Interview with Saba Al Mobaslat, Country Director, Save the Children, Jordan

sabaA line of Syrian refugee women, some carrying children, cross into Jordan from southern Syria.Photo:UNHCR/N.Daoud

Interview conducted for Out of Place Learning Lab: ‘Creative Responsibility and Human Rights: Telling the Untold Stories of the Crisis in the Mediterranean’ at Counterpoints Arts’ ‘dis/placed’ Exhibition, The Ditch Shoreditch Townhall, London

Learning Labs form part of the Out of Place Action-Research Platform (a project led by Counterpoints Arts’ Learning Lab, in partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London and FilmAid).

Gillian Gordon (RHUL/FilmAid) and Áine O’Brien (Counterpoints Arts).

Transcribed by: Eloise Maland

Just one day before World Refugee Day 2015, the numbers of displaced people are approximated at almost 60 million people. This is both overwhelming and unprecedented.

Saba: Yes, it is, and no one can tell what is going to happen overnight, because the fighters and the fighting are quite mobile and the situation in Syria is extremely fluid. For instance, early yesterday morning there was very intense fighting in Quneitra, which is at the border with the Golan Heights. More displacement, a lot of uncertainty and I fear for the stories that are not being told. We know what we know, but there is a lot more that I think the world doesn’t know about. And I am a bit disappointed to say that sometimes I feel the world does not want to know what is happening, because then they will have to hold themselves responsible, morally. And it is a decision to be ill informed so that you have less pressure to do more.

One could arguably compare the current level of displacement to World War II, where people initially turned away – turned a blind eye – from acknowledging or overtly recognizing what was happening.

Saba: You know I think with all the technology, all of the civilisation we claim, we are not able to deal with things in a more assertive way. If you look at the discussions these days on the media, it is all about migrants going to Europe, as if this is the problem. The problem is not about migrants going to Europe. To put your life and the life of those you love on a boat, with zero certainty that you will make it to a shore, means that you are running from something much worse. And this is the moral question I think that we, as citizens of the world, have to say that we take responsibility (and we want an answer), and that we demand clarity from our governments, our politicians, those who fund all different parties. Because I don’t think this war is continuing without some organised funding mechanism. There has to be a broader debate, led by a mass of people who consider themselves responsible for humanity. Forget about politics and politicians, this is shameful. To be part of a world that cares less about the life of people, this is the shame.

I feel ashamed by not being able to answer simple questions I get asked by my own sons, like ‘Mum, why is Europe talking about migrants being their ultimate problem’? So why, then, aren’t we all contributing to broader discussions so we can solve the actual problem – the unjustifiable level of violence in this region?’ And I am really wordless. After four years of assuming that we are doing what we can to save people’s lives, I have my own questions on a personal level, not just on an organisational level. Like: how good our job is, and are we really saving lives? And if we are saving lives, are we promising people a better life, and where would that be? How much more can be done to reach the point where people can be whom they choose to be? To be caught in a war that is not of your choice, and for you to pay a price that is beyond your capacity, is just so unfair.

How do you see it affecting the younger generation, being born into it but also being pulled into the middle of the conflict very dramatically and so recently? What are the conditions for families and children when they actually arrive in the camps?

Saba: That actually should be the ultimate concern of the entire world. It is not about migrants escaping to Europe, it is about how this part of the world we are in, basically the Middle East, is going to perceive the rest of the world when we have a generation after another growing into violence. When violence is the only language through which they can debate things and change their reality. What impact does that have on the global citizenship or on us as human beings? When you feel left alone to fight a fight that is so unjust and so unfair, and you are left to either live or die, you become by nature very angry. And that anger gives you enough reason to want to fight against the entire world. And then you start classifying and categorising the world into those who are with you and those who are against you. And you accept being violent with those who you assume are against you.

That is our real fight. Our real fight is not the political military fight in Syria, or even in Yemen or Libya. It is about a generation after generation growing so used to violence; seeing it in the news, playing it on play station, seeing it outside their little house, or whatever remains of their little house. Then expecting them to act in a civilised way and engage in a dialogue to reach a peaceful solution?

We are people of our own environment. If that is my surrounding, how do you expect me to grow and be acceptable to others – accepting others, being neutral, civilised and engaging in discussion? That is the concern. As an Arab Muslim woman, my concern is that there will be a time where we as human beings will not find a common ground that can hold us together against conflicts which lack in fairness or are unjust. We will find enough reason to continue to fight against each other. And that is a vicious cycle that will not be broken anytime soon. Unless we look at the broader, bigger root causes. It is no longer about the military action. It is no longer about a regime we had here or an opposition there. It is about engaging as human beings, creating common ground, deciding how to re-engage on a very human level in a discussion that might lead to positive change in our lives across the globe.

This is no longer a problem related to a particular religion or race or region; this is global. And that is what I fear about. We have a generation who is now being lost. We have a generation of frustrated, angry, hopeless youth and children. And I fear that when their anger is channelled in any particular direction, it will be extremely disruptive to any attempt at peace or human-to-human dialogue.

