This Barbara doesn't beat around the bush
For the good of it
photo: Ayman Ibrahim
The heavens must have sent her, a Liberian refugee once remarked. Other African refugees speak of Barbara Harrell-Bond in hushed and hallowed tones.
She first came to Cairo as a distinguished visiting professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 2000, since when the refugee situation in Cairo has not been the same. Her apartment in Garden City, cluttered with papers and books, has become the favourite meeting place for the leaders of the various refugee communities and for those students, paralegals and activists who want to help refugees.
Surrounded by a team of helpers who keep her on the ball, Harrell-Bond's overriding impulse has always been to help the helpless and the underdog. She can be querulous and combative especially when she is up against irritating red tape.
Bureaucrats, in turn, often dismiss her as a self-styled professional loudmouth, and resent what they perceive to be her nosy interference. Championing the rights of refugees is a moral crusade. She feels she is responsible for a lot of people, and she takes that responsibility very seriously.
Pumping her fist in the air, the founding director (1982-96) of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, warns that humanitarian aid and disaster relief systems are "ethnocentric, paternalistic and non-professional". She challenges the technical performance of the humanitarian system and its immediate and long-term influence. "If humanitarians do not begin to understand that effective aid cannot be imposed it may well be worse than none at all."
Harrell-Bond fixes me with an unblinking stare.
"If refugees are not to be placed in double jeopardy, if they are not to become victims of aid as well as of disasters, our moral complacency must be punctured," Harrell-Bond stated in her seminal study of the Ugandan refugee assistance programme in southern Sudan, published in 1986, Imposing Aid -- Emergency Assistance to Refugees.
"All the women in my family are scorpios born in November -- my mother and daughter included." She gives a throaty laugh. And, certainly, there is always a sting in the tail when she tells a story.
Harrell-Bond has a reputation for being as tough as old boots. She does not suffer fools gladly but if you can catch her attention she is obsessively enthusiastic.
A respected figure among Cairo's African refugees, Harrell- Bond has worked tirelessly for the betterment of refugee communities. She came initially to head the Forced Migration Refugee Studies Programme (FMRS) at AUC, a position she held until 1 September 2003 when a Palestinian, Fateh Azzam, became the new FMRS director. "I was sitting in my office in Oxford in pain and feeling miserable after an ear operation. Then out of the blue someone came and said if we get money to start a refugee programme in Egypt would you go. I said yes, of course I would."
She had been to Cairo before in 1970, by default. She was working in Uganda and on a trip back to the country from London the plane developed technical problems and she was stuck in Cairo for three days. She had no idea she would be back to stay three decades later.
The Refugee Legal Aid Project in Egypt, initiated by Harrell- Bond and coordinated by her, has operated under the auspices of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) since September 2001.
"Our goal from the start was to train Egyptian lawyers and students in refugee law and legal practice and to improve policies and practices concerning refugees." The project also hopes to train enough Egyptian lawyers and paralegals to deal effectively with the refugee situation in the country.
"We collaborate closely with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) who are now training Egyptian policemen and helping sensitise them to the problems faced by refugees in Egypt."
But relations between Harrell-Bond and the UNHCR have not always been this cordial.
"The 'bush telegraph' operated among the refugees and they quickly found their way to my flat," Harrell-Bond explains. She was inundated with requests for help. A British lawyer who specialises in refugee affairs was enlisted and the project was officially sponsored by the EOHR. Dozens of Egyptian interns help.
"The refugees themselves are a great source of support to each other," Harrell-Bond says.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the work of the Refugee Legal Aid Project is to assist refugee clients to prepare testimony supported by legal arguments and based on international refugee and human rights law. Legal aid provision for the 70 per cent of refugees rejected by the UNHCR is critically important.
"We must provide legal aid since there is no proper independent refugee status determination at present.
"The other difficulty we are facing in Egypt is that Egyptians who speak, read and write English fluently have a much wider job market and it is difficult to entice them to devote much time for refugees."
Barbara Harrell-Bond was born in South Dakota which, she insists, is curiously reminiscent of Africa. She left the United States for Oxford University which opened up an entirely new world for her. She never returned to live in the US. She has mostly lived in Africa since. Her first introduction to Africa was through the conduit of Oxford. "Africa didn't feel strange to me. Many of the problems in Africa are also to be found in South Dakota."
Harrell-Bond studied music in Kentucky. As a housewife, raising three children in California, she studied psychology and anthropology before moving to Oxford to work on her doctoral thesis.
