An Interview with Yale World Fellow, Diala Khamra

Interview with Diala Khamra, conducted Monday, October 7th
Conducted by Elizabeth Miles


Diala Khamra is founder of the Justice Center for Legal Aid based in Amman, Jordan. The Center provides the poor and the vulnerable with access to counsel and representation through legal aid clinics across the country. Diala also works as a private consultant focusing on broad issues related to rule of law and governance, and has worked with USAID, the World Bank, and the Basel Institute on Governance in Switzerland. She is passionate about the roles art and culture play in bringing about meaningful social change and development: Diala serves as a board member for the Haya Cultural Center (HCC) in Amman.

Politic: Why did you choose to apply as a Yale World Fellow?
I love this question. I’ll start by telling you a little bit about myself. I have been working since 1996, when I graduated, so by now I’ve been working 15 years. You get to a point in your career where you feel you need to go back to a program that helps you do some self-enrichment and self-reflection, learn new things, and be inspired to do new things in life. Yale University, in its diversity and the programs it offers—especially the fellowship program that I’m happy to be a part of right now—is the place for all of these things. It opens up our minds to new opportunities, meeting new people, networking, and forging relationships that will hopefully last into the future.

Politic: Could you talk a little about the most interesting people you’ve been able to meet through the program?
Though I’m meeting many professors and renowned speakers as a fellow, the most interesting people I’ve been able to meet are the students. I’m enjoying the seminars and debates, but I find that the students are the most interesting and intriguing part of the university. They bring it to life, and have so much energy; I enjoy engaging in conversations with them.

Politic: Fellows have the opportunity to audit any of Yale’s two thousand plus courses. Out of those that you’re taking, which have you most enjoyed?
I’m taking Global Affairs and Listening to Music, and I’m particularly enjoying the second one. I love the creative aspect of it and how it helps me reflect on and better appreciate music. The way I’m listening to music now is completely different. For example, I’m now exploring the world of classical music, which I hadn’t done before—and I wish I had because it’s so beautiful and rich.

Politic: I’d like to talk a little about the work that led you to become a World Fellow. You’ve previously worked with USAID and the World Bank in Public Sector Reform, specializing in rule of law, democracy, and governance sector projects. What led you to choose that career and these areas of focus?
They chose me, to be honest. After I graduated, I did my MBA. Originally, I thought I would pursue a career in banking, but then the wave of public sector reform really started. We had a young cabinet and young ministers, all reform-driven and who had a lot of energy to change things on the ground. One of my former colleagues was working in one of those meetings, and he said to me, “why don’t you join the team?” So, I went to a financial meeting, just to see what public sector reform was going to be like, especially at the ministry of justice, given that I have no background in law. I was intrigued by the process and the people in the room—there was this sense of excitement that there was something we could do, that we could bring about meaningful change, improve the situation of the public sector, build the interaction between government institutions and the citizens, and just altogether make our country more competitive.
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Politic: You are the founder of the Justice Center for Legal Aid based in Amman, Jordan, which has established legal aid clinics across the country for the poor. Can you talk about how the Center functions?
In Jordan, we don’t have a state-funded legal aid system. Working at the Ministry of Justice, I realized that if people don’t have the money to get an attorney, they go through the legal system alone. So, I brought together a team of individuals who wanted to make change in Jordan, and we established the center with the main aim of creating accessibility, a presence at the grassroots level.
Legal aid is a sensitive topic in Jordan; there is a social barrier to going to court and claiming one’s rights. For women, this is especially true in personal status issues, so it was important for us to be close and accessible to those women and also to protect them. Our model involves identifying a community-based organization that has already established trust and then seeking to partner with them. We are housed inside their premises, and they help us quickly access the local community, spread word about our services, and provide protection for women who seek our services. Anybody walking into the building can go in to seek any service, and I think if we had our own independent clinic, fewer people would seek our help.
The impact legal aid has is multifaceted. It is a tool to promote sustainable economic development, because when you improve people’s livelihoods, you allow them to function economically. In many cases, especially civil cases, we help people access their right to have a financial impact on their lives. In terms of criminal cases, legal aid is particularly important in protecting the vulnerable party. When you guarantee the person is getting a fair trial, you are promoting rights and ensuring justice’s efficient delivery. With a lawyer present, people are held for shorter periods in detention and are not isolated from their societies—their freedom is not infringed upon. I believe that when a person feels their rights have been safeguarded—that there is a social justice system—this person becomes a better citizen, whether through more active participation in the political process or engagement in social work to give back to the community.