Is there any possibility of intervening? How would you do that? Obviously Save the Children is working with young people all the time, what are some of the things that you are thinking about in terms of interventions?

Saba: We do have a lot of initiatives, and we are trying our best. But at the end of the day, Save the Children is one organisation, and that is a drop in the ocean. There has to be a broader decision made to institutionalise some of the initiatives we are trying to introduce to young people. One of the very promising, at that time, initiatives was the ‘No Lost Generation’ where organisations from the UK, the US, Canada, Europe came together and decided that we are not going to allow the world to lose a generation and we are going to invest in putting an end to lack of access to quality education, investing in peace making, investing in the basic life skills. But the room for this space is shrinking, because I can be talking about all these things, but in the absence of any certainty about food aid finding its way to hungry people, access to drinkable water, I wouldn’t even dare to say to clean water, how are you going to engage in a discussion around peace? Human beings needs are all equal. I cannot have the luxury of creating a space where I can talk about the higher, moral, ethical debate when the very basics are not met.

I tell you from where I stand, as a Country Director for Save the Children’s operations in Jordan, I do know that by the end of July I will have to stop my World Food Programme Implementation because we are running out of funds. When I am faced with 600,000 hungry people, how am I going to bring them together to a child or youth friendly space and talk about peace? We need to connect to interim solutions, be it access to food, access to shelter, a dignified living, for god’s sake, before we talk about peace. Otherwise that won’t sell high and that is my biggest fear.

Unfortunately there are those who may not be interested in talking about peace, but do have enough money to provide services to people: food, water, shelter. When you provide the basics to a hungry, homeless person, you can then dictate your agenda. And that is also my fear. Our fight is very vicious and not balanced, and when I say our fight, I say the fight for a future versus the fight that we are stuck in.

So through you, through this platform, this is a call to the world. If we want a better world we have to stand up and say we are all equally committed to bringing the violence to an end. And that will not happen only by a soft intervention talking about peace making and reconciliation. This has to respond to people’s basic needs and then take a step forward in the right direction.

When people go on these dangerous journeys, can you describe what happens when they get to a refugee camp, or what is the next step? And the type of work Save the Children is doing to help them create temporary lives in the camps?

Saba: I can talk from my professional experience here in Jordan. Once you are in a camp, you are in a camp. And then you have to come up with a routine that makes you remain sane, feel productive and have a sense of time. Because as human beings we do need that sense of routine; wake up, go to work, do the groceries, go to school. You need some sense of structure. And looking at refugees here – I won’t make you cry over a sad story of a refugee – they are extremely resilient. It takes them a couple of weeks or sometimes a month or two to pull their act together, but eventually they do understand that their resilience is the only way for survival. So they come up with their routine. It may make sense, it may not make sense, but to them it’s the only way to remain sane and to feel that ‘I am alive’. But refugee camps all around the world are fenced, and if you are to live in a fenced fancy area, I wouldn’t say a desert in the middle of nowhere, you would lose a sense of place and a sense of time. So that is my concern. You can make a temporary life in a camp. But that is not a life. And that is the concerning bit.

If you want me to describe Za’atari, there are no colours in Za’atari. I always say I love it when children walk into our Save the Children child friendly spaces or kindergartens because there are colours. We have over a thousand children who were born in Za’atari camp. Their only exposure to the full spectrum of the rainbow colours is a box of crayons in a kindergarten. I am not trying to sound emotional or sentimental, but I want you to understand that when we, in ten or fifteen years time, question why did we have a generation of tough, rough, brutal human beings, that will be my question. They were not exposed to life or colours at the right time. Therefore they had to survive and it is a tough environment, so they grew up tough. And they grew up feeling that they were left to fight a fight of no choice, alone. And now they will seek revenge, and that is concerning, very concerning.

We do a lot of interventions in the camp to explain what it means to communicate in a civilised way. We have bloggers; we have photojournalists trying to keep their life connected to the other world because unfortunately the other world can’t stay in touch with them. But there is a limit as to how many pictures you can upload from a camp, and you can sense the repetition, and they say they can’t find anything new to share with the world. That is the beginning of hopelessness. And that is what we should all stand up and fight against. If we allow a generation to grow up hopeless then I am not sure what future will be waiting for all of us.

One of the things that we as arts and culture practitioners are talking about is how can the arts engage and make a difference; how can we mediate in some way? Of course realising we can’t do things like help with the practical matters of water or electricity nor do anything medically. But storytelling can sometimes be a powerful tool. 

