Arabs As Refugees: Cultural Challenges


Syrian refugee camp in Turkey sponsored by the Red Crescent. (Photo courtesy:

Syrian refugee camp in Turkey sponsored by the Red Crescent. (Photo courtesy:

This blog entry is about the massive problem of displaced people of the Arab world. From Iraq to Syria to Palestine to Libya there are millions of people who have been uprooted from their homes. We read about them constantly but with declining interest because they are just numbers in a violent part of the world.


From my time in the Middle East, I have had first hand experience with refugees and displaced people. Some have made a sort of home for themselves, as the Armenians establishing themselves in Lebanon, Syria, and all over the world. But many have not.

Usually the management of refugees or displaced people centers on the basics, such as food, shelter, hygiene etc. But the psychological impact is rarely addressed.

Middle East culture and particularly Middle Eastern urban culture has been an abiding interest of my mine for several decades. In view of the series of human tragedies that continue to unfold across the Middle East it is my belief we need to take a closer look at the peculiarities of urban culture and how that impacts on the way we should plan for rendering aid to refugees from an urban environment. In this I am concentrating on social well-being but not so much on the materiel as the cultural, with particular reference to the psychological state of displaced people.

Of course many lessons I mention here apply as well to more rural populations and possibly beyond the Middle East to other more traditional societies. But I will speak about my own observations and study.

First of all the the Middle East population is largely urban and has been for quite some time. The vast proportion of the refugees that fled the fighting Iraq and now Syria are former residents of an urban environment Example : over 80% of the Iraqi displaced people are from Baghdad.

My experience in this relates to my observations as the Army attaché in Jordan during the warfare between the Jordanian Army and the Palestinian Liberation Army in 1970. The vast majority of the fighting occurred in Amman, primarily in the Palestinians areas, that encompassed refugee camps which had evolved into semi permanent structures

I also observed, by virtue of personal connections, and studies done on the series of wars and conflict from 1968 to 1991 in Lebanon, initially between the Lebanese army and the PLO, and later among various militias, and finally between the Syrian army and Christian and Muslim militias. Again this was a conflict in which the victims were overwhelmingly civilian and Urban.

As an instructor of Civil Affairs officers at JFK for 18 years I have also milked the wealth of their experience, primarily from Iraq. From my connections with the Iraqi expatriate/refugee community, I have juxtaposed those earlier observations to those of Iraq. My family sponsored two Iraqis into the States and while living with us for five months. I leaned much from them and their friends and relatives specifically what I would term the dispossession syndrome and its effects. (More on this later)

So with that I will detail the primary points I would like to make, not particularly in order of importance or any other particular order.

First of all those fleeing urban war because of the close – in fighting of urban warfare, proximity to protagonist forces, general indistinguishability between fighters and civilians, the nature of the stone and cinder block structures, the fighting in confined areas, there is more fragmentation and greater numbers of wounded people with grievous wounds. The more recent buildings are likely to be poorly constructed and have a tendency to collapse

Secondly for several reasons the urban refugees are less likely to be able to help themselves;
They have fled from statist countries in which the government supplied often-essential urban services and it was the policy of the government to create a dependent and hence compliant society.Refugees from a rural environment tend to be more self-reliant.

This, aggravated by the fact that they are from a mosaic society, one in which certain sects, families, lower strata people are involved specific sectors of talent or work, meaning that the do-it-yourself people are scarce among urbanites.

The division of labor between men and women is also a contributor to the problem affecting urbanites. The women from urban areas are generally much less likely to be able to fend for themselves than women from farming or rural areas where women do much of the manual labor. Moreover the attitude toward manual labor in general is also a factor. Middle class professional people generally look down on manual work. Example: Kuwait where U.S. civil affairs soldiers bringing in grain sacks to the Kuwaitis observed the Kuwaitis standing around expecting the soldiers to unload them.

They are from a culture lacking a civil society, one is obligated to his kin not his neighbor and cooperation among strangers is hard to achieve. One example was the power generators in Baghdad. Because of the lack of power many neighborhoods were forced to set up neighborhood generators. This was difficult to achieve in many multi –sect areas. City folks are often more compartmentalized by the nature of a Middle Eastern urban environment, for example The walled nature of a Middle Eastern city and private homes indicates more often than not the status of urban families being nuclear rather than extended. Often, many in the cities are fairly recent residents in the city and have left their extended families behind; for example Sadr city in Baghdad. All this mitigates against a coherent refuges population being less able to exist without extensive help.

The likely preponderance of women and small children in the refugee camps. Often the men are involved in the fighting, willingly or otherwise, or off somewhere looking for work. Due to the continuing disruption of the traditional societies by war and social upheaval in the past decades the traditional coherence and discipline in Arab families has broken down. In Iraq and Syria there are many one-parent families with the father missing. This has led to greater indiscipline among young men. This leads to a growth of what the Iraqis would call the “sharqi” figure, a neighborhood bully and enforcer. These may well try to enforce their own law in the refugee populations and prey upon the women as well. This is generally confined to the urban people.

