Throughout their time in the field, we will be publishing “Letters Home” from our DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted students in Jordan and Nepal.
Week 1: Nepal
Namaste! We are having a wonderful experience so far and can’t wait to share a piece of it with all of you at home:
“Everyone very rich in America, no?” asked the Nepali cab driver as we drove down the bumpy dirt road from Durbar Square to the Monkey Temple. The six of us had just spent the morning of Saturday, our day off, following a self guided tour through the old town section of Kathmandu, exploring the ancient temples, shops and finally eating an artfully prepared Nepali meal at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city. “No, not everyone,” we responded as diplomatically as possible to our cab driver’s inquiry. We couldn’t help but feel slightly uncomfortable at his assumption of our wealth, especially since we had spent the previous five minutes negotiating the price of our cab fare, which we were able to haggle from an outrageously high sum to a more manageable price of 2,500 rupees (only about $25.00.)
We can imagine when we approached the taxi drivers we appeared more than willing to expend money to experience the sights of Kathmandu. Although we felt like locals in our newly purchased Nepali pants (“Boho pants,” as we lovingly call them) and henna-tattooed arms, we looked more than a little conspicuous with Molly’s blonde hair and Lily’s running shoes and Duke shirt which she had paired with her elephant-sprint Nepali skirt. One of the main challenges we have faced in Nepal is experiencing the city without a Western filter.
Coming to Kathmandu, without a doubt, was a culture shock. After thirty-six hours of traveling it was hard to appreciate much of anything on our drive from the airport to the hotel. The roads were overly congested and the drivers were aggressive and liberal with their honking. It seemed that the supposed beauty of the city was cloaked in a layer of dust and poverty. In many ways, our first day in Kathmandu was filled with a sort of ignorance. We projected our Western definition of what a “beautiful” city should look like on a place that in no way could fulfill that requirement and in doing so we completely missed the unique and captivating sights that the city had to offer.
Kathmandu is a beautiful city in its own right and once we took a moment to truly view the city, absent of our Western filter, we were finally able to see that. In our tour guidebook, one of the first days we were in the city, Elizabeth was reading a passage about the Kumari of Kathmandu, who is a living goddess. A Kumari is a young girl, who in Nepali culture is said to have the Goddess Tuilyra inside of her. In order to become a Kumari, you must undergo a very strict examination process. After a Kumari is chosen she is taken to live in a royal palace in which she is waited on hand and foot, to the point where her feet will never touch the ground until she reaches puberty and is no longer a Kumari.
When we first read about the Kumari, we could not help but judge the antiquated practice. It seemed like an old-world practice that had no place in the modern world. Yet, this was again us viewing an age-old tradition through our Western lens. It was not until our trip to Durbar Square, when our tour guide explained the significance of the Kumari, that we really understood the important role that this young goddess plays in the lives of many Nepali people. The Kumari offers the Nepali people hope; just a peek of her through her palace window is said to bring good luck for many years. To the Nepali, this is not an outdated practice, but rather an important tradition that has lasted through the ages, and one that they hope to continue for many years to come.
On our third day in Nepal we felt we reached synergy with the city and culture during a shopping trip to Thamel. After spending a few days shopping in Kathmandu we had become accustomed to politely turning away from vendors on the street selling souvenirs because we did not want to give them the false impression that we intended to buy their goods. Molly was crossing the sidewalk when a woman approached her with a notebook of what appeared to be drawings. She was about to turn her away when she heard the woman say the word “henna” and flash a photo of a beautiful design. Molly quickly jumped on the opportunity to get authentic henna. One by one all of the members of our group sat down to be tattooed. The artist, a young woman named Sirisha, was joyful at the amount of business she received and told us she felt blessed because she had not been able to find a single client until our group. To us this felt like a moment of cultural appreciation and mutual exchange. As we move on to Damak to conduct our research, we hope to contribute to the refugee community, but also build human connections and learn from their culture and experiences.
Molly Howard and Michelle Khalid
Week 1: Jordan
“Not all of us are Bin Laden,” said Dr. Yaroup Ajlouni, the President of the Jordan Health Aid Society during our first meeting with him. We were wrapping up a meeting in which JHAS went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. They cooked us a breakfast of eggplant, hummus, pita, and almost a dozen other Jordanian specialties and walked us through the details of their past and current research projects. We, a group of six American students who for the most part spoke barely any Arabic, would soon be, in Dr. Ajlouni’s words, “coupling” with the outreach team who traveled daily to the north of Jordan to survey Syrian refugees.
