Nadya Hajj, Networked Refugees: Palestinian Reciprocity and Remittances in the Digital Age (University of California Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nadya Hajj (NH): Since 2004, I have heard increasing lamentations of hopelessness and suffering from Palestinians living in refugee camps across Lebanon. The common theme has been “min a’eesh bedoun amal” or “we live without hope.” The defunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) by President Donald Trump in 2018 (only recently refunded by President Biden in April 2021) and the abrogation of duties by host countries toward refugee communities have meant that Palestinians have had to solve collective dilemmas themselves, including meeting needs such as affording funerals, specialized surgeries, and post-secondary school education.
At the same time as I heard these stories of increasing hopelessness in the refugee camps, I was reading Mohsin Hamid’s poignant fictionalized account of protagonists Nadya and Saeed’s migration westward in Exit West. In the book, he describes the “magical” relationship refugees had with their smart phone devices. Their devices opened up portals to new worlds that offered them the connections and support unavailable in the “real world.” I was struck by the possibility that digital platforms might be serving as alternative portals where Palestinian refugees are connecting with another and meeting their needs in the absence of aid agency and host state support. Exit West inspired me to consider the ways Palestinians living in the camps strategically used digital spaces to encourage transnational connections with the Palestinian diaspora, garner financial remittances, and collectively solve problems that host states and aid agencies could not or would not help solve.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NH: My book considers how Palestinian refugees connect to their transnational diaspora and access desperately needed goods and services to fill the protection gap left by aid agencies and host states. Specifically, how do Palestinian refugees continue to motivate reciprocity, a cooperative interaction marked by the mutual exchange of favors and privileges, and, in turn, spark remittance flows among their transnational diaspora (Lawson and Greene 2014, Mauss 1954, Stack 1974)?
Cooperative behavior can be a challenge for people (Axelrod 1984, Axelrod and Hamilton 1983, Fehr 2002, Fehr and Gachter 2002, Fehr et al 2003). Though kin-based groups with repeated interactions are more likely to engage in reciprocity, refugee family networks face steep challenges because they are separated by time and distance due to protracted violent conflict. Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) may offer a virtual space where refugees reconstitute their community and memories. Furthermore, this space might serve to generate real world material benefits in the form of economic remittances.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, philosophers have observed that while technology might make it more efficient to communicate with increasing speed, the technology itself does not make us nearer to one another. Nearness refers to one knowing they are deeply interconnected to another, even if separated by vast distances. Moreover, it entails the realization that one’s existence is dependent on the other’s support. Technology pessimists warn that technologies that close the distance between people do not always help communities come closer together. Technology gives us the facilities that lessen the barriers of time and distance—the telegraph and cable, the telephone, radio, television, and the Internet. ICTs may allow refugees communities to generate transnational networks but they do not guarantee and, in fact, may impede nearness such that people help one another in the real world.
In order to gain nearness, and all the potential benefits it entails for refugees attempting to connect to their diaspora to fill a protection gap, individuals must relate to a communal truth that people living far apart from one another are deeply interconnected and dependent on one another for their survival, not to the technology itself. In other words, for ICTs to work in helping communities survive catastrophic conditions, Palestinian refugees must find a way to generate reciprocity among their diaspora that resonates with their culturally and historically specific experiences. There are a variety of proximate causal explanations for how communities generate cooperation. Though their particularities may vary based on context, the enforcement of norms or shared understandings of expected behavior in familiar group settings are often identified as key motivators for reciprocity (Axelrod 1984, Boyd et al 2003, Fehr 2002, West et al 2006).
Examining the digital behavior of Palestinians living in camps in Lebanon and the diaspora brings to bear new data on the role of reciprocity and ICTs in refugee community building. Through refugee camp interviews, surveys with the diaspora, and Internet data scraping using Selenium WebDriver and Google Maps API, I found during the research for this book that Palestinian refugees are adept at strategically melding communal forms of social organization and norms of behavior with new technologies to rebuild their community amidst the contemporary catastrophe. Specifically, the simulacrum of pre-crisis family and village networks in digital spaces allows Palestinians living in refugee camps to connect with the transnational diaspora in culturally and historically familiar ways. ICT users strategically deploy “traditional” norms that are not static but are, in fact, malleable and fluid concepts of “acceptable” Palestinian communal behavior.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NH: This book is a natural progression of my study on how marginalized communities solve collective dilemmas in difficult conditions. My first book, Protection Amid Chaos (2016), considered how Palestinian refugees crafted property rights that were enforceable yet malleable institutions in the face of dynamic political economic shifts in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Property rights served as a vehicle for protecting economic assets and encoding communal understandings of Palestinian life rooted in ahl and hamula networks. Networked Refugees moves beyond analog spaces and considers how digital spaces both reaffirm ahl and hamula connections and sow the seeds for new communal understandings that challenge traditional communal gatekeepers and patriarchal structures.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NH: I hope that people with an interest in improving the conditions of refugees, generally, and Palestinians, specifically, will read the book and use it to inform the way they engage with suffering communities—online and in their everyday lives. The last chapter is a serious call to action for the reader and provides a road map for reciprocal activism. First, I want the reader to understand how Palestinians have been solving their own problems using digital technologies. Next, I remind the reader that the suffering of Palestinian refugees is not just happening “over there,” outside of our individual power. Rather, we are interconnected, and I invite the reader to implicate themselves in this suffering. The reader may seek to remedy the injustice by participating in these digital networks of reciprocity, too. Bryan Stevenson’s sentiment that “there is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity,” as well as the work of Paul Farmer, have heavily influenced my message.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NH: Currently, I am beginning new work on how the use of simulations and serious games in the study of refugees and the Middle East can facilitate learning and better policy outcomes for people living there. I have noticed that there is a gap between the awesome scholarship of academics studying the region and the implementation of that knowledge by host states, private companies, aid agencies, and policy makers. Refugees tend to be “securitized” rather than deeply understood and animated by conditions and feelings, just like any other person. I think the solution cannot be to simply write more academic studies in “accessible” ways. I have an informed hunch that the use of serious games and simulations, when crafted using extensive field work and careful scholarship, can bridge this knowledge-action gap and train people to choose the “best next step” when facing a problem in real time on the ground. I have been attending digital conferences, reading widely, and experimenting with new simulations and assessments in my classes to study this idea.
