Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development

Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development

Q&A with Dennis Ardis

Media Unit

In this Q&A session, the Media Unit interviews Dennis Ardis, NYU Arthur Helton Global Human Rights Fellow at ARDD-Legal Aid; whose contributions to the organisation are of great value.

Here are some highlights of Dennis's experience with ARDD - Legal Aid!

Q: Hi Dennis, before we start talking about your work at ARDD-Legal Aid, tell us a little bit about yourself generally?

I’m originally from Edmond, Oklahoma, which is a relatively small city in the center of the United States. I’m quite confident that Edmond is one of the most stable and easy-going places on Earth. In fact, I think growing up in that environment, one in which I felt too sheltered and too removed from life elsewhere in the world, is what first motivated me to travel. My first trip to Jordan was not only my first trip outside the United States but also, surprisingly, one of my first trips outside of Oklahoma at all.  

In terms of education, after lots of indecision, I graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in Business Finance and Accounting and, from the College of Arts and Sciences, a degree in International Area Studies. I first came to Jordan for a summer language program. Having gained a love for travel, I then spent some time studying in France as well.

I started classes at the New York University (NYU) School of Law after gaining a few years of work experience. Gaining the juris doctor degree required an additional three years of study. The last two years of the program were incredibly flexible, which allowed me to focus on international law in particular.

Q: Before your summer internship at ARDD-Legal Aid, did you have any experience in the Middle East?

Yes. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I came to Jordan via the U.S. Fulbright Program. The Program itself, which included Arabic language study and independent research, lasted for 15 months. During that time, and after, I worked for Save the Children and the UNHCR. I also taught and tutored students in a few subjects.

After working in Jordan for roughly two years, I went to Palestine for a full-time position with Save the Children. That experience was incredibly formative for me in countless respects. In Jordan, my focus was largely documentation and protection monitoring; in Palestine, my work included monitoring and evaluation, grant management, and program administration. 

In total, before going to law school, I had gained roughly three years of experience in the Middle East. I entered law school with a relatively clear focus. Thankfully, the NYU School of Law was a wonderful place to build upon my practical experience.

Q: How did you learn about ARDD-LA? And what brought you here?          

During my second year of law school, my wife, Yasmine, was working in Jordan. She knew of ARDD-LA’s Programs Manager from several meetings they had both attended.Based on the work ARDD-LA was doing, she encouraged me to contact the organization.

Thankfully, for the summer after my second year, NYU provided me with funding to participate in an internship with ARDD-LA. I have been really impressed by the organization. It was a privilege for me to come.

Q: How long was your internship with ARDD-LA? And what expectations, if any, did you possess?

The internship itself lasted ten weeks (though I continued to correspond with staff of the organization long after I returned to NYU for my final year).

My expectations were quite high. I knew that ARDD-LA was UNHCR’s primary partner for legal matters. And I knew that few other organizations, if any, could have given me the opportunity to approach issues of human rights protection through a legal lens.

I recall being extremely eager to create something of use to the organization and its beneficiaries. Because I had already lived in Jordan and Palestine for three years, I arrived ready to begin doing so. 

Q: What kind of support did you receive from ARDD-Legal Aid? As a student of law, were you satisfied with the support you received?

During those ten weeks, the Programs Manager and I worked incredibly closely. I could tell that, even from the beginning, she had a lot of trust in me. I recall being amazed by how openly she and other members of the staff accepted my suggestions. For instance, I designed the methodology for a substantial research project (and, ultimately, the underlying paper, the Fraud Report) and, working together, we carried out that methodology quite meticulously. I remember drafting targeted questions for the staff to discuss with beneficiaries. Before then, they’d facilitated countless such discussions. Nevertheless, they trusted in my perspectives and helped me obtain exactly the information I was looking for.

So, yes. In short, I received a tremendous amount of personal support from the organization. In fact, ARDD-LA staff and I had many conversations unrelated to the project that. Even though I had already worked extensively in the local context, I felt like each of them shed light on important local dynamics of which I certainly would have been unawareotherwise.

