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Exploring ‘presencing’ and perseverance of refugees in Jordan through collaborative arts workshops

By Jessica Sullivan | OMC 2024

This is a painting I made during a workshop I conducted in Amman, Jordan during my fieldwork in the summer of 2023 of five refugee women painting together in a classroom with the window open to the sprawling hills of Amman. The artist collaborators were creating around the question, “How have you impacted Amman and how has Amman impacted you?” I wanted to participate alongside the refugee artist collaborators and paint how I feel I have contributed to Amman, which has been through spreading my love of art and encouraging reflection and creativity at these workshops.

The diverse refugee population of Amman, including Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Somali, and Yemeni people, are neither guaranteed economic support from the UNHCR nor permitted to work in Jordan, forcing them into the informal economy where they are harassed, exploited, and exposed to dangerous working conditions. My research project aimed to elicit discussing feelings of belonging and presence in the urban space of Amman across 19 collaborative visual arts workshops, 40 interviews, and two public art exhibitions conducted in the summer of 2023 with refugees of different nationalities, genders, ages, and legal statuses. Research participants cited the lack of or poor quality of humanitarian assistance and the criminalisation of black-market work which lead to the threat of exploitation, arrest, and deportation as negatively impacting their feelings of belonging in Amman. Yet refugees are resilient and persevere, finding creative ways to provide for their families, build a sense of belonging, and improve their communities and themselves. 


As Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, it is not mandated by the UN to support refugees. Nevertheless, Jordan cooperates with the UN and UNHCR through a series of memorandums, beginning with the 1998 Memorandum of Understanding. These agreements have guided Jordan’s recent reception of refugees, but since 2019, Jordan has denied non-Syrian refugees the right to claim asylum, making them ‘illegal’ migrants.  


Many refugees in Jordan do not receive financial support from the UNHCR. Support for accommodation, ‘winterisation,’ and food vouchers are inconsistent, inadequate, and subject to random suspension. With or without economic aid from the UNHCR, refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line. Additionally, registered asylum seekers, recognised refugees, and non-registered refugees are not legally permitted to work in Jordan. Syrian refugees can apply for a work permit, as was negotiated in the 2016 Jordan Compact, but acquiring one is nearly impossible. Forced into poverty, refugees work illegally across a range of sectors, from hospitality and food services to industrial mining and resource extraction, from urban construction projects to tutoring, and from markets to artisanal handicrafts.  


Police officers regularly patrol for and arrest refugees working illegally. Participants stated that after the first arrest, the UNHCR would support your release from jail, but after a second arrest, you would be deported. Many participants had been arrested once and lived in fear of a second arrest. Without access to legal assistance and in desperate need of money, refugees are targeted for exploitation. Wage theft is rampant, sexual harassment discourages women from working, unsafe workplaces often gravely injure construction workers. These conditions demand resilience. Refugee workers protect themselves by avoiding heavily policed areas, looking out for and evading the police, and blending in by posturing as Jordanian. They safeguard one another on dangerous job sites and demand payment when it is withheld. 


In addition to working, refugees engage in community organisations to improve their communities and themselves. They volunteer teaching and tutoring English, exercise classes, and arts workshops. They take part in fellowships and internships at humanitarian organisations, organise city-wide cultural events, hang out at Sudanese cafés downtown, and plan advocacy initiatives. One non-registered Yemeni refugee woman reflected that she found belonging in Amman through volunteering teaching English, saying, “I belong to this [community organisation] because I found a lot of friends from here… and they gave me a chance to be one of them as a volunteer. So I wanted to do something for my people, my community… I felt proud when I, I am doing something free for my community.” She added that she has benefited personally, saying, “I feel that I have more confidence than before. So I really like it, who I am now.” 


While most participants reported not feeling belonging in Amman due to discrimination, inflicted poverty, and exploitation, they create community and presence in the chaotic urban space of Amman. Refugees in Amman are persistently present, resisting exploitation, navigating the hostile terrain, building belonging in community organisations, and supporting one another to improve as individuals and as a community. 

Jessica Sullivan  

As an artist, academic, and activist, I work in solidarity with migrants and refugees against hegemonic border regimes. I am from the US and live in London as a third-year PhD student at UCL studying the belonging of refugees in Amman, Jordan using collaborative artistic methodologies. I am interested in forced migration in the Middle East and Mediterranean, particularly the impacts of Western war-making, neocolonial humanitarianism, and collective forms of resilience, resistance, and presencing. I teach on the UCL Master's in Global Migration, organise the UCL Migration Research Unit PhD Network, and volunteer with Migrant and Asylum Seeker Solidarity Action.abia.


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