Dr. Ajlouni told us: We should not feel “afraid” because Jordan was a “great country” full of “great people” and the research team we would be with was full of “young,” “international” individuals. We should feel comfortable asking them anything about “Muslim culture,” the Middle East or Islam that came to our minds. I found it at first amusing, then surprising, and finally upsetting that such a powerful individual felt at all compelled to convince us to respect anything related to the country or his organization. After all we had done almost nothing with refugees or field research. The only credential we possess is our affiliation with an elite university in America. But is that even a credential? We certainly worked hard to get here and applied to be a part of this program, but this accomplishment is slightly muted by the relative ease that accompanies acceptance to Duke, let alone any university in America, for an American. Our credential is therefore more a testament to our location of birth than anything; yet, this was still enough to warrant several comments aimed at combatting stereotyping from the President of an organization we would be tagging along with.
“We hope that you will not take back many negatives about the Middle East,” he said. If we see any “bad behavior,” he told us to ask so that they could explain it to us within a cultural context.
Despite my surprise at his evident desire to convince us to like Jordan, I fell into the exact trap of fear he warned against. That same day, I went walking in downtown Jordan with one of my peers and it took only fifteen minutes for both of us to call the others in a panic. We had been stared at, laughed at, and even had our personal space violated, but how was I so uncomfortable? I had always prided myself on being confident and comfortable in these situations. I had been in Turkey this past summer and felt like I was used to all forms of street harassment. But I wasn’t—at least, not at the time. I had let a few bad encounters taint my next two hours downtown and I came back to the hotel feeling more upset that the events had affected me than the fact that the occurrences had actually happened.
This is not to say that it was OK that a boy had waved his hand above my head and shoved in to me on purpose or that everywhere we went it felt like all the men around us turned to menacingly stare at us, but everything was indeed exaggerated by an imagined feeling that everyone was intending to patronize us. They weren’t, and it would be arrogant to feel that important. We were, and are, just two girls from the United States travelling to Jordan with of hope of gaining perspective on what it means to be a victim of forced migration.
The next day, I went back downtown and felt completely at ease. Yes, there was quite a bit of staring, but now it seemed to be more out of a fascination with us than out of a desire to threaten us. One shop owner wouldn’t let us leave until he had given us a pin that had the Jordanian and American flags side-by-side. Another old man told us the history behind all of his antiques and gave us advice about places to visit in Jordan.
I now understand why Dr. Ajlouni felt such a need to tell us Jordanians were not all terrorists and to try to free us from our impulse to stereotype because I, a self-proclaimed advocate of the “Muslim culture” as Dr. Ajlouni says, had done exactly what I preached against. I had let my conceptions of proper conduct construct a scenario in which the scary Jordanian shop owner was out to intimidate me because I was a girl from the “West.” I had let my self-importance blind me from conversing with individuals in the city, appreciating the liveliness around me, and fully immersing myself in Jordanian culture.
Week One in Jordan: Thoughts from The Border
“Do you hear the bombs?” One of the health workers asks me. Now that she asks, yes I do. My heart begins to pound, almost matching the rhythm.
This could just be another Jordanian valley, another colossal dip, an ice cream scoop out of the dusty Earth. The land appears just as parched on the other side, the vegetation equally as sparse. But as we walk the incline to the cliff overlooking the valley, this constructed barrier—this border—materializes.
We—our team, the team from Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS) and the drivers— reach the top. We situate ourselves on the ledge overlooking the valley, the muddy river. We stare down at the space that is simultaneously Jordan and Syria. I sit a bit removed from everyone else, still reeling from the discovery that we are bearing witness to the very bombings that have splayed across front pages, consuming global attention for several years now. Situated on this fortress of Jordanian cliffs, my level of security is not compromised.
Yet, the proximity is no less haunting.
Everything below and across feels immaterial from this far away—it seems everything in Syria is a line or a dot or a box. Down by the river, at the flat dip of the valley, there are dots that resemble ants moving around. The movement of these humans seems to span barely a centimeter from up here, yet it represents the divide between peril and sanctuary that now defines this border. Will this be the day that these Syrians cross over into Jordan? Are they, at this very moment, escaping nightmares?
