Amid a sea of male construction and site workers in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari desert camp, Oxfam’s female engineer Farah Al-Basha stands out from the crowd.
The energetic 27-year-old Jordanian joined the Oxfam team earlier this year, quitting her job at a private engineering company to work for the aid agency.
Instead of working on military and defense contracts and designing underground bunkers, she now helps to oversee work building toilet and shower blocks and installing water tanks at Zataari’s refugee camp. She’s been involved in drawing up quality, safety and inspection plans; liaising with and advising contractors; and carrying out on-site inspections to ensure standards are met at every stage along the construction project.
“I wanted to work with an NGO to help people here, to try to do something more for the community. For me, work shouldn’t just be about the money,” she said.
But she admits her first visit to the camp was a bit of a shock. “It was the first time I have ever been to a refugee camp and, honestly, it was overwhelming,” she said. “I had only seen this on television, not first-hand. I realized this job was going to be totally different in terms of what it required of me than my previous work.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for me. Helping to change people’s lives is not an easy thing to do. Its also a difficult thing to realize that, as much as you want, you can't help everyone everywhere.”
A role model
In Zaatari camp, Farah is a woman on a mission: determined to show that women engineers are just as capable as their male counterparts and making sure she is up to date on all the latest reading and research to make sure that no-one can fault her. Farah’s day-to-day work involves overseeing and inspecting the work of the (all-male) laborers and making sure everything goes to plan – or if it doesn’t, finding solutions to daily problems.
“Every day is crazy and every day is really busy,” says Farah.
When I visit, she points out wide cracks in the cement floor of a new block which will house toilets and showers. “Look, the cracks are so wide,” she says, pointing to the floor where she has marked in red ink the word “rejected”.
“This will cause problems… the contractors will have to fix it,” she says, shaking her head.
She’s firm but polite as she speaks to the contractors, pointing out the problem. But they accept what she says. “I’m very demanding and quite strict, but they respect me,” she says. “They realize I am not here for a fashion show, but I’m an expert and know what I’m talking about.
“Every day, big groups of women and children follow me as I work in the camp,” she says. “The girls say they see me as a kind of role model and say they’d like to do work like me when they are older.”
“The children in the camp love to see us work: they make sure they are awake and up and about when we arrive in the camp for our day’s work.”
“You have to be firm”
Farah had hoped to recruit an all-female team to work with her: but the first female junior engineer she hired quit after a few days into the job. “It’s a shame. This woman was very shy and it was really difficult for her to deal with the male laborers. You have to be firm.
“There are many women engineers in Jordan, but most choose not to work on-site but to stay working in offices. I’ve been working as an engineer for the last six years and I’m always the only female engineer on site.”
Undaunted by some of the setbacks, Farah is full of plans and ideas. She’s hoping to pass on some basic engineering and plumbing skills to some people in the camp; and to get women in the camp more involved with the work Oxfam is doing.
Spending most of her days in the camp, she says, is a tiring but rewarding experience.
“We’re surrounded by children for most of the day. We walk together, we eat together, we share stories and dreams. When the time comes to leave the camp, we get into our car, tired and exhausted with messy hair and dirty jeans, with our faces a bit more darkened by the sun than the day before.
“We’re thinking about how lovely a bubbly shower will be, but before closing the doors, the kids come and say: ‘See you tomorrow’ and we close the doors with a big smile, forget about how dirty we are, or how lovely this bubbly shower will be and we start thinking about what can we do next for those kids.”