Research with refugees in rural Lebanon

I spent two months in rural Lebanon working with Syrian refugee women residing in an informal tented settlement. We were working on using an IVR system to access healthcare services and increase refugee agency in the healthcare provider/refugee relationship.

While the results of the research were very interesting, there is more to research than just the results. Rarely do we report on the intricate, and sometimes fragile, nature of the relationships we build with the communities we work with. We also leave out in our papers conversations around “What does it mean to be embedded within a community?”.

So I will take to blogging to document all that happened!

Community customs

One of the things that hits you when you first start engaging with such resource constrained communities is the need to find a balance between respecting their customs without becoming an added strain on their already limited finances. These families are earning way below the poverty line yet their customs entail offering food and beverages to their guests. So to pre-empt that I took food with me for all of us to share and water and juice.

Despite that they would still offer me and all the other women participating drinks. I would refuse, saying, “I will drink from the juice I got for all of us”, which was fine at the start, although the woman hosting me did say to me once, “are you worried our glasses are not clean?”.

I won’t lie, I was mad at myself for making her feel that way and then quickly explained to her in a culturally appropriate way that I do not want to be drinking from the beverages that she had bought for her children. She appreciated that but insisted that I drink something.

I then altered my approach. I would drink from the beverages she offers me and give the beverages I had bought to her at the end of the day. It is these small incidents that can sometimes break the trust and familiarity that you as a researcher had spent so much effort building with the community.

Tea drinking

Similarly, the experience made me really reflect on where to draw the line when it comes to my health. During my initial engagements with the women they explained to me how they are all suffering from chronic diarrhoea and it is because the water they have isn’t clean. So when they would offer me drinks I would only drink juice, thinking that that would be the safer option. However, I soon realized, after getting sick several times, that in order to make the amount of juice enough for everyone they would dilute it with water.

I did not want to insult the host again.

I discussed it with a colleague, who has worked in similar circumstances, and she said the answer is tea because that way the water in my beverage would be boiled. Drinking hot tea in the heat of a Lebanese summer was not ideal, but it seemed to do the trick.

Research as real life

These are only some of the things I encountered while doing my field work. It is these things that we need to talk about as researchers working in such circumstances. No amount of reading can prepare you for embedding yourself within refugee communities. However, sharing our experiences may at least help researchers prepare for such engagements.

For more information please contact Reem Talhouk.

Author: Reem Talhouk

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