I hope they are not testing fate. The JHAS workers tell us that a Syrian child dies every three seconds. In the same breath, they assure us that Syrians in towns, the very towns we are observing from our perch, are leading normal lives. They go about their daily schedule until the bomb threat is imminent, until their sick child stops breathing for lack of adequate medical care, perhaps even until the very moment of their own last breath. I take this casual presentation of facts with a grain of salt. Jordan is a border state and there is a certain degree of normalization that Jordanians themselves must attempt in order to stomach this reality. But, I am not undermining their truths because they know better than I do the ramifications of this crisis on their nation. In fact, all that I am saying is that Jordanians are implicated in a big way by these tragedies—a bigger way than I could have fathomed before seeing some of these effects firsthand today.
Jordanians can feel the reverberations of Syrian casualties from their side of the valley. But what’s more, the wounded masses, the refugees, are spilling across the border and into their lives. Camps like Zaatari grow by the day as Jordan’s outpost of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees begins to crack absorbing the flood of need.
It is the JHAS workers, more than any individuals I have met thus far, who can attest to this spreading reality here in Jordan. Every day, they meet families who lived among the thunderous bombs, who walked like ants across the lines, who entered the camp and took the waning UNHCR rations. These health workers must normalize these tragedies to some degree. They must dismiss the distant bombings with a “God bless them” and “I hope it is alright over there,” because what more can they say. These are their neighbors.
But, for myself, I must reject this process of normalization because I am not Jordanian and I do not know. I am only just beginning to learn about this crisis and its heartbreaking intricacies. As long as I am here, I must always be in shock. As I meet Syrian families in the places they will work to call home, I must remind myself that I have heard the bombings in their country from across the vast expanse of the valley. I sat on the safe side. But these people, who I am only beginning to meet, have faced the dangerous side.
Week 2: Nepal
Remembering back to our classroom discussions in West Duke before we left for Nepal (what feels like months ago now), an issue that often came up was the notion of “temporariness” within the refugee response system: camps are supposedly “temporary,” dependence on international organizations is “temporary,” and even refugee status itself is “temporary.” However, “temporary” is a length of time that was never clearly defined, and in the case of the Bhutanese refugees living in Damak has meant over two decades of being stuck in limbo, waiting on resettlement or for a decision to be made about repatriation or integration, all under the attentive albeit watchful regulation of the UNHCR, IOM, and WFP. This was a fact that we knew going into the field; seeing it within the context of one of the five recently closed camps—the carcass of what was once Khudunabari—was another story entirely.
After an hour and a half of bumpy roads, we finally reached a jungle, wild with overgrown plants and trees, and a few dispersed huts here and there. The air was hot and humid, and bugs and brambles ran rampant along out legs. This was what was left of Khudunabari.
As we walked through abandoned huts and buildings, we couldn’t help but notice how eerie the empty camp was. Debris of all kinds and remnants of signs made it seem as if the population had been driven out or had had to flee, as opposed to being gradually lead to resettlement or moved to a new camp. We wondered why people would leave behind the shoes and stacks of permission slips to exit the camp that were scattered across the dusty concrete floor of what used to be the management office. WFP presence was unmistakable everywhere: their old warehouses were mostly intact and un-missable in their barn-sized blue iron. Food storage boxes could be found in every abandoned hut and building; faded signs and dusty ration charts remained untouched.
While we were there, we constantly had to keep on the lookout for barbed wire. Walking through the untamed jungle, it would have been easy to get snagged by the wire that lay hidden in the overgrowth. Despite being covered in leaves and vines, it was present all the same, a chilling reminder of the Nepali Bhutanese’s 20-year confinement within the camp. It was interesting to us to consider that with all of the buildings and fences that had been razed, the barbed wire had not been removed from the area. It also made us realize just how much of it there was: around the WFP encampment, the camp management fences, the AMDA building, anywhere that belonged to officials.
It seemed so odd, the forgotten-ness of it all, and even odder the things that had been left untouched: the permission slips and warehouses and boxes and wire, all remnants of the regulation that once was, and visual reminders that nothing about the Bhutanese refugee crisis is truly temporary. Even now that Khudunabari has been swept of all its inhabitants, the memory of their trials, tribulation, and pain can be seen and sensed in what for twenty years was their part of the jungle. If this is the decay that has taken place in two years, what will it look like ten years from now? Will it be as if the refugees were never there or will there always be a lasting presence?
