A Tribute to Barbara Harrell-Bond, A Fierce Advocate for Refugees

“The heavens must have sent her.”  Those were the first words I read about Barbara Harrell-Bond before I had an opportunity to meet her in person.

The words were uttered by a Liberian refugee, and printed in a 2003 profile of her published by Al-Ahram Weekly.  I was reading the profile nearly two years after its publication, just days before coming to Cairo, where I was going to work in the legal-aid organization that Barbara had helped establish.

My first real meeting with Barbara took place at her Garden City apartment, which was just steps away from the same legal aid office. As she blew smoke into my face (she was a legendary chain smoker), and in her signature raspy voice, she asked me “So you think you can save the world? I hope you don’t plan on sleeping much.”

Of course I had no pretensions about saving the world, but meeting and getting to know Barbara confirmed to me how little equipped I was to do so.

I worked for three years at Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance, or AMERA, a charity for refugees that Barbara founded. In the countless hours I spent at Barbara’s apartment, which served as her home, her office, and a gathering place for students, interns, volunteers, and refugees, I came to understand why the Liberian refugee in the Al-Ahram profile said what he did.

Barbara was a tireless advocate for refugees. She literally opened her doors and her heart to anyone she thought she could help. And she expected the same level of dedication and commitment from those with whom she worked. I had many arguments with her after receiving yet another phone call or text message from someone at 3:00 a.m. asking for help, and discovering that Barbara had given them my personal number. “Barbara, I’m not like you. I need to separate my personal life from my work life,” I would say.  She would dismiss me with a wave of her hand, “It must be nice to have this luxury.”

Barbara Harrell-Bond was born in South Dakota and studied music at Asbury College in Kentucky, where she lived and taught music before accompanying her husband of the time to the United Kingdom. There she began her study of social anthropology at Oxford.

She founded the Refugees Studies Centre at the University of Oxford in 1982 and directed it for 14 years. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2005 for her refugee work and was a recipient of the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology awarded by the American Anthropological Association.

She conducted her field work in Sierra Leone and published that research in her first book, Modern Marriage in Sierra Leone. It was during her time in West Africa that the civil war between the Nigerian state and the secessionist state of Biafra took place, and it was her witnessing of the human displacement and humanitarian crisis resulting from that war that turned her interest to refugee studies.

Her book Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees, drew on months of fieldwork among Ugandan refugees in Sudan, and surveys of some 6,000 refugee households residing in camps and outside them.  At a time when humanitarian organizations saw themselves and were seen as altruistic “saviors” beyond reproach, she criticized them as ethnocentric and paternalistic, and responsible for perpetuating cycles of dependency. In Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism, Harrell-Bond and her coauthors exposed the gap between human-rights norms and the mandates of international organizations and the reality lived by millions of refugees in exile, particularly those languishing in refugee camps, and those living at the margins in urban contexts.

Although the idea of a rights-based approach to refugee assistance may not seem novel today, Barbara was one of its earliest and most vocal advocates, at a time when many in the humanitarian sector acted (as sadly some still do) as though refugees should be grateful for whatever assistance they are given. Barbara was among the first to state that programs aimed to assist refugees should invite the participation of refugees themselves, that refugees have authority and agency and cannot be seen as mere passive recipients of aid.

Her criticism of and at times contemptuous attitude toward humanitarian agencies, including and especially the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, earned Barbara many critics. For every refugee, like the Liberian who saw her as an angel, there is someone who cringed at the sight of her nearly non-stop e-mails and text messages. Often she would copy me in these e-mails and suddenly I would find myself embroiled in arguments with UNHCR staff in Geneva over files that Barbara said were not moving quickly enough.

Barbara devoted the last two decades of her life to developing legal-aid programs for refugees in the global south, which she saw as vital to their ability to attain and exercise their other rights. She was particularly passionate about developing these programs outside of North America and Europe, for it is in the global south that the majority of the world’s refugees reside, in increasingly protracted situations, where most of the refugees’ economic, social, civil and political rights are unrealized.

When she set up the legal aid program at which I worked in Egypt, it was extremely important to her that the organization employ as many Egyptian lawyers as possible.  She established the refugee studies program at the American University in Cairo, hoping to attract more Egyptian students to the field. The program also included weekly seminars and intensive short courses in which she pushed for and welcomed the participation of refugees.

Although Barbara left Cairo in 2008 and “retired,” she worked tirelessly to the end. She devoted the final years of her life to building a global movement for refugee rights through the development of central information hub, “Rights in Exile.” Although I did not see much of Barbara after she left Cairo, my inbox continued to fill with her e-mails. Some were group e-mails, and some were written to me individually.  Over the past few years, I have worked in a number of countries and wherever I found myself, Barbara was sure to find me and send a refugee needing assistance my way.

Barbara Harrell-Bond served as a mentor and inspiration for countless students and now practitioners in the field of refugee law. Her efforts to bridge the gap between the world of policy makers and practitioners and academia were unique and invaluable.

I did not always agree with her approach when it came to dealing with international agencies, which I felt sometimes antagonized them to the point of hurting clients’ interests, but I also understood the source of her frustrations. She saw herself as a voice for those not given one, and by God she was going to use it.  She continues to be an inspiration in my work to this day, and she will be sorely missed.

Parastou Hassouri is an independent researcher and consultant focusing on refugee and migration law who has been based in Cairo, Egypt since September 2005.


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