Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.
Joud Monla-Hassan is a program officer at the National Democratic Institute specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the National Democratic Institute.
You've done extensive research and work on child marriage in the Middle East. What are some of the root causes of child marriage and why is it so difficult to address those?
The issue of child marriage is extremely difficult to address in general because of the cultural sensitivity attached with prescribing any sort of catch-all solution to a global phenomenon. There are three main root causes of the child marriage practice: economic instability, lack of safety/security, and lack of access to schools. The problem we see with addressing these issues in the Middle East is that the intent of parents who are entering their children into these marriages is not necessarily malicious. Child marriage is being used mostly as a coping mechanism in response to regional crises that are exacerbating the root causes. It’s difficult to provide alternatives to the practice in a space where people are turning to the practice out of dire need. It’s an especially precarious situation for refugee families, who might see these marriages as a “way out” for their daughters living in dire situations, whether that be camps or urban refugee communities. While education does provide an extremely helpful space to combat the issue, access to schools is not always feasible in parts of the region that are facing conflicts and economic crises.
What advice do you have for young Arab Americans starting in the field?
My biggest piece of advice is to always feel empowered to reach out to other Arab Americans in the field. A lot of my mentors, bosses, colleagues, etc. in DC are Arab American, and almost everyone wants to help one another reach their true potential. Connecting with your community is so important in a field like this because it opens the doors to new opportunities, space for collaboration, and you get to learn a lot from people that have been working in the field for some time. It can be discouraging to find yourself in a space where you’re not culturally relating to your peers, so finding other Arab Americans in the field is super important in maintaining that connection to the community. I would also stress the importance of staying true to your identity. Your individual voice and opinions can shift the way people around you are looking at issues. Try to steer clear of molding your input to match what you think others around you might want to hear.
How can everyday Americans support Syrians and Syrian Americans during the ongoing conflict in Syria?
By listening to what Syrian Americans have to say. There have been numerous occasions where I’ve found myself listening in on a discussion surrounding the Syrian conflict where the wants of Syrian Americans are not mentioned. A long-lasting solution to the Syrian conflict will have to come from within the Syrian population, and Syrian Americans are well equipped to bring that connection over into the American sphere of discussion. The Syrian American community has access to so many resources that can directly benefit the people within Syria, so checking with your Syrian American colleagues on what charities to donate to or what NGOs to support is a good first step at providing direct aid to those who are facing the direct impact of the conflict. Unfortunately, many non-Syrian organizations can’t provide aid to the most vulnerable populations, and because of the Syrian American community’s direct relationship with people on the ground, they can provide alternative ways to help those in need. This conflict is extremely complex, and there is a deep emotional connection to it within the Syrian diaspora and Syrian American community, so emphasizing a sense of sensitivity to Syrian viewpoints in terms of intervention is critical.
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