As we consider what officials have been calling “the end of the crisis,” it is important to question what this phrase truly signifies, and to whom it applies. While it may be the end of the road for the international organizations who have devoted twenty-years worth of time and resources to this population, for the people who have been uprooted from their homes, held for over two decades in limbo, and dispersed to every corner of the globe in the hopes that their grandchildren might finally once again be accepted somewhere—for the people whose history and culture has been separated and scattered—the closing of the camps cannot mean the end of the crisis. Even with the refugees gone from Nepal, the after-effects of their situation will live on.
Lily Doron and Josephine Ramseyer
Week 2: Jordan
I am American. I am a woman. These two statements have never seemed to conflict in my past. They are part of who I am and how I describe myself. But during my time in Jordan I have seen the category they have put me in: the exception. Prior to arriving in Jordan I was aware of the stringent gender norms in place. I packed modest clothing, bought long dresses and expected to be treated differently than a man. I knew women had to ride in the back of taxis and not the front. I thought I was prepared to not be treated as an equal. What I was not expecting was to be treated differently than Jordanian women. For we are not expected to follow the rules. We are women. But we are also foreigners.
From the start I knew I stood out. I have been called American, Colombian, Cuban and, in one proud moment, “a little Arab.” I have been spoken to in English and Spanish and have been welcomed to Jordan multiple times from out of car windows and in front of stores. In fact, “welcome to Jordan” is probably the most common expression we hear daily. And as a group we baffle the Jordanians. We are an eclectic mix of race, ethnicity, height and appearance. We clearly stand out. Yet instead of hindering us, our eccentricity affords us with a unique opportunity: a place of privilege. We are not bound to the cultural norms that other women are confined to. We do not wear hijabs. We walk around during the day even when the streets are mostly filled with men. Even when we went to the Dead Sea the only people I saw swimming were foreigners and men. The women sat on the side.
This past week the gender dynamics became increasingly present when we were invited to a BBQ by JHAS. We were told it was an exclusive event and not to tell the other JHAS workers. Puzzled, we agreed, although I was uncomfortable with the situation. When we arrived, we noticed something. This event was not exclusive in the sense that only high-level employees were invited; the guest list ranged to include low-level drivers all the way up to the president of the organization. Rather, it was selective because it was all men. We were the only women. In fact, throughout the day, it was clear that we were interrupting a men’s morning out complete with hiking, meat and other stereotypical displays of masculinity. This is not to say we were unwelcome. The men were all very polite and courteous. But was it culturally appropriate for us to be there? We were invited because we were American students. We were not Jordanian women. Yet, not only was the dynamic uncomfortable, but it also felt exploitative. As Americans, we have the privilege of riding on the coattails of our culture. Everything we do is excusable by our nationality, by our ignorance. But does that make it right?
Through my experience in working with JHAS I have grown very close with the women who work on the outreach team. They are lovely, intelligent and vibrant women. They are college-educated and many have master’s degrees as well. They are clearly more qualified than we are; yet, we have already been afforded more opportunities in the context of JHAS. After the barbecue, the women asked two of us if we went to barbecue on Friday and we mumbled answers, knowing they had not been invited. We were embarrassed that we were asked and they were not. We know that they will most likely never be asked because it is not appropriate. They have told us that they do not dance with men, they do not smoke with men and they do not show affection in public. Compared to the U.S., they are drastically more conservative. But right now, we are not in the U.S. As we interact with these women, it is becoming clear to me that our exemption from the rules further debilitates their status. It is easy to try to pursue life as normal instead of stopping to consider the implications of our actions. Because as much as we pretend, we are not just “one of the boys.” Yes, we do not cover our heads or follow the religious norms for Muslim women. But we can respect the cultural standards of where we are. This is not to say we should pretend to be something we are not. But it is to say that we need to consider the women when we make decisions. I am still learning how to navigate the line between ignorance and privilege. And it is probable that I will not have all the answers when I leave Jordan in two weeks. Nevertheless, I’m trying to understand.
Week 2 in Jordan: The Art of Listening
“Thank you for feeling with me.”
