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(2022-2023) Between a rock and a hard place: the ways in which refugees and aid workers alike navigate agency and identity

by | Nov 28, 2022 |

By Esmee Cloo, Katie Dove, Brenda Fecteau, Ruby Stainforth, Chaney Watson

Our exhibit is a video poster depicting the conflict between agency and identity which impacts aid workers and refugees alike. Our main aim is to show how by changing the ways aid workers interact with aid recipients it can have a positive impact on their lives. We wanted to emphasise that by treating the refugees as people with personal identity, having hobbies and wanting to have a life rather than just survive, aid workers can accommodate needs beyond mere survival. Alongside our poster, we have included our attempts at creating toys out of the same materials children from the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. This is to further prove the point that in refugee camps, especially ones with plenty of children growing up in the area, there is a need for materials like toys to make their lives somewhat like home. 

After being displaced from their homes refugees are often subjected to policies that emphasise survival, rather than preserve their dignity. In fact, oftentimes when aid policies implement excessively restrictive plans in the name of preserving safety it tends to have an Inefficacious effect. The Azraq camp in Jordan is the home to many Syrian refugees. The camp utilises strict surveillance and security measures. These policies ignore refugees’ humanity and sense of identity and restrict them to “bare life.” In doing so they create a sense of hopelessness and need to escape. Therefore, people may be more willing to engage in violence to escape their situation.

While some aid workers observe the need to allow for more flexible implementation of aid relief, others question whether it is ever right to bend company policies to make exceptions. They grapple with the inability to provide culturally significant aid relief to those experiencing crisis. For example, in the Kakuma Refugee Camp (Oka, 2014) in Kenya Aid workers recognize the fact that the nutrition they provide only meets the refugees basic needs. However, they are unable to provide them with food reminiscent of their homeland due to financial constraints.

In response to this shortcoming many refugees sell their provisions in exchange for “luxury” food items that provide them with a sense of normalcy. However, some aid workers see this exchange as a rejection of their aid. Perhaps this viewpoint lacks the fact that people are more than just their biological needs and while they may be restricted by the amount of resources they have to distribute, aid recipients are quite resourceful when allowed to have their own agency regarding the aid they have received. One refugee explained, “ my family, we appreciate the food given, even though it is not enough, and not what we like. But it is  something we can sell, exchange, to buy something we do like. Does being a refugee mean that they can tell us not only where we live, but how we should live, what we should, when we should eat? Do they think that they own us?” This illustrates how important it is for aid recipients to be able to make their own decisions.

The categorization of refugees as “vulnerable” can also cause the removal of their agency within situations requiring any expertise (e.g. regarding socio-cultural specificities) as well as removing their histories (and humanity) and firmly centering them as only vulnerable, nothing more. This ultimately leads to the repression of the aid recipient in a multitude of ways both actively and passively and can drastically affect the quality of aid that is delivered to them. To ensure that aid work actively accounts for the aid recipients’ existence as more than just this “other”, the challenge is to engage with the processes of aid on both a policy and individual level and how they present and work with the aid recipient. As easy to parse a concept as vulnerability is, and as much as it makes for compelling advertisements, this policy-level interpretation of the best course of action for the aid recipient fails to acknowledge the on-the-ground experience that occurs. An example of this would be illustrations from “Design to Live: Everyday Inventions from a Refugee Camp” (Azra A, Raafat M, Meline P, 2021), wherein the capabilities of individuals within the Azraq refugee camps to repurpose what they are given to suit their socio-cultural needs shows an incredible layer of intelligence and creativity that is flattened by the existence of the label of vulnerability, which leads to the improper support of them without attention to their positions as anything other than those in crisis. By showcasing examples of both Azraq creativity and presentations of the aid recipient as vulnerable we hope to dismantle this view that refugees and aid recipients are incapable of existing outside of crisis.

Despite this showcase, as the “flattening” of individuals occurs (E.K. Marino, A.J. Faas, 2020) the failings of aid on an organisational and individual level are made apparent, wherein the both individuals and policy makers don’t engage with the recipients of aid as people but more so generalised constructs that do not pay attention to local histories and that policies don’t have a reason to do so. Whilst we could point to MSF to highlight capabilities of aid to use aid workers agency as official policy, even with their outward constitution as political and non-neutral MSF continued to have scandals relating to Intra organisational racism and continuing colonial policies. This begs the question: what should be done? Perhaps Aid workers should be given more agency to work as mediators between donors and refugees rather than strict enforcers of policies that only focus on survival. Most importantly, more work should be done to empower refugees since they have proven to be quite innovative despite their lack of resources.

To watch our video poster, please follow this link: 


Azra Aksamija, Raafat Majzoub, and Melina Philippou, eds., Design to Live: Everyday Inventions from a Refugee Camp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021).

E.K. Marino, A.J. Faas, Is vulnerability an outdated concept? After subjects and spaces Ann. Anthropol. Pract. (2020)

Oka, R. (2014), Coping with the Refugee Wait: The Role of Consumption, Normalcy, and Dignity in Refugee Lives at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. American Anthropologist, 116: 23-37.