Historically, people who leave their homes in the Middle East do not return. Circumstances do not allow it as the winning sect or force occupies their homes. The most familiar people we hear about are the Palestinians now in their 4thth generation of being refugees. Many massive expulsions have been forgotten such as, the Greeks of Asia minor after WWI the Armenians of Turkey, and the Jews from all over the Middle East following the founding of Israel in 1948.

The particular problem here is the cultural property in terms of heritage intrinsically carried by these people. As an example my professor at the AUB who carried around a picture of his family home in Jerusalem which his family had lived in since the 16th century. These people have roots such as the Chaldean and Assyrian Christians of Iraq, dating back centuries. The uprooting from their homes and place of origin is much more traumatic. They have greater degrees of psychological shock. By comparison, we are a mobile society and we do not understand the depth of their of their trauma.

In terms of materiel cultural property, the recent controversy between displaced Iraqi Jews and the Iraqi government over ancient Jewish artifacts from Iraq being returned to the Iraqi government. This brought the vociferous objection of the Iraqi Jews.

When we mention cultural property I cannot think of a region or people who hold greater adherence to the concept of cultural property. The loss of their roots is particularly deep and more often than not leads to depression and a sort of a numbness leading to inaction. From my study and observation this phenomena, evident in all refugee populations, seemed to be far greater in refuges from Middle Eastern urban areas.

Here I think it is appropriate to bring up the subject of what some would call “hidden Law”. One can speak of religious law, secular law, and tribal law, which is generally understood or written, but hidden law is the conventions, folk wisdom, and unarticulated regulations, a sort of rhythm of life by which people live their lives. When these are disrupted there is severe trauma.

A deep psychological problem among these displaced people is their cynicism. They are used to officialdom lying to them and a government and authorities who are corrupt and work on bakhshish or wasta ( bribes and nepotism) system There is nothing that cannot be changed or obtained with the right amount of cash.

This problem is magnified by the Arab cultural attribute called the principle of a scarcity, in which hoarding is a basic obstacle to the concept of community projects and sharing assets. Along side this is the frequently seen attribute of Middle Eastern refugees to develop a dependency attitude and over time their initial gratitude is replaced by hostility to the aid personnel people who are trying to help them.

Finally, the political problem, always presaent in the Arab world, is best demonstrated by the case of Palestinians. While the Palestinian cause is celebrated everywhere in the Arab world , Palestinians themselves have not been welcomed anywhere among the Arab world.

Only in Jordan are Palestinians granted citizenship. But they are excluded from many security sectors of the State, and in 1970 a civil a war between Jordanians and Palestinians erupted, which was a mini but bloody version of the Iraqi sectarian war 30 years later.

Even in countries of similar sectarian affinities refugees are rarely welcomed. Ironically it seems to have been Assad’s Syria prior to the civil war there, that has done the most for Iraqi displaced persons.Now it is the semiu-autonomous state of Kurdistan doing the most for Syrian refugees.

The Shi’a of Iraq have also faced similar prejudices as the Sunni governments around Iraq raised the specter of the Shi’a arc. ( the concept of an expanding Shi’a world led by Iran and Iraq encroaching on Sunni Arab lands.)

In summary, it is the psychological trauma that is by far the most important, and yet very little attention is given to it in studies of the refugee/displaced persons in the Middle East. There is quite a bit on meeting the materiel needs but the cultural/psychological needs seems to be relegated to the too hard to deal with box.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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2 Responses to Arabs As Refugees: Cultural Challenges

  1. Sandra Shinn says:

    I do agree with many things you have said in your posts, but I do disagree with you about Kuwait lacking a civil society. I have lived in Kuwait for over 46 years and have found that many of the myths about Kuwaiti culture come from misinterpretations. For a start, unloading bags from a truck isn’t considered manual labor, rather it could be felt by the Kuwaitis to be pushy or greedy to grab other people’s property. Of course, every society does include lazy people, but one shouldn’t judge an entire society on the basis of a few observations. My litmus test is to make sure I know every single ethnicity in Kuwait (contrary to ‘experts’ Kuwaitis are not monolithic), including subgroups, economic status, religious sect, age, educational level, occupation or profession, and generation, and THEN observe at least three people from each. Sometimes that results in an accurate appraisal.

    • Tex says:

      Ms Shinn Thanks for your comment. I would;d defer to your many years of experience in Kuwait and Im sure you have developed many friendships with the people. I must say however that my experience has been different. My observations over the years has been that the Kuwaiti s have not developed a real civil society…at least not the way I envision a civil society, The treatment of the bedoons, the problems with the Shi’a, the mistrust of the Shi’s even after so many decades of living in Kuwait, and of course the Palestinians. I certainly understand the attitude of the Kuwaitis toward the Palestinians after their actions during the Iraqi invasion. But the Palestinian attitude has been that the Kuwaitis “import and export Palestinians like TV sets” as Yusuf Sayeigh famously said some years ago. I think Kuwait is further ahead than most Arab countries in human rights but as long as Islamic law, tribe, clan, and sect take precedence over civil law I can’t really see Kuwait as a civil society, My experience with Kuwaiti officers is that almost all Arab officers they eschew getting their hands dirty. Just my observation.
      Butthanks for the feedback

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