I had just completed my first life story interview in the Jordan Valley, a part of Jordan near the Israeli/Jordanian border (and not too far from the Syrian border either). The man I just interviewed had recently arrived from Syria and was living in an informal camp, just off a dusty highway in one of the most agriculturally fertile regions in the country. As Sasha, Christie and I were thanking him for his time and attempting to gracefully stand up from the green and gold sitting cushions with feet that had almost completely fallen asleep, the man started to speak again. The words seemed to slip out of his mouth: “thank you for feeling with me.”
Did he really mean it? Could we really understand what he was feeling? For days afterward, I did not know what to make of his words.
Later that week I would interview a young Syrian woman, who would tell me, after sharing some of the most beautiful and terrifying parts of her life, that “no one will ever be able to fully comprehend what we have gone through because they have not been through it…nor tasted it.” Her words stayed with me; they captured and illuminated my internal struggle.
I have spent many of the hour-long car rides back from Irbid (a city in the northern part of Jordan where our group meets the Jordan Health Aid Society outreach team every morning) to Amman; for most of it I look out the window and admire the majestic, hilly landscape. Recently, while admiring the scenery, I have begun to find myself thinking about what it means to listen to the stories of people whose experiences I will never be able to fully comprehend. This is because I have neither endured nor “tasted” them myself. When I conduct these interviews with the DukeImmerse group, am I merely gawking at the misery of others so my world will be “irrevocably changed,” as some of my friends have sarcastically suggested? Will it have changed in a sort of exploitative way that would allow me to carry on my life when I return to the States without any weighty feeling of responsibility for the hardship I have seen? The idea of “privilege” is thrown around quite frequently in Duke’s campus and it is no secret that some would consider this “trip” a glaring example of just that, especially when the scope of our research will not bring any direct, immediate change to the challenges facing the refugees.
But approaching our work from that angle also begs the question of whether the opportunity to live one’s entire life without recognizing the hardship of refugees, whose lives before their displacement were not unlike the lives of you and me, is a form of privilege in itself. Are we not lucky to be living in a country where these experiences are not commonly part of the lives of our family, our neighbors, our friends? Close to half of Jordan’s population are refugees (Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian) and so in a way Jordanians are intimately acquainted with the experiences of refugees. But in the United States, the narrative of a refugee is largely invisible, partly because the conflicts producing refugees are so far away and partly because they do not present a large percent of the nation’s population. Yet their narratives are not so far away as we sometimes like to think, as the indirect impacts of these conflicts are far-reaching. For example, when it came to light this summer that President Assad’s regime was carrying out chemical attacks against the Syrian people, there was much debate within the American public sphere over whether the international community should intervene or not in Syria. No matter what someone’s position is, should they not have considered the narrative of those in Syria trying escaping the conflict before solidifying their opinion on whether intervention is appropriate or not? To be ignorant of the refugees’ stories when making assertions about intervention feels inherently wrong.
True, I will never be able to fully comprehend the life experiences of the Syrians that our group is interviewing; the best I can do is to recognize the challenges that exist and at the very best, try to imagine how these challenges impact a human life. But I would hope the inability to fully comprehend does not mean that I, or anyone else, should wash their hands and say “it is not my problem; I do not need to know about their lives.” Does our difficulty in imagining the experience of these people give us an even greater responsibility to hear their stories? Borders can feel like arbitrary lines, and I feel that we do have a human obligation to listen to the stories of people who want to share, and want us to, in some way, feel with them, even if it messy, complicated and not always ideal. Listening is not an endpoint, but rather a starting point in valuing the perspective of those whose lives have come to be represented by sheer numbers of casualties, injuries, and sexual violence. After all, the alternative of not listening and not sharing these stories leads down to a dangerous road of dehumanization and ignorance that is a small human tragedy in itself.
Week 3: Nepal
We might say it is a delicious order of dal makhani and kashmiri naan. Others might claim material comforts and money. Though its definition and manifestations may vary from person to person, most people can recognize happiness when they see it. And though we have seen and heard stories of poverty and struggle these past weeks, we have also seen a lot of happiness. To us, this happiness and contentment is more than just pleasant; it’s a triumph. At a minimum, hearing how a woman who lost her entire home and all of her possessions has found contentment in a 10 by 10 foot bamboo hut definitely puts the “sophomore slump” in perspective. To conclude our “Letters Home” series, we figured we would write about this happiness. Thank you to Nepal, to our research associates, and to the Bhutanese refugees. Though we might not have understood the Nepali language nor been familiar with all your rituals and customs, you helped us understand what happiness means to you.
