• Feminist Humanitarian Net

"The humanitarian system must not forget refugees": Dr Olfat Mahmoud

Dr Olfat Mahmoud is the General Director of the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organisation – an organisation working alongside Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon, with a focus on women and children.

This World Refugee Day Dr Mahmoud shares her reflections on how the world sees refugees, her experience as a refugee, and calls for change in the humanitarian system.

Now, when we look at refugees, we think that they are poor, that they are helpless, they don’t know what to do. Refugees are like all human beings – before becoming a refugee, they were at schools and universities. We think that refugees need help. But they don’t – they just need us to work with them, not for them.

Dr Olfat Mahmoud

When you work with refugees you feel how strong they are – and you see that they just need resources and space to support the leadership they take in their own lives. We must recognise that refugees are survivors. We must start to see, that as a refugee, when you have nothing, you are extraordinarily creative. When you stop to notice, you will be astonished at how refugees respond to crises – at their resilience, and creativity in the face of major challenges and adversity.

I am a refugee myself. When I work with other refugees, I feel like we create policies and systems without calling them this. As refugees, we put social support systems in place ourselves.

Like many people in Covid-19, refugees here in Lebanon have lost their jobs. And you look, you see that all of their neighbours send them food. They recognise who needs assistance and they work together to provide it. As people working together, they have created this system – when people in the community need help, they ensure that they have help. And when we needed more help, many people from within the community came and volunteered.

Refugees have their own systems and strategies amongst themselves. When we talked with women living in the camps about the challenges of Covid-19 and we together we recognise that the camp is overcrowded and that we have to work together to keep Covid-19 out, immediately they had many ideas on how to share information and prevent the spread. The women took responsibility for this – they were creative and clear on how to respond.

The system creates this idea that refugees are helpless people who need just that – help.

As I said, we need to work with them, not for them. As a teenager, we had many challenges as refugees in Lebanon, and I learnt from my parents that you have to be strong, you need to be a survivor, not a victim. This gave me strength – it gave me push. It gave me determination.

This determination is something I see with the refugees I work with in the camp. They are angry, but they are determined. They put aims and objectives on their lives. The women we work with are so driven to educate their children, and they do their best to educate them.

For a period of time, people lost hope – or, more accurately, their hope was frozen. Sometimes when everything around you is negative, sometimes people freeze their hopes. Refugee people go through ups and downs, depending on the situation around them. Sometimes something will happen and you will see people come together and you remember how strong they are – who they are truly.

The refugees we work with hope to return to Palestine. Imagine, you are born here – we know that Lebanon is our host country, we never feel it is our homeland, our country. It’s a host country. This makes you feel like you are a bit lost sometimes, unless you get some support. My kids have asked me – what does it mean, I am Palestinian, but I am in Lebanon. This is a question that is really hard to answer – and to do it without filling them with hate. I told them, trying to make the picture a little bit nicer than it is. This is not our country by choice. It is completely different to migration.

When we were kids my grandparents and my parents used to describe Palestine, and our village, and I felt I knew it. Once, when I was in Aleppo visiting my family, my family put on video of our village and I didn’t want to watch it – I didn’t want to destroy the village I had created in my head. Part of me wanted to see it, but the other part of me didn’t. After a few years, in 2006 when there was war in Beirut, I was watching TV, and all of a sudden, my village came up on the news – and as soon as I saw it, I thought, this was the village I know.

It made me regret I didn’t watch the video that time in Aleppo! My grandparents were so incredible at describing the village – the village in my head was exactly like the village on the screen. My hope is to return one day. Because there is no place like home.

Being a refugee is a painful, hard, experience.

As I always say, we are human beings and we deserve to be treated as human beings – to be treated with dignity.

For me, I have focussed on education – education gives you another identity, aside from being a refugee. When you are well educated people look at you with more respect. I did my PhD in Beirut at a private university, where I teach now. I was not able to do it when I was younger, because I need to work to fund my education. When I did study, I did it at the same time as bringing up my young children and working full time. I worked hard.

Refugees must not be forgotten. The international community tends to forget those who have been refugees for a long time, and it’s not fashionable to remember them. We suffer a lot. I want the international community to think of suffering as bleeding. I hear people say “during the war we had better services” – don’t make people wish for war. Refugees need resources. They need to be supported.

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