"I was trained at Oxford in what is one of the world's most conservative schools of anthropology," she concedes. But that did not stop her from producing groundbreaking work on the study of refugees in Africa, the continent with by far the most numerous refugees and forced migrants.
It was in Sudan that Harrell-Bond first came face-to-face with the horrors of the African refugee situation. She witnessed "scenes of suffering and death of such magnitude it is almost impossible to describe in words".
Harrell-Bond fought against the abuse of power by humanitarian aid agencies who often treated the refugees disparagingly "rather than consulting with them as responsible equals". She questioned assumptions and preconceived notions about refugees and the "essential problem on which humanitarian relief programmes all over the world are based, that they, the helpers, are rescuing helpless victims".
She soon discovered that in certain instances those living outside the umbrella of assistance were better off than those living under it. Sometimes self-settled refugees feed those in humanitarian assisted camps.
"Most academics are unaware that even today the UNHCR and other UN agencies still largely control the logistics of transportation to, and communication with, many refugee situations," Harrell-Bond stresses.
The poignancy of the African refugee situation led her to a new way of thinking. She could not remain a passive participant observer. She was determined to secure a qualitative change for the better in the lives of African refugees.
She struggled to set up refugee studies departments across Africa. And she succeeded, first in Uganda, then in Egypt.
"In Uganda we trained police in refugee law -- both in the capital Kampala and up-country."
The UNHCR is now introducing the Egyptian police to the refugee situation. The physical and psychological vulnerability of refugees is a key problem. Refugees need recognition of their stateless status. They need to verbalise their experiences so they can deal with the emotional and psychological side-effects.
"It is critically important to provide legal aid since there is no proper independent refugee status determination at present in Egypt," Bond noted.
"Most people who get accepted get resettled. My concern is about the 70 per cent rejected by the UNHCR who cannot go home and are here illegally."
Her journey from anthropology to refugees was influenced by unexpected turns of events. She first started to look at the refugee problem in Africa when she went to Nigeria in the early 1980s to examine the Chadian refugee situation.
"I had first intended to study Chadians on the Nigerian- Cameroonian border," Harrell-Bond explains. She was with Oxford University at the time and had met her Sudanese mentor Ahmed Karadawi. "I am his intellectual parasite," she says coyly.
Her first mentor, though, was British anthropologist Kenneth Little who was committed "to giving women chances to start careers in anthropology, and in researching topics which would today probably fall under women's studies".
She gives enormously of her time, skill and knowledge, not only in her work as a helper of refugees, but also to her students. But she tries to keep in touch with her unconventional family, including her three grandchildren. Her eldest son, Stephen, lives and works in Oxford. Her youngest, David, is the "conventional one" she chuckles. "He is married and has kids." Harrell-Bond's children went to school in Sierra Leone. Her daughter Deborah was enrolled in Annie Walsh, the first girls school in West Africa.
Harrell-Bond is one of the world's most influential "refugee studies" gurus lobbying on behalf of refugees. In 1980 the Chadian warlord and former military strongman Hissiene Habre was marching into Chad and panic-stricken people were fleeing the country. In 1981 in Maiduguri, across the border in Nigeria, Harrell-Bond examined the refugee situation which led her to new discoveries.
"It was there that I realised that African governments don't take responsibility for refugees. They leave the problem to the UNHCR."
They did not question UNHCR approach. Nobody dared to, but Harrell-Bond did. "Engaging in demythologising such a sacred arena as humanitarian work is, as I have come to learn, a hazardous activity."
In Guinea Bissau Harrell-Bond met the Polisario Front representative and learnt more details about the Sahrawi war for self- determination. Later, "[the British charity] OXFAM asked if I would be interested in visiting Algeria to write an update on Sahrawi refugees."
She was thus in Algeria at the time of the devastating 1981 earthquake. She had a chance to see at first hand the emergency responses of the Algerian Red Crescent and military. The experience was an eye-opener.
"Many of those actively working in the distribution of tents and blanket were themselves bereaved."
Harrell-Bond crossed the Sahara to visit Sahrawi refugees in Tindhouf, a remote Algerian oasis. Again she experienced the hardship of the Sahrawi refugee situation first-hand. "Women's equality was a most dominant theme of life in the Sahrawi camps."
Gender issues interest Harrell-Bond even though she scoffs at the notion of describing herself as a feminist.
She drove across West Africa in 1978-80 in a Cherokee jeep.
"Driving slowly through West Africa with only women in the car was very informative ... I am sure we survived only because we were women."