Happiness is generosity. It means opening up your small bedroom to total strangers who are asking all sorts of questions (some sensitive and delicate) about your life. It’s encouraging those strangers to sit on your bed while you serve them “milk tea” and cookies. It’s sharing your story, and trusting that even though these people you’re talking to have no idea just how painful or challenging the situation was, they will treasure your story all the same.
Happiness is community. It is being able to give student researchers the directions to specific people’s huts because you are so familiar with who lives where in each camp. It is helping your neighbors build roofs to put on their new huts.
Happiness is giving back. It means volunteering at the Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum or the Youth Friendly Center because you are grateful for the support and mentorship that has been provided to you in the camp. It means you believe that the supposed “temporality” of the camps is no reason not to get involved in making the community as vibrant and filled with life as it possibly could be.
Happiness is laughing across language barriers. It is teaching your student researchers that the Monocranti relaxation centers in the camp start each session with “laughter therapy.” It is understanding that laughter therapy is best taught only by breaking into giggle fits that last minutes long.
…And for us?
Happiness is acceptance. It means that when you go to your research associate’s family’s home for the 13th and final day of a funeral ceremony, you allow people to shower you with attention and gifts even if you think you are undeserving or feel uncomfortable. It means understanding that you must take the 100 Rupee dollar bill (~1 USD) that the host folds into your hand because it is a way of blessing you as the guest, and is a Nepali custom.
Happiness is living in the moment, especially when it comes to eating Nepali food. It is eating all four types of fried bread even though know your stomach will be upset later. But it’s delicious, and the women of this family stayed up much of the night cooking food for this occasion (final day of funeral rites), so don’t deny yourself or them the pleasure of you enjoying it.
Happiness is anticipation. It is being jolted awake in the dark hours of the morning by the sound of boisterous traditional Nepali music emanating from a religious parade. It is not feeling dismayed because it announces the nearing of Madan’s delightful breakfasts and the excitement that builds up from lifting the lid of the plastic bowls and revealing the morning’s feast.
Happiness is gratitude. It’s being excited that you can charge your computer because the government has not shut off the electricity yet. It is relishing a shower that stays at a consistent (warm) temperature and water pressure for several minutes at a time. It’s feeling humbled at your privilege when you see groups of men and women carting large, heavy jugs of water back to their huts, while your hand clutches the plastic water bottle you just bought for 20 US cents.
These are only a few windows into happiness to be sure, but they’re at least a slice into what life has showed us the past few days. We’ll definitely miss Nepal. But fortunately for us, scenes like this don’t get forgotten easily.
Elizabeth Hoyler and Krystelle Rocourt
Week 3: Jordan
“Would you like some tea?”
If my mother were giving me advice on how to answer this question, she would tell me in hushed Vietnamese to take the tea, because refusing someone’s hospitality is one of the rudest things a person could do. But always remember: never take more than you should.
My mother’s advice has always worked, and I could always get a sense of where the line between “too much” and “just enough” was. I had even developed strategies over the years from visiting relatives in Vietnam who did not have as much as I did growing up in the U.S.; I would tell myself, “take a little of what they give you, and take your time when you are eating or drinking it.” This is because in Vietnamese culture, if you have a guest eating at the table and they have an empty plate, it means they are still hungry, and thus must be fed more food (even if there is nothing left, you will find something to feed them). If a guest leaves the table with an empty plate, it is a sign to the host that they were too poor to be a good host. So what do I do when I encounter a host who has a family of seven to feed and they live off of UNHCR food coupons in the middle of the Jordan Valley? Because when this host offers me food or tea, my first instinct is to take my mom’s advice. But by agreeing to tea, am I already taking more than I should?