Q: What are the main outcomes of your internship at ARDD-Legal Aid?

The research project, which included desk research, focus group discussions, and interviews, culminated in the Fraud Report, which details the many ways in which Syrian refugees are subjected to illegal exploitation. I was proud to author the Report, which has gained widespread attention among local practitioners.

One outcome – which, for me, cannot be underestimated – is the amount I learned. The Fraud Report touches on the numerous legal policies and processes that impact Syrians in Jordan. For many practitioners, those policies and process are shrouded in uncertainty and confusion. By working with ARDD-Legal Aid and the Programs Manager in particular, I benefited from information that is otherwise extremely difficult to come by. In that relatively short time, just ten weeks, I feel like I developed some real expertise in the types of issues I hope to address. 

Q: What are the main challenges you faced working on your project?

While I came into the internship with a few years of work experience, I had never developed or implemented a research methodology of the sort we used for the Fraud Report. So, with respect to the project, my real starting point was investigating research methodologies of the sort, as well as best practices more generally. This alone presented a great opportunity for me, and, no doubt, ARDD-LA’s staff had many wonderful ideas. 

Likewise, understanding some local policies and processes, and some local dynamics more generally, can be really difficult. But here too I felt like I possessed all the resources I needed through ARDD-LA.

Q: You recently secured a yearlong grant for additional work at ARDD-Legal Aid. How did the summer internship help you do so?

The NYU School of Law provides many great opportunities for its students in the area of international study and practice. In addition to the summer fellowships, the School offers one or two (sometime three) students the opportunity to pursue a one-year project abroad following their graduation via the Arthur Helton Global Human Rights Fellowship.  It is certainly an honor to receive the Fellowship, and the application process, as one can imagine, is quite competitive.

Applying required formulating a detail project proposal, and, given the successes of the summer internship, I found it relatively easy to do so. The Fraud Report touched on numerous areas of concern, for instance, many of which required more in-depth study. I highlighted this fact, and, based on experiences in Jordan, I proposed several other ways in which I could contribute to ARDD-LA’s work. The Programs Manager and I spoke often during the application process, and ARDD-LA provided the selection committee with assurances that the organization was happy to support my work. Thankfully, we were successful.

The Fellowship has been a wonderful opportunity for me to capitalize on my three years of legal study and, more importantly, to assist ARDD-LA in its mission. Of course, the opportunity benefits me equally, if not more, given that ARDD-LA has been, and continues to be, a wonderful place for my professional development, particularly as it relates to increasing my understanding of the many idiosyncrasies of the Jordanian context. I’m continually impressed by the work of the organization and the caliber of its staff. There is much for me to learn here and, thanks to the School of Law and ARDD-LA,I am privileged to find myself back in Jordan for the next year in ARDD-LA’s Legal Aid Unit.

Q. What advice would you give future interns, or other individuals, hoping to make an impact in Jordan through ARDD-LA or otherwise?

My experience with ARDD-LA was, and has been, incredibly rewarding.First, I strongly believe in the value of working for local organizations, particularly ones like ARDD-LA. In part, this is because I believe that local leadersshould guide local efforts as much as possible. Also, in part, this is because I believe that doing work effectively in Jordan, like elsewhere, requires having a nuanced understanding of local dynamics. While developing that understanding is not easy, working closely with Jordanians –particularly Jordanians familiar with local laws and policies –can help tremendously. Second, I strongly believe that foreigners, like me, must be willing to invest considerable time in the country. Too often, it seems, foreigners come hoping to see and absorb everything in a short period of time. Then, all too often, theyrush to judgment in forming their own opinions. However, the longer I stay in Jordan, the more I understand the need for tremendous humility in this regard.

For these reasons, I would wholeheartedlyencourage individuals hoping to make a difference in Jordan to find Jordanian mentors, as well as to plan on investing considerable time in supporting and in learning from local efforts. When it comes to doing both of these, ARDD-LA has been a truly wonderful place for me.