She travelled with her adopted French daughter, Olivia, who was 18 at the time. Olivia first met Harrell-Bond in Oxford just before the journey to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf. After visiting the refugee camps in southern Sudan Harrell-Bond wrote Imposing Aid. The book is a paean to the African refugees and a fierce polemic on humanitarian work.
"Imposing Aid was intended as a critique of the relief model then in place," Harrell-Bond explains. "I was still naive enough about bureaucratic interests in humanitarian work to believe that people who are employed in this field would welcome an opportunity to reflect on their actions and to change practices," she says.
"The whole process of researching and writing Imposing Aid involved a personal transformation. The research for Imposing Aid was designed to be a critical analysis of an emergency relief programme." She would write the book very differently today.
"I would design a different kind of research, focussing exclusively on male/female relations in the context of a specific refuge situation."
Harrell-Bond says there is strong evidence to suggest that when women are given more control over ration distribution the system works out to be more fair. As a result of her research work, and the studies of other like-minded scholars focussed on gender issues some assistance programmes are changing their practices to take gender issues into account. "The power women got from receiving and controlling rations themselves led to an increased number of divorces, and increasing domestic violence."
In her quest to assist refugees, Harrell-Bond has been embroiled in a number African coups d'états, revolutions and coup attempts. Her worst experience was in Kenya on 1 August, 1982.
"It is not a good idea to be in a five-star hotel during an African coup," she warns. There was widespread looting of shops and hotels. She was up in her hotel room on the seventh floor of the Inter-Continental in Nairobi, drinking with her Nigerian-born husband Samuel Okeke and a few friends and colleagues celebrating the revolution. Soldiers shot at the room and hit a metal cable that shattered the door. "It was a miracle that we survived," Barbara muses. But she sustained a deep wound. She was caught in the leg by shrapnel and was bleeding profusely. Luckily there were some Japanese tourists around and they scampered for their cameras and took snapshots of Barbara standing in the hotel lobby screaming for a doctor or medical help. The hotel's management and staff were at a loss when Barbara pulled down her trousers to show them the wound.
"I think they were scared that I would sue the hotel. They wanted me out of the hotel as quickly as possible." She left Kenya for southern Sudan soon after. The wound festered on and showed signs of becoming septic but Barbara survived the ordeal. She carried on with her work with the refugees in southern Sudan.
Harrell-Bond was also stuck in Ghana at the time of the 1979 coup staged by airforce pilot Jerry Rawlings. She decided to make use of her time writing a book on Rawlings. "I collected all his speeches and interviews and wrote a book. Not even his wife was keeping his speeches." The result was Fourth June: A Revolution Betrayed.
During her African travels Harrell-Bond became acquainted with a number of African leaders. She once borrowed a bulldozer from an African president to build a road in a remote backwater. Harrell-Bond wanted to do something for the village, Juhun, in Sierra Leone, where she was doing some research and she asked the villagers whether they wanted scholarships for the brightest of the village's children. "'No thanks', they said. 'We would rather have a road built that would connect us with the capital and chief port Freetown.'" She phoned Sierra Leonean President Siaka Stephens and asked if she could borrow a bulldozer. He readily obliged. Her daughter Deborah, 12 at the time, was with her during that trip.
"I returned to Juhun in 1979 and the villagers had maintained the road perfectly."
From Sierra Leone she went to Liberia.
"I was told that you can't drive through Liberia without bribing. I had never done so in Africa before," she recalls. She cashed 200 one-dollar bills "in case I had to do it," she chuckled. The country was in the throes of anti-Lebanese riots as Liberians angrily demanded the loosening of the economic and commercial stranglehold of Lebanese traders. Harrell-Bond entered the country without any problem, but on her departure was told that she had to pay to leave Liberia. "I'm not paying to leave Liberia," she told the border guards. And, she didn't.
Modern Marriage in Sierra Leone (1975), another of Harrell- Bond's works, is widely considered to be an important anthropological study. Her other publications include Community Leadership and the Transformation of Freetown (1801-1976), first published in 1978. Essentially a study of migration to Freetown, ethnicity, clan and extended family networks, it was based on her 1970 doctoral thesis on Sierra Leone.
"It was when I was reading the proofs of the book that I decided the only Africans that will read this book would be academics. It would be too expensive for ordinary Sierra Leoneans to buy." And she resents the failure of academics to communicate with other people.
More recently her work has focused almost exclusively on refugees. Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarians, focusses on refugees in Kenya and Uganda. And in Challenge of African Disasters (1999) Harrell-Bond highlighted issues previously overlooked, such as the mental health problems of the refugees.