We interview these refugees, and we hear about their monetary struggles here in Jordan. Most of the Syrian families that I have interviewed are on UNHCR food coupons, which they say are not enough, and because this refugee population is unable to work legally in Jordan, their economic situation remains the same, if not deteriorates when their savings are depleted. One woman we interviewed told us that her happiest moments in Jordan are when she gets her UNHCR food coupons, and she has been here for a year. Yet at the same time, with every home I have entered, I have always been offered coffee or tea. Many times, they do not leave us with a chance to refuse—they simply ask us how much sugar we want. Some of the Syrians I have talked to even refer to their culture as one of hospitality and community. Their inability to take “no” for an answer reminds me so much of my family’s culture on the host/guest relationship.
So, what really separates these refugees from my family in Vietnam? The economic status of the two groups is the same. Is it the refugee label that changes my perspective on how I should treat them? Should I treat them differently from my relatives because of this label? In the end, these refugees are still human. They still have their pride and their culture despite their displacement. Am I allowing my hypersensitivity to strip them of their hospitality? When it comes down to it, do I take the tea?
After a lot of internal debating, I choose to take the tea. At the end of the day, I think that treating the refugees I meet as humans, and partaking in their cultural norms is much more important than imposing my opinions of what they should or should not do with their food and water. Who am I to pity them? If they are willing to share, I will not resist, because for me, one cup of tea is just enough.
Two Parallel Worlds
It just takes one click of a button. In my generation, that’s all it takes to share something on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram and all the other social media sites we have all become quite keen to. Some share articles to raise awareness about particular issues, while others use it to show off their worldly knowledge. However, in most cases, the majority of us stumble upon articles while mindlessly wandering through social media, and breeze through them in the same breath as we would read someone’s mundane Facebook status. Recently, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, trying to keep up with what all my friends were up to back home, and came across a Huffington Post article with an interesting title: “Award- Winning Photo Tells Us More About the Syria Crisis Than Any Statistic Can.” Needless to say why, the article caught my eye and I clicked to read more. To my surprise, it was not a photo of a war-torn town or of livid protestors, but of an 11-year-old girl named Dania lying on a street in Aleppo after she was hit with shrapnel. Her face is bloody and she is captured gazing off into the distance, almost as if everything she had ever hoped and dreamed for flew away from her that very moment.
His article resonated with me since incidents like Dania’s are ones I’ve heard all too many times during my time here talking with Syrian families. I’m still amazed every day that I’ve had the opportunity to hear these stories first-hand. All of the families we’ve talked to have been so open and inviting, offering us chai (tea) and sometimes insisting we stay for a meal. It is not uncommon for families to be quite large, since people usually travel with lots of brothers and sisters, children and grandparents. One of the great things about visiting families’ homes has been interacting with the children. They tend to be quite amused by us (being the foreigners we are) but have also been super sweet. They usually sit quietly near their parents, and watch us closely as if observing our every move. At one of the small “camps” we visited in the valley, there were about 30 kids total that ran out in front of the vans to greet us. Up until the moment we got back in the van to leave, the kids constantly surrounded us, insisting they take pictures with our cameras and attempting to speak to us in what little Arabic we could understand. They were so playful and seemed so happy, oblivious to how much violence and corruption has taken over their homeland.
In our interviews, children have been brought up quite frequently as a reason for people to leave Syria. Some have told us that their children had been kidnapped, tortured and even killed. One woman in particular seemed very visibly distraught by the violence faced by children. Her son had been kidnapped and tortured, and she showed us a video she had taken of his bruised body once he was returned to her. Through our time together, she would constantly bring up horrific images she’s had in her mind of dead children, and stories she’s heard of children being horribly mutilated. Also, another one of her children has had nightmares triggered by sounds of planes because of the PTSD from the bombs back home. This is something that took a toll on her personally, adding lots of stress and worry to her life.
Hearing some of these unfortunate cases first hand has been such a surreal experience. Putting names to faces and linking events to particular people has honestly been one of the hardest things to cope with during this experience. Now, the Syrian conflict for me is not just another series of horrific images in the media or something to empathize with and then ‘share’ on Facebook. It is a real hardship in peoples’ lives—people I have sat down and had chai with while they shared some of their most personal and sensitive thoughts. Their children are the faces I have in my camera, the ones I have waved to, laughed and shook hands with. Now, those same children are flashing on the TV screens, and blasted all over social media. Even without this experience, I would still have been just another person in my generation, scrolling through Facebook and coming across the same Huffington Post article. However now, for me, it is not just another article about violence and conflict, but a trigger for the whirlwind of emotions, memories and stories I will always have engrained in my mind.