J: Where can we access this book? And would you be willing to drop in via Zoom for a class lecture?
NH: The digital version of the book is FREE and OPEN ACCESS! It can be found here. Please also contact me to access a discussion question reading guide and/or to book a Zoom classroom or virtual lecture visit.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 3, “Reciprocity, Enforcement, and Economic Remittances”)
Samoie villagers in need have found the village’s Facebook page an effective means of mobilizing resources through the diaspora network. In late May 2019, several images of a badly burned child from Nahr al-Bared popped up on the page, accompanied by a short narrative of the tragedy. The young boy had been playing near his father’s workshop when an accident occurred, and he was burned over 80 percent of his body. He was expected to survive with proper medical attention, including skin grafts and physical rehabilitation. However, UNRWA medical aid would not cover all the costs of the procedures, and private hospitals in nearby Tripoli, Lebanon, require payment in advance. The costs of treatment were estimated at roughly US $20,000. To bridge this gap in services in the refugee camp, the Samoie village Facebook users appealed to the diaspora network.
In April 2019, a young woman in her final year of medical school posted a plea on the Samoie village Facebook page for help paying her tuition fees. The demand for UNRWA postgraduate scholarships outstripped the supply.
Earlier, in May 2018, a well-respected sheikh passed away from a stroke on his return home from the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. The community realized there was no communal facility in which to wash and enshroud his body, or anybody else’s, in a dignified way. Again a transnational diaspora campaign began, to raise funds for a burial washroom via digital media platforms like the Samoie village Facebook page and the WhatsApp messaging service. In all three of these cases, the Samoie village community generated the resources to meet the community’s needs.
In the cases mentioned above, diaspora members coordinated efforts to send funds to the camp. For example, US $20,000 was sent in digital payments to fund skin grafts for the burned child. The community found $6,000 to pay for the young woman’s last year of medical school. Contributions of more than $25,000 covered the cost of the communal washroom (yet to be constructed), and the campaign even prompted a cemetery cleanup initiative by a camp religious organization. Contrary to the views of technology pessimists, digital spaces facilitated remittance flows from the Palestinian refugee diaspora, even among second- and third-generation community members who had never lived inside the camps or in Palestine.
In this chapter, I trace how one Palestinian Facebook page uses images, videos, narratives, and memories that reproduce a malleable form of Palestinian ‘adat wa taqlid to encourage connection, mobilize the diaspora’s resources, and fund needed goods and services. Building on Carol Stack’s All Our Kin (1974), I show that patterns of gift exchange among people in poverty are embedded in well-defined kinship obligations and sanctions. Stack’s ethnographic study of a poor Black community during the 1970s, in a space she refers to as the Flats, provides a useful comparative case for understanding poverty, reciprocity, and gift exchange among kin and kin-like groups. She illustrates the way the community invites reciprocity and enforces sanctions on shirkers. Likewise, I show how ‘ayb, or shame, was used as a strategic tool for punishing shirkers and encouraging the members of the diaspora to give money and share resources with community members in need.
Though shame may seem like a weak tool compared to the formal mechanisms that a state might wield for enforcement of behavior, like a police force or established judicial system, in truth, shame is an effective informal tool for managing social interactions and encouraging reciprocal behavior. It is especially powerful among communities living separately from state structures (Kraybill 1998; Kraybill and Bowman 2002; Stack 1974). Drawing on an extensive literature, I compare Palestinian communities to Amish communities in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania that use shame and shunning, or Meidung, to enforce communal norms of obedience, loyalty, and selflessness and fund communal needs.
While Stack’s study predates ICTs, and the Amish people explicitly reject the use of digital technology in most circumstances, Palestinians who are forcibly separated by geographic distance have found a way to use digital spaces to enforce shared norms and incentivize remittance flows. By patterning digital spaces on family and village structures, they generate a “high-context” digital culture in which certain norms are considered self-evident. Moreover, the continuous broadcasting of replicable narratives and images reminds people of communal expectations. To inspire remittance flows among the transnational diaspora, the Facebook page users and village elders in the real world wield ‘ayb to get people to do the “right” thing.
