Samar Muhareb is the director of Arab Renaissance in Democracy and Development – (ARDD) Legal Aid based in Jordan. ARDD-Legal Aid is the first Arab rights-based social justice organization promoting development in Jordan and across the Middle East and North Africa region. Their aim is to empower refugees and immigrants. Since conflict has engulfed neighboring Syria, the group has stepped up their efforts to meet the demands of the humanitarian crises enveloping them.
Before that, Muhareb was the founder and director of Legal Aid in Jordan, providing services for the needy since 2008. She was awarded with the Takreem Arab Achievement Award for being a Young Entrepreneur in 2011. She’s a women’s rights advocate, and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights and Human Development and has a Bachelor of Law degree from University of Jordan.
She spoke to Arabic Knowledge at Wharton about what the mission of her organization, the flood of Syrian refugees into Jordan, and the new challenges to the work she is doing.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Arab Renaissance in Democracy and Development – (ARDD) Legal Aid was founded last January to incorporate your previous work. Why the change?
Samar Muhareb: Legal Aid Jordan was a NGO that was founded in March 2008 to provide legal services for refugees. At that time, we had Iraqi refugees in Jordan. In addition, we had Sudanese, Somalian and Palestinian refugees. What’s happened after the Arab Spring is we had a big push to change the mandate to respond to the changes in the region. We’ve had to expand our protection services to include democracy, education, and political empowerment for women.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You won the Takreem Arab Achievement Award for being a Young Entrepreneur. "Takreem" means "to honor" and the jury included Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, Queen Noor of Jordan and Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. Can you tell us what entrepreneurial qualities have helped you in your work?
Muhareb: I think the experience I’ve had working with other NGOs. I’m worked with Oxfam and now I’m their representative in Jordan. I thought, "If I didn’t do it, then no one else would do it." In 2008, we began to provide legal services to people who could not afford legal representation and we provided pro-bono services. As you know in Jordan, a large proportion of the population is made up of refugees from neighboring countries.
I think [it’s important to be] taking the responsibilities, taking the risks, invest in what we have with our group of youths, which involves young lawyers who wanted to do something to support these people and to do things in terms of solidarity and justice support. We were not looking to be leaders in this field. We just reacted to the crisis and humanitarian interest around us. We became entrepreneurs and leaders after that.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How have you used your business acumen to help the underserved community?
Muhareb: Refugees and other marginalized groups in Jordan lack legal services. In Jordan, we lack the resources to provide for all the people. We try our best to allocate resources and funds and partner with Oxfam to provide protection for the communities we work in, which includes refugees and women. Most of the marginalized people we work with get some kind of help.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us a bit about your career background?
Muhareb: I studied law at the University of Jordan. After I graduated, I immediately joined with NGOs. I worked with Oxfam. I passed my bar exam and continued working with the refugee community for different NGOs. I continued working with Oxfam. We were mainly working on a project for Iraq. Then from 2005 to 2006, I worked with Iraqi refugees in Jordan. We tried to offer as many services as we could, like health. I recognized there was not an organization to provide legal services for refugees. Because I was known in the field and I was in touch with so many refugees, they were coming to me and asking, "What can we do? How can we access their facilities? How can we have better knowledge of the legal system? How can we obtain work permits?" From there, we got a group of lawyers together to help them.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How did you get involved with Legal Aid in Jordan?
Muhareb: I’m the founder. That was in 2008. After one year, Oxfam was partnered with us and they were our main donor and supporters. We were newly established. We eventually got our credibility and reputation. We received the Takreem Arab Achievement Award in 2011 after three years of successfully conducting our mission. We are very proud of that.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’re also an advocate of corporate social responsibility as a preventative measure to stave off crime. Has that worked in Jordan?
Muhareb: When we started, we didn’t have money or resources. We started to think, "How can we engage others with us? Others that have resources like the private sector." At that time, the whole issue of corporate social responsibility was new. In the beginning, we had positive responses from the private sector, from hospitals and hotels and businesses. They all wanted to conform to the business practice in different ways. In the beginning, the initiative was very successful. However, after that, we’ve had many challenges for sustainability, like maintaining their interest. We started to pare down a little bit and that also came with pursuing other resources for more help.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How has the number of Syrian refugees flooding into Jordan predominated the work you do now?
Muhareb: We have to think about it on a personal and work level. We are so occupied by watching the news, cautious about what is happening in Syria and how it is going to affect Jordan or Lebanon or Iraq. We have to respond in a short amount of time. Before that, we were able to at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Iraqi refugee crisis. We managed to achieve a lot. But now the Syrian conflict and the Arab Spring preoccupy us.
