Remembering Barbara Harrell-Bond, a Fierce Advocate for Refugees

Remembering Barbara Harrell-Bond, a Fierce Advocate for Refugees

Remembering Barbara Harrell-Bond, a Fierce Advocate for Refugees

She was a human bulldozer, an activist and scholar who believed that researchers must not remain impassive in the face of human-rights violations.


Barbara’s flat was on the ninth floor of a bland, poop-brown apartment building in the Garden City district of Cairo. The building’s ground floor was occupied by an African bank, whose otherwise sparse lobby hosted a Western Union booth, where on any given day a long line of anxious-looking people clutched plastic sleeves full of vital documents, waiting to receive money from some more-or-less distant home. Adjacent to the bank entrance was a pair of elevators, attended by two somnolent beowabs—Arabic for doormen—whose job seemed to consist of nodding in the general direction of whichever elevator happened to be working that day. It was safe to assume that the beowabs were keeping tabs on our comings and goings for the state security. This is not uncommon in Egypt, then or now, but it should be said that Barbara’s flat attracted an unusually motley assortment of people—Europeans, Arabs, and Africans, of every size, shape, and description. I often wondered what they made of the catholic procession, what louche happenings they might be conjuring.

The apartment itself was unremarkable, strewn with books and accordion files; the kind of prefurnished flat that one accepts as-is because, where to begin? Decorating would take time, and Barbara Harrell-Bond, by then almost 70 years old, never had enough of that. Mismatched chairs, a sunken couch, and a worn dining table that doubled as a work station were Barbara’s furniture. On any given day, a dozen or more people might be present, often paired off in solemn conversation, as if deep in confession. Many of them were refugees who had turned up on her doorstep unannounced. They came from luckless places: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia; Iraq and Afghanistan, too. The majority came from Sudan, Egypt’s southern neighbor, where a civil war had raged for nearly two decades. Is Doctor Barbara here? In Egypt, the marriage of impenetrable state bureaucracy and United Nations pettifoggery had made the process of applying for asylum opaque as well as harrowing, and it was said that Doctor Barbara could help. This was not not true. The rest of us, a mix of writers, filmmakers, earnest law students, errant ethnographers, and sundry others, at once conscripts and disciples, were there to make ourselves useful to this mercurial woman, who was said to be one of the world’s foremost advocates for refugees.

Barbara was a slight, handsome woman with a thatch of silver hair, piercing blue eyes, and—always—two bright patches of rouge applied thoughtlessly to her cheeks. I can picture her now, engrossed in someone’s story as she sends smoke rings into the air. Barbara was a heroic chain smoker, and cursed with abandon, too, her voice a growly Middle American drawl with subtle English undertones. Sometimes the drawl was so pronounced that we wondered if she was drunk. Who is going to help? Her humanity, though voluptuous, was never touchy-feely, but stern. Her eyes would sweep the room as we waited for them to land on one of us. A whole machinery went into action. Tack tack tack on the computer as we took down the story of how an individual had ended up so far from home—and why they couldn’t possibly go back. This last bit was key; refugee law dictates that a successful asylum claim demonstrates a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Some stories—those of a former child soldier from Liberia, a victim of repeated sexual abuse in Sudan, a political cartoonist from Iraq—took weeks or even months to pull together. The resulting document could be as long as 100 pages, and often read like a novel. The best-case scenario for asylum-seekers, rare and coveted, was resettlement in a third country. Life as a foreigner in Egypt—overcrowded, racist—was more often miserable than not. Caught in this precarious purgatory, many refugees considered Barbara a godsend.

And yet it would be misleading to present Barbara as a starry-eyed do-gooder. She was a human bulldozer, her sharp edges conspicuous. An activist and a scholar who believed that researchers mustn’t remain impassive in the face of violations of human rights, she broke all the rules of traditional scholarly work. She knew that altruism was a complicated thing, that humanitarians were never above question. Halos off! She chronicled and railed against their sins, their moral complacency—arguing that they could create as many problems as they set out to solve. As a result, she shook the field forever. When she passed away this past July at the age of 85, a steady stream of letters arrived from around the globe attesting to the outsize effect she had on so many lives. One in particular, from a Liberian political dissident I had known in Cairo, now living in New York, caught my eye: “She changed my life, but she broke my balls, too.”

