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Advocating for the displaced

Advocating for the displaced

“Aid worker; University of London, SOAS; studied ethnomusicology, Middle Eastern politics, Arabic; songwriter; makes chocolatey things” is how Elizabeth Woods, Artsci'13, describes herself on Twitter.

[photo of Elizabeth Woods in Umm Qais in northern Jordan]
Eleonore Jones

Elizabeth Woods in Umm Qais in northern Jordan. Behind her are the Golan Heights. The Sea of Galilee can be seen in the distance.

During her time at Queen’s, Elizabeth Woods was setting out to become an expert in Middle Eastern music. But for the past two-and-a-half years she has been an aid worker, doing what she can to help some of the millions of refugees who have flooded into Jordan, a country with a long history of aiding people fleeing conflict in their homelands.

“I support the immediate needs of the increasing number of urban refugees,” says Woods, who works in Amman for Jesuit Refugee Service, an international non-governmental organization that accompanies and advocates on behalf of refugees and anyone who is forcibly displaced. “There are about 1.4 million Syrian refugees now in Jordan fleeing civil war, as well as 400,000 Iraqis, 30,000 Yemenis, 3,800 Sudanese, and 800 Somali refugees in need.” For Woods, these statistics represent the people in difficult circumstances whom she serves daily.

As JRS’s project director of urban refugee support, she delivers a program of home visits to provide psychosocial support, referral services, and cash assistance to urban refugees of all nationalities, as well as to Jordanians in need. “It’s like refugee social work, emergency humanitarian aid. We’re trying to respond to basic needs and advocate for refugees, who face many issues.”

Unlike many organizations, JRS is small enough to go to the refugees. The value of this human-tohuman contact can’t be under-estimated, Woods says. “There are two million refugees from many countries, and they feel forgotten. They are glad to have someone just listen. We can’t solve everything and people know that, but that we visit and come back makes all the difference.”

Many refugees can’t go out to access services as they have young children, or are disabled, or don’t have money for transportation. JRS also does follow-up visits every two months. “Situations do change – perhaps the breadwinner has been arrested for working illegally, for example – so new support is needed.”

Woods supervises a team of eight people: six refugees who are volunteers and receive a stipend from JRS, plus two Jordanians. Each day, teams of two, one man and one woman, navigate the hills and valleys of Amman to visit refugees at home. Woods speaks fluent Arabic and often joins them. “We sit and listen to the refugees’ stories, see what they need, and decide on assistance – cash for food or medications, perhaps, or referrals for services JRS doesn’t offer.”

[photo of Elizabeth Woods and colleagues]
Elizabeth Woods (second from right) with JRS colleagues

For refugees, problems of displacement – violence, trauma, medical issues – are compounded by struggles for day-to-day survival. “On top of having been tortured, raped, or having medical conditions they aren’t getting treatment for, refugees are worried about where to get food and whether they will have a roof over their heads,” Woods says.

Other issues include isolation, education for children, and employment: it’s illegal for most refugees to work, and life in Jordan is very expensive. Refugees often live in crowded shacks or unfinished buildings without proper water and sewage. “Yet they welcome us in and offer the very little they have when we visit, whether it be a worried pregnant single mother facing medical complications who doesn’t know where in Syria her husband is or someone who has experienced torture in Iraq or a family that cannot pay its rent,” says Woods with admiration.

Life in Amman, for refugees and aid workers alike, is characterized by anxiety and complexity. The refugees’ stories are heartbreaking, Woods says. “It can be very tough. You hear everything you could imagine and more. People are in extremely dire straits – beyond dire.” What she finds most difficult to deal with, however, is that “not all services available through other organizations in Amman are open to all refugees.”

JRS, she notes, though it was founded by a Jesuit father, serves everyone regardless of nationality or religion. This is unique: many projects are for Syrian refugees only. “It makes sense as there are so many Syrians. But it leaves other refugee populations vulnerable because there is no support for them, an unforeseen effect.”

For Woods, this means she often can’t connect refugees with services they desperately need because of their nationality. “Sometimes I have a very difficult case, where I’m struggling, and I don’t have anywhere to send them. If a refugee needs lifesaving surgery, it’s often difficult if they’re not Syrian to find that care,” she says. It’s a huge frustration that takes a personal toll.

Evening falls in Jordan, and our Skype conversation is interrupted by the very loud call to prayer that is broadcast from mosques across Amman. “I’ll go close the window so you can hear me,” Woods shouts, with a smile. “The call to prayer is really beautiful: especially from the Amman Citadel at sunset, when it echoes around all the mountains.”

