By a Civil Society Worker
The intention of this post is to present challenges and conflicts that arise when managing expectations as part of civil society actors’ work with statusless and marginalised populations. The setting is the civil society landscape in Israel shaped by the protracted nature of this refugee scenario. Balancing our clients’ expectations and ours is an exercise of imagining a narrative together where we can agree on basic premises to discuss together as we try to mitigate our clients’ lack of agency with our own limited agency as civil society workers.
I have been working with African asylum seekers – mostly Eritreans and some Sudanese – living in Israel since 2015 as part of a civil society organisation aiming to support marginalised populations through advocacy and mediation with various local-level state institutions. They have lived in a state of limbo for a decade, under constant pressures and constraints associated with their protracted statuslessness; a decade in such a status quo takes its toll both on asylum seekers and civil society. We’ve built relationships with various stakeholders and work in tandem with other initiatives to fill gaps for each other -for example, where one organisation focuses on legal aid; we will help collect the paperwork they need and ensure clients get to their appointment on time. This is all to say that we are limited in what we can tangibly do beyond advising, assisting, and offering logistical, financial, and emotional support to clients in their individual challenges navigating a liminal life, who themselves often look to us for much more than we can possibly provide.
I will offer some examples to illustrate my points:
The most poignant example is that of clients who hope to leave Israel through a sponsorship program to Canada or somehow be resettled to the US or Europe. After a decade of being ‘stuck’ here, it is clear to most that they won’t be receiving status any time soon, and the meaningful future they escaped for is elsewhere. People have seen many friends and acquaintances make it out for various reasons and build all their hopes on following them.
There is a case of a family who applied with three children, whose understanding of bureaucracy and process can be described as ‘poor’ at best. One day, they approached me with an email they had received three months earlier from the sponsoring organisation, stating they had 14 days to respond to keep their application valid. For them, it is a process they don’t comprehend, and it only crossed their mind when they saw me on the street to stop me to ask for my help. After we secured a special exception to submit late, I was told about the 4th child on the way, which voided their existing application for two adults and three minors.
Contrast this case with another family, who have three children, demonstrate family planning, and both parents try to engage with paperwork and bureaucracy. They made an appointment to bring me an email of a similar nature but also missed their deadline to resubmit information because they couldn’t read the English email. In their case, however, no special exception was made, and I had to tell the father that they needed to wait another couple of years before they could resubmit. It felt like they were being penalised by a bureaucracy they tried to engage with, despite being relatively on top of their affairs.
The process for sponsorship or other resettlement options is quite complex and time-consuming and by no means a simple matter of submitting requests or applications. Many clients feel pressure and panic as they see others leaving for the airport and begin calling various social workers, volunteers – or me – to ask what’s happening with them or why aren’t they leaving as well, often ignoring or oblivious to the years-long bureaucratic process that their friends went through to get there.
The cruel twist, for me, is feeling the need to encourage and “play along” with clients’ expectations that I don’t believe in, to establish even an imagined common ground with a fake ‘Venn diagram’ where our narratives and expectations are conveniently compatible. For me, my expectations of success are tied to how well clients can engage with this bureaucracy and understand their agency and accountability towards it. Our clients’ experiences reinforce the idea that they don’t have any agency or accountability in this process and look to civil society, local government, or anyone who has status as the gatekeepers of their futures and hopes. They expect that if they wait and gain the favour of the ‘right person’, they will get out of here and that until then, they are engaging with us in civil society as a means to that end.
From my end, however, I’m painfully aware of how slim the chances are for them ‘to get out’ and how much work is involved in pushing for it. We engage our clients in various activities and programs focused on education/empowerment as a means towards increasing their agency to support them in pursuing their dreams. Finding common ground and managing expectations in this context is, more often than not, a demoralising experience for everyone involved, as the reality of the situation does not inspire hope. We cannot make any promises nor guarantees, which is the only thing that our clients are seeking. Their resettlement is 100% out of our hands as civil society actors, but our clients have the impression that we hold the keys due to a lack of understanding of the process. Adding high levels of PTSD, varied levels of education and literacy, as well as vastly different standards of accountability to the mix, and the challenge of imagining a common narrative becomes virtually insurmountable.
This is the 3rd blog in a series of blogs related to The University of Manchester-University of Tel Aviv partnership project: Inscribing mobile lives into the urban peripheries of global displacement, led by Prof Adriana Kemp and Prof Tanja R. Müller. The series is based on a visit by the Manchester team to Tel Aviv and Haifa in May 2022.
Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.