DIASPORA ECONOMIC REMITTANCES AND ICTS
Extensive surveys and open-ended interviews reveal the power of ICTs in harnessing diaspora resources to support the welfare of refugees living in the camps. With the proliferation of ICTs anchored in ahl and hamula structures and traditional behavioral norms, Palestinians in the diaspora have been able to enter into the digital process of community building, reciprocity, and generating economic remittances.
One of the central failures of services in Palestinian refugee camps is the lack of accessible and affordable burial. The cost of washing and enshrouding bodies, two of the main components of the Muslim jana’iz (burial rites), are prohibitively expensive for many people in Nahr al-Bared, especially since host states, aid agencies, and nationalist parties provide no financial support for funerary rites. The jana’iz are a rather simple set of guidelines for burial (see Halevi 2007). The body is wrapped in a shroud, normally of plain white linen. Sometimes a green Islamic banner is draped over the coffin, but simple shrouds are usually preferred, both to defray costs and to emphasize the egalitarian nature of Islam. Many refugees can barely afford the shroud, the burial process, and the tradition of feeding mourners. These are essential components of a dignified burial, and the inability to provide them creates distress and embarrassment at a time when the family is already grieving. To explore how the Samoie community has attempted to solve these difficulties, I interviewed members of the diaspora who had commented on obituary posts on the community Facebook page. My interviews and data analysis suggest that Palestinians overcame the burial-cost dilemma by using the authority of pre-1948 village religious elders to activate patriarchal networks online.
After Nahr al-Bared was destroyed in 2007, the main cemetery and community burial washroom were rendered unusable. Though UNRWA rebuilt the homes of refugees, the community had to construct its own washroom and find additional cemetery space. In the short term, Sheikh Jihad, the revered religious elder in the camp, remedied the problem by asking well-to-do male family members from the same village as a deceased person in the camp to donate sums of money ranging from US $20 to $50 to pay for the washing of the body and provide shrouds for lower-income families (I-115L). As a longer-term solution, Sheikh Jihad set up an informal economic cooperative and engaged in fundraising with members of the diaspora (I-115L).
Sheik Jihad located piece of land for sale in the camp for roughly US $15,00020,000 and estimated the annual cost of running and maintaining the facility at around US $2,000. He began an informal fundraising campaign by placing WhatsApp video and phone calls to village members from Nahr al-Bared living in the diaspora, using the power of the patrilineal ahl and hamula networks to encourage contributions. For example, as a member of Samoie village, he appealed to other Samoie members living in America, Canada, and Europe to contribute money (I-116L). Boosted by contributions from other villages and families in the diaspora, the campaign soon raised enough to cover the purchase of the property and several years’ worth of operating costs. Sadly, Sheikh Jihad passed away in the spring of 2018 and never saw his dream realized.
His death sparked a flurry of Samoie Facebook posts that inspired further remittance flows. On May 12, 2018, six Facebook posts eulogized his passing; the next day, three posts engaged the community in reflection on Sheikh Jihad’s humility and his service to the village and camp; and on May 14 and 15, three posts reminded the community of their duty to honor Sheikh Jihad. These posts were created by different Samoie villagers living around the globe. On May 20, another post remarked that the Sheikh was gone but would never be forgotten. The funds raised following Sheikh Jihad’s death were sufficient to establish a shroud collective through which the community purchases shrouds and makes them freely available to any family that needs one, so that all families can afford a basic funeral for a loved one.
My intention in interviewing diaspora members involved in this online initiative was to understand how often individuals engaged in online activity, the content of their digital conversations with their camp “cousins,” and what, if any, real-world actions this engagement inspired. A member of the diaspora living in Houston, Texas, described his frequent visits to his Facebook village page and his contribution to the fund for burial facilities: “I contributed to the cost of the washroom because it gives dignity to my family. One day my mother or father or brother will pass away, and this space will be available for them and for anyone else in the Nahr al-Bared community. We cannot turn our backs on our people, especially when it comes to offering them a proper burial. We must honor our family and village still left in the camp. It is our community’s way. This is the moral thing to do” (I-126L).
Another member of the Samoie village diaspora living in Boston, Massachusetts, noted:
“I am a fortunate one. I got out of the camp and I have a good life for myself in the United States. My cousins are struggling in Nahr al-Bared to make ends meet. My cousin, just my same age, suffered a miscarriage and a stillbirth. Had she lived in the West with better access to medical care like me, maybe her children would have lived. Both times I felt the family and village must embrace her and pay for their burial, even if we are far away physically. We must care for ourselves because no one else will help us. I paid for the washroom, in part, to keep women like my cousin supported, but also I feel more deeply to be a Palestinian woman connected to my roots . . . even though I live far away in Boston.” (I-129L)
Palestinian refugees in the diaspora actively engaged with the community online and felt empathetic identification with people living in the camps. They were motivated to support those in the camps because they could imagine themselves in the same position, struggling to care for a loved one who had recently passed away.