Opinion Piece by Nora Berneis: The Cycle of Prejudices Applies to any Context: An English class with Refugee Women.

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The Cycle of Prejudices Applies to any Context: An English class with Refugee Women.

Opinion Piece By Nora Berneis.

It’s a normal Saturday in a Palestinian camp in Jordan, people are walking in the tiny streets, buying food in one of the many small shops, the kids are playing…

A bus from Amman arrives; inside are university students in their early 20s. They are coming to help the poor Palestinian refugees by distributing old clothes that people in Amman do not want to wear anymore. While they are carrying their gifts, a growing crowd gathers in front of the door of a big empty hall, where “the event” would take place.

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At the same time and in the same camp, five girls the same age as the Ammani volunteers meet in a dusty computer room to improve their English with the help of a woman, also from Amman, who enjoys teaching them in her free-time. 

Today’s lesson is about prejudices and stereotypes. The teacher asks: ‘What do people in Amman think about those living in the camp?’ The girls have many answers: “People think the whole camp is a dangerous and dirty place;” “the inhabitants are poor, stupid troublemakers that have no interest in being educated;” and “they spend their time thinking of nothing more than money and the future of Palestine.”

The young women are fully aware that even if some statements about the camps are true for most inhabitants, complete generalizations are impossible.

When asked about the prejudices about people in Amman, this awareness was almost absent. Is it true that all people in Amman are beautiful, all the districts look nice and clean, and that the capital is inhabited by rich people, where each individual family can afford to have their own apartment and are always smoking, drinking and behaving badly? Although they admitted that there may be some exceptions regarding lifestyle, in their eyes it was true that every part of Amman was rich and beautiful.

Both the teacher and the observer thought the same: ‘Poor girls, you do not understand that it is impossible to apply large generalizations in any context.’

After the lesson the teacher said: “Hopefully next time there will be more girls, people here are not disciplined.”

On the way back the observer pretended to herself to be smarter, until she heard herself thinking: “Most girls here are marrying very early, yet these girls are not married yet. It must have been a difficult struggle to convince their parents to allow them to study instead of getting married.”

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So, the first lesson from this English class was obvious: nobody is free of prejudices. The teacher thinks that people in the camp have less discipline than others. Maybe the teacher thought that the people in the camp have to take all extra lessons that are offered to them, in order to defend the prejudices. But would the people in Amman go to an additional class every Saturday after a whole week of studying, just because it is offered for free? Most of the volunteers in the bus from Amman were not able to express their thoughts about the camp in English language. They use their time to do something that is important to them: charity for the poor. The girls from the camp are regarded as undisciplined if they do not use their Saturdays to do what others consider as important to them: learning English.

The observer thought the parents of these girls are all extremely conservative regarding gender roles. These are stereotypes as well. Thus prejudices do not disappear from the heads of those, who are aware of exceptions.

The second lesson is: These girls from the camp are used to be regarded as poor, dirty, uneducated refugees. Marginalization and discrimination belongs to their every-day-life. It is reality that many people, who live in refugee-camps, are poor. It is reality that daughters and sons of Gazan refugees do not have equal rights nor the same opportunities as Jordanians or Palestinians from the West Bank. It is a reality that in marginalized parts of society the rate of criminality is usually high, the houses do not look nice and the level of education is usually low (due to lack of socio-economic advantages) compared to the more wealthy districts.

Apart from the Palestinian cause, the map of prejudices about the camp that the women were drawing fits most poor suburbs, ghettos, slums and favelas all over the world . 

Essentially, inequality is not the fault of the inhabitants, but of society. Inequality is nothing to be ashamed of, but to fight against. Living in a class-society means that the place of birth and the social status of the parents set the frame of possibilities each person has. Even if it is possible for individuals to break out of this frame, it is wrong that such a frame exists.