice matters and their participation in the research matters at least for us as humans meeting humans. We made them feel that they are being “seen” for who they are really. Most refugees are not happy with UNHCR. UNHCR is like the father who sends money to his children but does not have the time to see or spend time with them. Being a refugee is difficult. To be called and labelled as a refugee is difficult. To be considered a number within thousands of others is excluding you from being a normal human being. My first phone call to organize the interviews was to tell the respondents that we want to “hear” from them and that we care. Even though we can do nothing about it, but we want to learn how it feels and how it is like for them. If we cannot offer a service, at least we can offer a “good company” full of bitter and sweet shares of knowledge that would equally help them and us to grow, learn and move on.