Saba: I can share with you very interesting social media stuff we have been doing with children in the camps and you might find it useful. This isn’t Save the Children trying to dictate what we want the displaced children to tell the world. This is a space that was created for them and now fully owned by them. They take pictures of their daily lives; they connect with other children elsewhere around the world and they blog. And that is to us the simplest form of art. Some of them do draw, and I can share with you brilliant pictures about early marriage, the reflection of girls on early marriage. But we found that a disposable camera in the hands of a child, going around, can allow them to capture the world through their own eyes. And what is really amazing is the fluctuation that you see in their reflection, or what they choose to capture in a weeks period. So sometimes it is the dirt and the lack of water and the despair. Sometimes it is a football match between little kids playing and just having fun. And when you think about it and forget about the context and the fences and the camp, they are just like all of us. They go through turmoil of emotions.

Unfortunately for children particularly and young people, adolescents, trapped in a camp, the overall ‘feeling’ spectrum happens to be extreme. So they don’t have the ability to come to terms with the emotional waves they could be going through. They could be happy and laughing now and then suddenly they start swearing and kicking and hitting. And that is a very natural, psychological reaction to the situation they are in. And that is what we fear. As sane, normal people you can read my facial and physical expression and tell when I am about to get angry. If you are in despair, you tend to flip moods without any triggers, and that is extremely concerning. So this is the art I would want people to see, not the art we choose to use as an expression of the situation, but the pictures, the photos children choose to capture to share with the world. And surprisingly enough, some of them say we hide the worst of our lives because we don’t want people to feel sorry for us.

There was a very interesting interaction between a group of people who came from the UK to visit our spaces in Za’atari camp and a group of children. One of the girls stood up towards the very end of the discussion and said ‘ Why are you here?’ And a gentleman from the delegation said ‘We are here because we would love to get to know you and we are here because we want to tell the world your stories.’ And she said ‘I don’t want your pity because I am tough and strong.’ She is thirteen years old. He is sixty-nine. She stood up, taller than him, looked him in the eye and said ‘Do not pity me.’ This is the beauty of resilience, but how strong can you be, how resilient can you be when you are being broken every minute. You reach a point where you are shred into thousands of pieces, and you recollect yourself and make a full human being out of yourself. It becomes really tough and difficult.

So, yes, I can tell stories about resilience. I mean the fact that they still do wake up every morning and go and collect their bread means that they insist on continuing to be alive. That is resilience.  They are definitely resilient. They are very tough, very strong; they insist on staying alive, for their children, for whatever hopes they have for the future.

How can these stories be distributed so they are meaningful to audiences, so that there can be action in terms of things changing on the ground.

Saba: Share the link. It is simple. It has been online for quite some time; we have a thousand likes. I want these children to know that someone somewhere cares enough to click on this thing and just see what they are uploading. Engage with them, comment on whatever they post. They do really need to feel they are part of a bigger world. One thing we are keen on is not for them to feel that they are left alone. And this is not about UN resolutions; this is not about governments; this is not about politicians. This is about a human-to-human connection. This is about a mother sitting somewhere in Yorkshire wanting to tell a child in Za’atari that she cares for him or her because she is a mother and she has children, or an activist or a journalist or a media person like yourselves saying: ‘we hear your stories and we are telling them as hard and as far as we can.’ It is about that sense of empathy. The human, pure empathy that has nothing to do with funds, resolutions or politics, because all of that simply tears this world apart and creates a growing rift between human beings. All of that – funds, resolutions and politics – allows you to classify and categorise people into enemies and friends and the more enemies, the more the violence there will be. I just ask for your support to help us pull the fences down by carrying the sounds and pictures and images of these children to the world. Let people outside the camp see through the eyes of these children what everyday life in a camp looks like.

We have a Learning Lab session later today at the Counterpoints Arts’ ‘dis/placed’ exhibition in London, and we will be talking about how we can collaborate and join together across sectors to tell different stories about forced migration and global displacement – what is your ask, your message, to the people who will participate in this conversation?

Saba: Separate the human aspects of this crisis from the political tracts. Do not politicise our humanitarian responses; do not politicise human solutions to the human crisis. These are two separate things. We are (Save the Children) a non-political organisation, but unfortunately being born in this part of the world makes a politician out of each and everyone of us. We do understand politics, but this cannot be used or abused to stop or hinder our ability from being as humanitarian as we need to be, and to be out there to help people survive until a solution is on the ground. Separate these two. Second, do not put people’s development on hold until a political solution is agreed or reached.

See Save the Children’s ‘Inside Za’atari’ an iphone photography blog produced by teenagers living in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. This blog was initially supported by Magnum  photographer, Michael Christopher Brown.


Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 15.09.53BiographySaba Al Mobaslat is responsible for the overall direction, leadership, and coordination of Save the Children programs in Jordan for both development and humanitarian response. She was assigned as the Team Leader for the Syria Response in Jordan in March 2012, and led the start-up, strategy and scaling up of the response in Jordan. Saba was educated at Jordan University and at the University of Framingham-Boston, USA. Throughout her 22-year career in the fields of engineering, development and humanitarian response, Saba has worked in some of the most challenging countries and territories in the world, including Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, West Bank, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya and Azerbaijan. She participated in a number of crisis responses and has worked with refugees in various contexts in the Middle East.

Above Image: WE-Women for Expo