Politic: Could you expand upon the importance of legal aid to women, and talk about what you hope to achieve in that aspect?
The problems women face, especially in remote areas, are mainly related to personal status: divorce, alimony, and custody. When they get a divorce, they don’t have any financial means to support themselves or their children. Many of them also suffer from domestic violence problems. Our center helps them transition until they are able to recover. The first day I walked into the center after it was established, I saw this woman distributing sweets—in Jordan, we have a custom that if something good happens to you, you share your joy by buying sweets and sharing them with people who are close to you. This lady bought us sweets because when she first came to us, her husband was beating her and, to increase her agony, torturing her children in front of her. Our passionate lawyers had expedited the legal process in successfully getting her a divorce, winning her custody, and ultimately giving her a new opportunity to have a life. These are the kinds of changes that we are introducing. When the woman was leaving, she told her son they would have to walk back home because she didn’t have the money to pay for the bus. And yet, she had bought us sweets, and so we of course made sure she got home on the bus. I cannot say that in general we aim to do this or that, but it’s these stories that I find very gratifying.

Politic: What are some of the other things that have been most rewarding in your experience with the center?
Helping children. I remember one particular case in which the family really only needed a little support in the process. The father had lost his job and was unable to pay the child’s school fees. As a result, the principal would not allow the child to sit the exams, because the family could not pay the full fees. After negotiation, the father was allowed to pay in installments, but the child was still not allowed to advance. In the second year, the principal insisted that the father pay the full amount remaining, which was about $150. The parents went back and asked the principal to at least give them their child’s file, so that he could move to a public school, but the principal refused. This went on for three years and didn’t transform until our lawyers got involved. This one story that touched me the most—I felt that precious years for a child were lost for just $150. This is not a legal problem but an empowerment problem, and I’m always happily surprised we are able to bring about these different types of changes.
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Politic: What challenges, if any, have you encountered in setting up the center?
The bar association wanted to close us down. The center was originally a personal initiative on my part, before a group of us came together to establish this NGO. We were able to secure a large amount of funding that would enable us to have a nationwide presence. It is unusual for an NGO to raise such a large amount of money in such a short time, and that scared the bar association at the beginning. They felt we were competing with lawyers. The mandate of the association is to safeguard the interests of its membership, and here was this NGO offering legal aid—counseling and representation—for free. So their initial reaction was to protect their members.At the same time, we were reorganizing ourselves. We had become so big that we needed to improve our internal governance. We brought in former ministers of justice, senior lawyers, and parliamentarians to support our work, because we now wanted to focus on policy advocacy. So while these two things were happening, we approached our new members and asked them to help mediate between us (the founders) and the bar association, to help them see our perspective. While we were offering legal services for free, we were also paying lawyers legal fees—so contrary to the bar’s impressions, we were actually creating employment opportunities for lawyers. The process took a few months, but the bar association is now one of our largest stakeholders and essential to our goal of establishing a sustainable legal aid system in Jordan.

Politic: What progress would you like to see from governments and other NGO’s in the areas of justice and empowerment, according to your model?
I would like the government to work more closely with NGO’s and civil society. I feel that whenever a reform strategy is being developed, the people most consulted are former ministers, academics, and private sector people, but the voices of civil society, especially those at the grassroots level, are not often acknowledged. The government designs the policies, but it is civil society organizations that have the best understanding of what should be changed. Briding the gap between the two is key to effective overall reform.

