fridays: interview with lamya hussain
Lamya holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and has a Graduate Diploma in Refugee Studies. She used her time as a graduate student to return to refugee camps in the West Bank and Lebanon to conduct a Community Health Assessment. Initially she was seeking a theoretical approach to pose solutions to the deteriorating health standard amongst refugee communities. She soon realized the solution lies within grass-root social enterprises. Her holistic understanding of development ( in particular in the context of displacement) has encouraged her to launch her own organization and she is currently detailing her projects that have come directly out of her field research. In building projects that reflect the needs of Palestinians she hopes to also accommodate their larger socio-political struggles for self-determination. In particular, she is exploring concepts that are not donor-aid reliant and are unique in their ability to respond to the needs of local communities. She is interested in researching and working on environmentally friendly approaches that reflect a growing movement in Palestinian communities to endorse “green” projects.
1] Tell us about your background – what made you want to do what you are doing currently?
Many things continue to shape both my academic and personal interests in exploring sustainable development projects in displaced communities. Initially I was inspired through solidarity work with Palestinians that led me to travel and volunteer in Palestinian refugee camps across the West Bank in 2007. As a volunteer I was involved in the traditional format of local organizing and community work. However I realized that there were serious gaps in the manner in which the civil society was organized. I was curious to map out the fragmentation in social services like health care and education while being conscious of the larger socio-political narratives of the Israeli occupation.
I returned to the camps shortly after to conduct field research, a component of my graduate studies. I was trying to understand the local infrastructure that contributes to the status and livelihood of refugees, in particular the status of health of Palestinian refugees. In conducting a Community Health Assessment I was able to compile raw data that shaped a holistic understanding of the issues on the ground. Currently, I am working on concepts that were developed in the field to help respond to the current needs of local communities—refugees in particular. I am working with communities on the ground on creating projects that are unique in their approach towards notions of ‘sustainability’ and ‘development’. I am very conscious of the larger political realities of Palestinians living under occupation and their hesitancy in engaging with projects that are reliant on donor-aid. My motivations lie within my commitment to the solidarity movement for Palestinian rights and simultaneously in providing agency for local communities to develop projects that are unique and creative. In particular, I see opportunities to challenge the larger infrastructure of NGOs that came out of the Oslo process. I feel that there is much potential in building at the grassroots level than complying with a framework that is actively constructed through the power agents that are investing in the occupation of Palestine.
2] What are the particular struggles of working with Palestinian refugees on the ground. Elaborate in both contexts : Lebanon and the West Bank?
Many that are engaged with the Palestinian solidarity network—whether as artists, activists, academics—will express their grievances in working in a space that is occupied. However in my experiences, I was working in spaces that were both: occupied and displaced.
In the context of the West Bank , there is of course the struggles of navigating through the military-settler occupation of Palestinian lands. One is constantly discouraged, detained and denied entry through a repressive-selective process that maintains hegemonic control of Palestinian civil society. The occupation restricts researchers, like myself, from entry or by allocating limited access to the field. This creates an ad-hoc structure via which one is limited with access to their field. The occupation is also the core of why the local Palestinian economy is curbed on a daily basis. The occupation fundamentally cuts Palestinians from 60 per cent of the land in the West Bank and public resources. This means restriction on goods and people from within and outside of the territories. To further exacerbate the situation, the Oslo process helped merge security and aid via creating a larger framework to fund local agencies. This donor-reliant structure has helped in the “NGO-nization” of the West Bank making Palestinians both occupied and dependent. It also creates a space where when negotiations go south, so does the will of the donors to fund local agencies. This is not unique in the manner in which international agencies protect their interest in spaces of conflict, however in the context of Palestine it has worked effectively in maintaining the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and more recently the illegal siege on Gaza.
These structures create strategic barriers for people on the ground to build their local economy or engage with projects that are grass-roots/independent. It is also much more complex when working with refugee communities—especially those displaced in Lebanon. Having been displaced and made refugee for over six decades, Palestinians in Lebanon have been warehoused in identified refugee camps. With no legal status, Palestinians continue to (in)exist without access to local capacities of health care, education etc. They are entirely reliant on services provided by UN agencies that barely meet the basic necessities on the ground. Living under a hostile host state that does not recognize them and denies them basic rights including : health care ; Palestinians have much struggles to overcome to improve their current livelihoods.
In Lebanon, there exists a constant battle between settlement and return. While much hope of “returning” to homeland is almost a romanticized narrative, Palestinians are also aware of the lack of political regional will to accommodate them incase a settlement is reached where their status as refugees is negotiated. The struggles in working in such a dynamic are much deeper given the uncertainty and yet the recognition that refugee communities in Lebanon are: a) struggling for their political rights (including the right of return stipulated in UN Resolution 194) and b) socio-economic rights in their current space (Lebanon) where they continue to exist without access to opportunities like employment, education, health care etc.