Barbara Moir was born in 1932 in Depression-era South Dakota, the daughter of a postman and a nurse. A tomboy, she grew up riding horses on the Great Plains. From the age of 12, she served as her postman father’s assistant as he trudged through the thick winter snows, sometimes manning the rudimentary snowmobile he concocted from disused airplane parts. The first person in her family to go to university, she studied music at a small religious college in Kentucky—she majored in voice—where she met Nathan Harrell-Bond, a Methodist pastor, with whom she would have three children. An improbable stint as a California housewife ensued—if you ever knew Barbara it is almost impossible to wrap your head around this fact—although even then, she was head of the church choir and doing volunteer work among recently arrived Hungarian refugees.

When her husband won a scholarship to Oxford in 1965, Barbara applied to the program in social anthropology, where she became the last advisee of the eminent E.E. Evans-Pritchard, revered scholar of culture and religion among the Nuer people of Sudan, among other things. For her masters, she made an ethnographic survey of Blackbird Leys, a housing estate on the edge of Oxford designed for the English working class. This was unusual at a time when “the field” in anthropological fieldwork was presumed to be abroad. Her dissertation did eventually take her to foreign climes, to Sierra Leone, where she studied marriage among that country’s elite. Newly divorced, she brought her children with her. They attended local schools, grew accustomed to sharing their home with half a dozen people at a time, and to waiting while their mother carried out marathon interview sessions under a nearby tree, her cigarette butts forming irregular mounds by her side. She often described this early work in West Africa as “picking up gossip,” but the habits of close listening her anthropological training ingrained in her would inform her own work, and ours too, decades later.

In 1981, an invitation from Oxfam took her to the sand-swept town of Tindouf, Algeria, to conduct research among Sahrawi refugees. The Algerian government had given the Sahrawi, a stateless Arab-Berber people, an unusual degree of autonomy; the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation movement, administered the camps without any external intervention. Barbara was admiring. If she believed that everyone deserved to be heard, she also believed that everyone should be put to work. The next year she traveled to South Sudan, where thousands of people from neighboring Uganda had fled the violence that followed the overthrow of Idi Amin. Her research there, and her indignation at the paucity and corruption of the humanitarian response, yielded a book called Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees (1986), a blistering critique of refugee aid in specific, and helpers in general.

Barbara’s was the first book to substantively interrogate the logic and practice of humanitarian aid, making vivid the aid industry’s ugly paternalism, its unwarranted self-regard. She evoked, in sometimes thrillingly dramatic terms, a cast of characters parasitically attached to a broken system: the refugee, a potentially invaluable human resource only ever seen as a burden; the sanctimonious humanitarian for whom “helping” is not only a career, but also the basis for moral primacy; the journalist whose lugubrious tales of desperate and hungry refugees make for good copy. Barbara tore apart that script. She didn’t spare the concerned citizens back home either. “The very concept, refugee, may be an artificial category maintained more for the convenience of donors than for the people involved,” she wrote. In humanitarian circles, the book was received as heresy.

Inexorably, organically, institutions sprung up around her. In the early 1980s, she launched the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford, the first academic center of its kind, which would become a sort of Mecca for the field. In ensuing years, she grew exercised about the lack of legal-aid organizations for refugees across the global south. She founded a handful of such programs, in Kenya at Moi University and at Uganda’s Makerere University; another emerged from her time in Egypt. In each of these settings, she would identify local talent, eventually sending dozens, if not hundreds, of people to Oxford and elsewhere for training in refugee law. Many of them came back to their home countries to work toward reforming local refugee legislation. “She challenged every preconception people have about migrants,” Zachary Lomo, who ran the Refugee Law Project in Kampala from 2001 to 2006, recently told me. “And she put us to work.” Lomo, a Harvard-trained lawyer, is like many of Barbara’s mentees a former refugee.

In Cairo, where Barbara had ended up in the early 2000s and where I first got to know her, the determination of refugee status had been outsourced by the Egyptian government to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The process was a nightmare, and could take years from start to ambiguous finish. Asylum seekers, many of whom had arrived without papers, languished in a punishing limbo, without access to work permits, schooling, or health care. Deportation was always one wrong turn away. Every day, people mobbed the iron gate outside of UNHCR headquarters, awaiting the arrival of a slip of paper on which their fate may or may not be scrawled. Many came back marked REJ, short for rejection. The three-letter missive came with zero supporting explanation.