Politic: Your work with the World Bank has included projects funded by a range of bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors. Can you talk about your interaction with different actors in the government or in NGO’s, through JCLA?
When we restructured, we brought in former policy makers and ministers, with the aim of starting our policy advocacy efforts in lobbying the government to adopt a state-funded legal aid system. To start the process of interacting with the government and its stakeholders, we organized the first national legal aid conference in Jordan. His Majesty the King gave us patronage, which sent a clear message that it would be a priority in the coming years to address legal aid. The ministry of justice, judicial council, and bar association—now one of our strongest allies—participated, as did civil society organizations. We brought these organizations closer to the government and held an open national dialogue on challenges and principles to see if we had a shared vision, and, if so, how we would get there.
It’s a very exciting time for us at the Justice Center, because we have so much energy around us—from our government, from the policy makers, and from stakeholders who are now more interested in the topic. Having more than one voice call for legal aid reform gives us a lot of strength, and all governments need to be approached for dialogue. Once dialogue is started, they are your strongest partners. We have seen this in our interaction, and I am very positive about the future and long-term progress towards a sustainable legal aid system.

Politic: Do university students or Jordanian youth often work with you?
All the time. We actually have a partnership with the University of Jordan, and many students volunteer their time, especially during the summer, and even accompany our lawyers to court. For a lawyer to be admitted to the bar, there is a requirement for the amount of time spent working under the supervision of lawyers. So, we are taking this opportunity to pair up our team with junior lawyers to get them accreditation and admission to the bar. The energy and excitement that the youth bring are unique. They always want to do research, get personally involved with our beneficiaries, and find more ways to help them. If we help them on the legal side, maybe there’s an NGO that can help them economically in finding them a job and further empowering them. Students bring JCLA to life and make it a more vibrant place.

Politic: Your World Fellows bio mentions your interest in the roles art and culture play in social change and development. Could you talk about some of the specific projects that you would like to talk about relating to this?
Yes, I’m on the board of the Haya Cultural Center in Jordan. It was the first cultural center for children established there, in the mid 1970’s, and I was a student there. There, I explored the world of drama, music, and drawing, and it was a very enriching experience for me. I think academically, I was able to perform better because of my exposure to arts and culture. Making presentations was easy for me because I was always acting on stage. There are many aspects of art and culture that you only appreciate later on, and you realize that they have contributed to the personal development of children. The center is undergoing renovation, and will open its doors mid next year. This will make it the largest cultural center for children in Jordan, and the potential it has to work with underprivileged children will, I believe, be amazing in creating future leaders in Jordan.

Politic: How would you like to see your career change?
I would like to be closer to the art and culture field, and to the community—though I would also like to continue to do what I’m currently doing. I feel passionate about both legal aid and arts and culture, and I actually don’t see myself doing anything else.

Politic: Is there a single accomplishment of which you are most proud?
That my engagement at the Justice Center is now minimal, or almost minimal. It means we were able to gather a passionate group of brilliant people who were interested in the cause and not in being a lawyer. I think the organization’s at a point where I could hand it over to a team of lawyers who could then carry the work forward. This is the accomplishment I am most proud of: that the Center is able to run and operate successfully.

Politic: Out of all of the people with whom you have crossed paths during your career, is there one person with whom you’d particularly like to share a meal?
There is one former teacher of mine that I always enjoy talking to. She taught me drama at school, and she’s now running a community based organization focused on civic education—changing students’ mindsets and broadening their horizons. It’s always an inspiration to talk to her.

Politic: Do you have a single most important piece of advice that you would like to share with Yale students?
Travel the world, definitely. I’ve talked to students, and they know a lot about many countries, but I think you have a different perspective when you see the country and meet the local people there. And you never know—your perspectives might change.

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