3] What are you currently working on, and what excites you most about what you do?
Building on my fieldwork experience I am currently putting together proposals that reflect my findings in the field. I am merging the needs of the local communities with their larger socio-political aspirations to create projects that will help build local capacity and livelihood. One of the main concepts that was developed in the field includes: roof-top gardens. This was initially inspired in the field and then further developed through the exploration of social enterprises and the role they can play in empowering communities. I am excited about this particular initiative, as it is multi-dimensional in the way it responds to the local conditions of Palestinians—in particular Palestinian refugees. Palestinians have a strong connection to their land and the historical displacement/dispossession from their land has deeply disturbed this relationship. The concept of setting up roof-top gardens in spaces like refugee camps is both efficient and nostalgic for displaced communities. However there are other incentives in setting up roof-top gardens in spaces like refugee camps and in urban spaces in the West Bank. In particular, such an initiative fosters the growth of local organic produce hence in harmony to the South African inspired Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) call from 2005. This allows Palestinians to actively participate in the BDS call while building local capacity and sustainable livelihood. It also adds to the overall environment of their spaces and fosters a larger developing green movement in the region.
I am mostly excited about the many opportunities that exist in the way in which Palestinians can divest from the current structure of dependency on international donor agencies and organize through projects that reflect the needs of the local community. More importantly in engaging in projects that can also shape their political rights through advocacy of BDS locally and internationally. I feel that while there is a mistrust of “development” tools , there are opportunities to use such tools effectively to empower communities while simultaneously building livelihoods.
4] What incredible stories of innovation have you come across in the area you work in?
There are many innovative projects that are taking shape in the context of the MENA region, local communities are no longer reliant on international agents to help build concepts locally. One such example is of MENA Geothermal a start-up based in Ramallah that is bringing geothermal energy to the region. This creative form of thinking around development issues is inspirational and effective given the energy consumption in the Middle East. Thinking ahead, what MENA Geothermal has done is create an opportunity to build a consciousness much needed around energy consumption. It is also offering affordable green and clean energy options via the creation of an enterprise that is quickly becoming the regions largest provider of geothermal technology. This creates an advantage for both local communities in the West Bank but largely in the region which needs to start investing in ‘green’ alternatives at large.
In my own experiences I am impressed with the way Palestinians are starting to organize around their local needs. A community under occupation-siege has little opportunities given the physical barriers that continue to isolate them. Nonetheless, Palestinians are building at the local level they are using social media tools , training within community centers and inviting researchers like myself to help develop their pilot projects. I am also intrigued with local capacities that are inviting “green” initiatives, a population occupied has much consciousness of their land, water and air. Palestinians truly have a remarkable spiritual connection with their soil and they are looking to protect it from occupation-violence but also from environmental erosion.
5] In light of this, what motivates you to keep you going?
I am majorly motivated through the experience of living and working in refugee camps across the West Bank and Lebanon. The resilience of the Palestinian people is incredibly inspiring. I think about all the women I interviewed through the process of field research, their strength and courage to continue to exist. The kind of solidarity that is present at the ground level is motivating, local communities are organizing everyday creating unique projects to relieve the living conditions on the ground. Women are major part of that, running local community centers using enterprise models engaging in start-ups with initial basic funding packages. I feel connected to these communities given their desire to explore and create from the ground-up while keeping in mind the larger socio-political rights of Palestinians and refugees in specific.
It is also motivating to see Palestinians interest in not remaining “dependent”, as a community they are truly seeking to emancipate themselves at all levels. I often recall the many conversations I had with refugees, in particular women, and their desire to live in freedom. One woman I recall in particular had a vision of inspiring local initiatives of roof-top gardens in urban and refugee camps. She understands the importance of organic food but also feels passionate about breaking the vicious cycle of being occupied and then being dependent on the occupier for survival. It is the story of many refugees, disconnected from their land, that motivates me to engage with them more intimately.
6] Anything else you may want to add?
I am truly excited to be launching my projects shortly via my start-up—Refutrees. We will soon have an online presence and will launch an aggressive fundraising campaign to explore key pilot projects. I believe that there is a will at the ground level to welcome initiatives that are refreshing, green, and more importantly sensitive to their socio-political rights. I sincerely believe that in the process of advocating for Palestinian rights for self-determination there is a role for researchers-development theorists whereby inspiring projects that are sincere in aiding and building local frameworks. Many opportunities exist in truly committing to development in a non-traditional format that curbs local capacity. I am both optimistic and excited to see my research materialize in this form and I am seeking to connect with like-minded individuals that are working at the grass-roots level.
Thanks Lamya, for these brilliant insights! Follow her on twitter: @ilamzzone
The team at ufahari will do their best to feature an interview at least once every month, on a friday. this is the first of, hopefully, many.