On a personal level, I’ve been affected because I’m still studying for my Master’s degree. It’s very difficult to focus on my studying after just reading the news and following up. I have to travel a lot. Most of our projects are on the regional level. So we have to engage other countries with our work and responsiveness.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Because of the regional unrest around Jordan, was this a campaign to help alleviate the tension and instability in the area?
Muhareb: Yes, of course. Before the Arab Spring, we were on the map for achievement in the region. We had so many supporters for the social media and other projects, which we call the modern initiative for the youth. But the general public was skeptical of the youth potential and what they can achieve on the ground. So the Arab Spring was useful because it proved what the youth could do. This was a positive impact about the Arab Spring because it showed what the youth could achieve. They have their arguments and they have a say because they are now part of the general public in Jordan and other countries in the region.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve written that the participation of Arab women in the Arab Spring was significant but the absence of women in the post-revolution governments is notably apparent?
Muhareb: There is a perception about women’s abilities. And it’s coming from women themselves, how they perceive themselves and their potential. We have a new project called, "Gender Equality and Political Participation." Women have to be convinced of their capabilities and [we need to foster] the confidence of women. After that, there is the traditional context and the environment, which is so disappointing and so discouraging. The men in our society sometimes tear down whatever we are trying to achieve.
Now, I can see it more noticeably in the Syrian community, inside the camps and outside the camps. It is more conservative. We have this whole notion of women lacking in confidence. Where does this come from? From the woman herself and her surrounding environment?
I think there is a huge possibility now but we have to be careful about how to build on these opportunities and not destroy them. We have to make sure we have qualified women taking on new roles. If we are pushing women, just any woman, without the relevant qualifications, then that will delegitimize our involvement as women. This is what I’m worried about in the role of women in the Arab Spring and what women can do.
We have the leadership among women. Of course, we do not want to deprive less-qualified women of some kind of political participation, but we have to make sure at the appropriate level. Here in Jordan, we have so many women who run for elections. For example, we have around 73 women who have nominated themselves. Like I said before, about 5% of that number is made up of qualified women. We took care of the numbers and the quantity at the expense of the quality and security for our involvement.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Women’s rights have been associated with Western colonialist intent or a way to get aid for the countries. How do you have to structure the method of persuasion that aid is necessary and not a "soft power" weapon of the West?
Muhareb: The Western identity and foreign agenda is a big challenge for us. We have to really prove ourselves that we’re pro human rights, pro participation, pro gender equality. One of our challenges with the women’s movement here is we’re stigmatized by the misconception we’re only operating with a Western agenda. This is an additional burden upon us. We have to make a lot of awareness about our cause and what we are doing. What we are calling for is not a Western agenda but a universal agenda for everyone. Gender equality is our main issue. It’s more of an issue for developing countries than for Western countries. It’s not a huge, but it’s a challenge.
Our biggest challenge now is the Arab Spring. It’s affecting everything. It’s affecting all our projects for many reasons. It’s not the priority for women to gain equal rights and we are worried that the situation for women will deteriorate in the region.
Before the Arab Spring, the legal situation was not bad. People would call you back. They were willing to listen to you. They would give recognition. But after the Arab Spring, they were not interested. Poverty is hitting us very fast, due to the Syrian conflict or maybe cutting subsidies in Jordan, raising the prices of everything — accommodation, food. We have a huge problem with unemployment.
The challenge is not attracting women to the cause but helping them with their legal rights in the current economic situation. This is one of the main impacts of the Syrian conflict in the region. It’s affecting each individual in a different way.
One immediate impact we saw was tourism. Syria was the first stop for tourism into Jordan. We have so many common interests… Everyone is looking for resources here and there. The money is not there yet. Priorities are shifting every day.
Then you are dealing with the changing agendas within the Jordanian government. Each day, we have new regulations to deal with. Each day, we have something new to deal with. There is a huge level of frustration on a personal level and national level.
With the Arab Spring, the rule of law is tender and becoming more revolutionary. People are not respecting the government. They want to challenge everything. There are new strikes in everything, including schools, factories, universities, bus services.
We need 10 years to produce a new generation full of hope and potential. I look at the Syrian refugee children, which is now my top priority for my organization. But just to tell you about the positive impact, which is the readiness and capability of our youth is beyond our expectations.
They have compassion for the new refugees. Their readiness to help and readiness for quick response to protect the new refugees is really remarkable. I can say after 30 years of conflict in the Arab world, its youth have the abilities to cope with the situation and provide more and more, to sympathize with others. We can’t do whatever we’re doing without resources and the international community.