So how did Woods, a flute-playing music student, wind up working with refugees? Basically, she says, one thing led to another. First, her interest in Middle Eastern culture was sparked while living in the United Arab Emirates from 2001 to 2005 with her parents, both professors. “Later I applied to the Bader International Study Centre based on a photo in my father’s issue of Queen’s Alumni Review. As well as the BISC, I liked that Queen’s offered one of the only university courses in Arabic language.”

After completing first year at the BISC, Woods arrived in Kingston for a medial in French studies and music. “I focused on Middle Eastern music, which is my passion,” she says. And she got involved with the ethnomusicology club, Kathak Indian classical dance, and the Queen’s University International Centre, which promotes a cross-culturally sensitive learning environment.

Woods’ decision to work globally was influenced by her time at BISC, as was her choice of SOAS University of London for her master’s in Near and Middle Eastern studies, where she studied music and Arabic. “It was such a hub: a vibrant student life, and I got to see so many musical ensembles and meet people from all over world.”

After completing her MA, Woods went home to Salt Spring Island, B.C. Unsure about next steps, she knew she wanted to keep studying Arabic. “Then through luck I was offered an unpaid internship and crowd-funded to raise money to go.”

She went to Jordan on a six-month internship with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which works with Palestinian refugees. There, she worked with Syrian-Palestinian refugees, providing psychosocial support to traumatized kids. “One way to help is through music, both listening and playing.” She stayed on at UNRWA for another six months as a consultant before joining JRS.

Today, her love of Middle Eastern music and culture remains undiminished. “In Amman, I can continue to explore by attending local concerts. There’s so much more I want to do – such as try new instruments.”

As for her aid work, how is it to find oneself in Jordan, a central point in the biggest global crisis of displaced people on record? “This is what I fell into, have experience in, and am passionate about,” says Woods. “I’m fluent in Arabic and have a background in the culture. This is what I do now, and I will continue, as I have skills I think can help.”

By virtue of being born in Canada, she adds, she has more opportunities than millions of people. “In my work, I see so many who don’t have access to education, for example. So I think it’s a tragedy when people who have advantages don’t help.” While her skill set has led her to refugees, others need to pick a cause that suits them and run with it, she adds. “Whether it’s aid work, or looking after an elderly family member, or working at the food bank – that’s how you make a difference and improve the world.”

I’d be overwhelmed if I didn’t focus on what I myself can do to help.

In Amman, Woods’ approach is to focus on what she can realistically accomplish. While wider issues around the rights of refugees and politics are crucial, she says, “I’d be overwhelmed if I didn’t focus on what I myself can do to help. It would be too depressing.”

Building close relationships with refugees is rewarding, she adds. “I want to make a difference at an interpersonal level. I know a lot of my cases by name, know the stories of their lives and what they’ve been through.” These relationships, and her successes, keep her motivated. “I may refer people and later hear they got treatment. A few refugees who were on my team at JRS have even been resettled in Canada.”

Such positive results keep her inspired. Woods recalls a single woman, in Jordan alone, who needed extreme medical support, but it wasn’t immediately available because she wasn’t Syrian. “After we visited her, I referred her to a law NGO for resettlement. I do that only for cases with medical needs, protection needs, trauma, people who are at higher risk.” Later, Woods heard that the woman had been resettled in the United States the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. With the help of the law NGO and community-based organizations, she got the medical treatment she needed. “That is some kind of small miracle!” Woods says with a wide smile.

A small Band-aid on a vast need

While she is optimistic – “Somehow I have an abundance of hope even after being here a few years” – Woods emphasizes realism. “This is emergency work. When I make a referral I never know whether people will get what they require. It’s a small Band-Aid on the vast need. As the refugees do in these uncertain times, I try to take life day by day and just see what happens.”

How does she recharge herself? “Music and chocolate and relationships with people I serve and work with,” Woods replies with a smile. “I dance to music, play music. I bake with chocolate and share with my friends, which really helps. My housemates at Queen’s knew me for my baking. As a hobby, I even started a chocolate dessert website, so wherever I am, I have my recipes.”

Music continues to enrich Woods’ work and her life. “It can be great way to help people through trauma, a type of psychosocial support: just listening, playing, talking about and experiencing music.” As well, she says, it’s a welcome healer for people in the aid sector. “A lot of workers play instruments: it’s a way for us to look after ourselves and to do self-care, because what we’re working with can be so traumatizing.”

Woods says she’s deeply committed to her work in Amman, and the flood of refugees shows no signs of diminishing. “I feel this is the place where I can make some positive change. Working with refugees, every little bit counts. Every connection I make with another organization could change someone’s life – so I will keep working every angle and hope it sets the ball rolling.”

Read: Elizabeth Woods' blog: whatbizeats.com

Follow @bizBwoods

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 4-2017]