Barbara and her team fought the opacity of this system—drafting letters, demanding meetings with UNHCR officials, pursuing any gambit that might make the process more transparent, more humane. When she was denied access, she would push through anyway—often the only woman in a room full of men. For Barbara there was no carrot-and-stick diplomacy—she was intimate with the stick only—but she managed to leave some dents. By the time she left Cairo in 2008, UNHCR had begun offering refugees reasons for rejection—LOC for “lack of credibility,” NWFF for “no well-founded fear.” These, at least, could serve as the basis for appeals. They also, grudgingly, allowed volunteer legal-aid advocates, like me, to submit written documentation in support of asylum claims and to accompany applicants on their interviews—a reminder that UNHCR might be held to account. In 2004, refugees’ right to representation became global UNHCR policy. So much of this is Barbara’s legacy. Many of us couldn’t help but note the high irony of the message of condolence issued by Filippo Grandi, commissioner of the UNHCR, on the occasion of her passing; she had been a famous pain in his organization’s ass, in at least half a dozen countries.

Other things happened in Cairo. She charmed the owner of a contemporary art gallery into hosting karate lessons for young refugees. She brokered a ceasefire between feuding Sudanese gangs, sweetening the deal with a promise of workshops for aspiring rappers. When her teaching contract at the American University in Cairo was up, some friends tried to take her on a beach vacation to the Sinai, where she lasted for all of an afternoon before insisting they drive to the Gaza Strip instead, “just to look around.” In her 70s, she was casting about for her next act. I was at Harvard at the time, and she asked me to look into finding her a residency there. But everything I suggested seemed too rarefied for her. “I need action,” she wrote me in one e-mail. In the end she went back to Oxford.

It wasn’t always easy to get along with Barbara. There are as many casualties out there as there are reverential alumni. She was capable of great charm, but she could also wreck you. The woman had no patience for weakness, nor indolence. (If you stood up to her, she quickened with admiration.) Though she was contemptuous of religion, there was something of the puritan ethic about her. The legal scholar Guglielmo Verdirame, who co-wrote a book with Barbara, remembers how he used to go to sleep having worked with her late into the night, only to find her hovering over his bed at 7 am: Are you going to sleep all day? Apparently she didn’t have much use for sleep herself; by her pillow, she kept the BBC World Service on all night long. Her idea of a leisurely Friday night was a stiff drink and a documentary on sexual violence in refugee camps.

Today, Barbara’s disciples are scattered around the world. Many of us have whole refugee case histories lodged in our craniums years or decades later, replete with arresting images—a precise map of a certain ward in a certain Khartoum prison, a zigzag escape through the Sahara, so many accounts of interrogation and torture. I know I do. We’d get lost in the universe that each case encapsulated, convinced that seeing it to the end was the only thing that mattered. Thankfully, many of the people who worked with her are still in the trenches. One would like to think that they’ve gleaned even a fraction of their mentor’s ferocious wit, nuance, and tenacity as they face down the gravest refugee crisis since World War II.

In her final months, Barbara spent hours planted in front of the computer, perched on her swivel-chair throne, working continuously despite a series of strokes and eye problems. She insisted that e-mails to her be written in size 24 font—apropos for a woman who lived and breathed in CAPS LOCK. When I visited her last October and told her I was working on a book, she had one question only: Was it about refugees? Cases continued to walk through her front door. She lived simply; she’d lent out all her money, and had alienated many of the people she loved most.

She was as busy as ever, though. She attended each trial and retrial of an asylum seeker in Cardiff. She vaped her way through an FGM case while everyone waited nervously for the judge to reprimand her (he did not). She was at work on an article that would provide guidelines for making asylum claims based on male circumcision. Days before she passed away, she learned that she had been called as an expert witness for an asylum hearing in the United States. With her assistant, she scrambled to produce a letter explaining that while her health would not allow her to testify in person, she was of the unequivocal opinion that this individual was entitled to refugee status. The letter went off. But Barbara allowed herself a small complaint. She regretted that she would not be around to see the case through to its conclusion. I can still hear her growly, cigarette-textured voice, that soft, mellifluous drawl: who’s going to help?


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