This summer, KIE is sending rising junior Elizabeth Hoyler to Nepal for an internship with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in the Bhutanese refugee camps outside Damak in Jhapa district, Nepal. Responsibilities of the internship will include program evaluation, data collection, and case study writing. Hoyler is majoring in Economics and Global Health. She became passionate about refugee work after spending her semester in Kenan’s DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted program, including a month in the very same camps she will be working in this summer. Interested in international development and humanitarian aid organizations, she is excited to work with one of the international organizations she has long admired.
You may also read letters home from 2013 intern Virginia Dillon.
So, it is no surprise that I jumped at the chance to return here and work with the UN’s World Food Programme in the Bhutanese refugee camps for the duration of the summer. I felt confident that it would be a charged, challenging, and fulfilling experience. So far I have not been disappointed. I returned to Damak three weeks ago, and still, every morning I wake up enchanted with this place and the people who make it buzz. I truly love being here, even though (between you and me) I have never sweat so much in my life. It. Is. Hot.
I’m here on my own until August. But don’t be fooled! That hardly means I am alone. Already I have uncovered a treasure trove of people with stories that both humble and inspire. If the past three weeks have showed me anything, it is that I can expect the remaining nine to be jam-packed with adventure.
If you’re interested in hearing about my experiences, including all the quirky characters I meet or any consequent musings, stay tuned to this page for my letters home to Kenan; you can read my first letter next week. I’m also keeping a blog if you’d like to read more. My hope is that these can be a small offering of thanks to all the people who are enriching my experience here, as well as to the Kenan team who made this incredible opportunity possible in the first place.
I am routinely stared at on the streets of Damak as if I’m some moving roadside attraction that jingles and toots. So, sitting in the car with my WFP colleagues, I was grateful not to be the object of so much attention. I was at peace.
Until they asked me a simple (but loaded) question. “How much do you pay per night at the guest house? It is very expensive, yeah?”
Yikes. “Uh, I don’t really remember,” I fibbed. And then after a long pause when that was clearly not satisfying to these guys I added desperately, “About 1200 Rupees?” I asked it as a question though I knew the answer. Trying to break the silence I added, “But yeah, very expensive. Thank goodness my school pays for it.” I felt ashamed.
1200 Rupees is about 12 USD. Before arriving to Nepal, when I had realized how inexpensive my costs were going to be, I could not get over it. That cheap? But sitting in the car, my nightly rate made me cringe. The conversation only became more uncomfortable when I learned that a “very good” monthly salary, in Damak anyway, was around 9,000 Rupees ($90). How privileged I am to have originally thought that 1200 Rupees was cheap.
When I think about it, the relationship I have to my privilege is strange. On the one hand, as this moment in the car attested, it makes me feel uncomfortable. Embarrassed. Undeserving. But these past few weeks have also illustrated another side of my relationship to privilege that makes these feelings of discomfort, “first world problems” if you will, feel even more absurd: I am very, very dependent on it.
This dependency is everywhere. In little things, like the fact that I cannot sleep without an electric fan on nightly; my neighbors in the bamboo hut have no doubt learned to do without. Or my morning ritual of lathering on all-natural, non-chemical bug spray. Or perhaps more conspicuous is the silver MacBook that I type this entry on.
I realize in moments like these that the affluent world I come from is stamped all over me… It’s not just my skin color that shouts foreigner, but also the fact that I “need” the fan, the bug spray, the laptop.
What’s worse is that while I can admit that I am dependent on these luxuries—and that they are, in fact, luxuries—I do not want to give them up. And though I doubt people would expect me to, I still wonder, should I?
All I can say, whole-heartedly, is that once again I have been floored with humility.
I say “once again” because this is hardly the first time I have become painfully aware of my own advantages in the world. When I did research in rural Guatemala, for example, harsh, naked poverty was ubiquitous. I remember sitting by the side of the road eating my lunch, while two small boys walked by with huge loads of firewood on their backs. They were hunched over from the weight, and sweating though their ripped, dirty clothes even though it was a chilly day. Watching them with my mouth full of tortilla and beans, I sure felt my privilege then.
But that moment in Guat felt different than the one I shared in the car with my WFP colleagues. There, I saw my privilege on a very fundamental level. How lucky I am to have food to eat. I never had to skip school to get firewood. Though I was saddened and humbled at the sight of the boys, I did not challenge my lunch that day in the way that I currently do my living arrangements in Nepal. After all, I actually needed my lunch. But the fan? The hippie bug spray? I am not so confident, especially after seeing the ways in which many of the people here live (without).
We’ve all been told not to sweat the small stuff. It’s just a fan. Well, it’s too late. I’m already sweating (haven’t stopped since I got here). And it’s not “just” a fan.
A local friend of mine graciously agreed to show me to the hospital. “It is my duty,” he said matter-of-factly. And how lucky I am that he felt that way; I desperately depended on him all day as I followed him through the hospital like some mute, feverish duckling.
In fact, I don’t think I would have been able to find the hospital in the first place. It looked like a very large, warmly-colored yellow house. The only thing conspicuous about it was the large crowd of rickshaws by its front gate and, upon closer inspection, a ticket booth. After we bought my ticket to see the doctor (all of $3), we passed by an open barbed wire metal gate. Inside, the hospital buildings were arranged around a cement courtyard in which there stood a large, circular bamboo gazebo and several wooden benches of varying condition.
Everything about this place felt different than hospitals I was used to. Less clean. More peaceful. No “appointments” to be made or show up for. More people, of all ages, huddled around the doors of the doctor’s office with several peeking in on the patient currently inside to see why he or she was taking so long?
As a global health student, I’ve looked at healthcare systems all over the world. I have studied illnesses and epidemics, and factors that make individuals vulnerable. Never, though, have I gone so far into my studies as to become the patient – the one who is in the never-ending queue, hoping to see the elusive doctor who is already 45 minutes late for work; the one who cannot speak or read the language, which makes finding the lab to get a blood test particularly challenging; the one who is sick enough that standing causes near-fainting; the one who is vulnerable.
The UNHCR ranks Damak as a “D” duty station, which is the second lowest grade. (“E” stations are wastelands. Think South Sudan, Somalia…) Poor health facilities is one of the reasons that Damak is ranked a “D.”And though the rational part of me knew that I would get the help I needed—that I was not, in fact, going to die in Damak—I still felt scared.
Amidst this feverish melodrama of mine, everyone kept staring at me while I waited, right alongside them, for the doctor. I wondered why I was so fascinating. Was it just because I was a foreigner? Or was it because I was a foreigner at this local hospital? Yet two can play the staring game. And so I began to look around. I wondered what ailments the other patients were suffering. I saw a pair of tired-looking parents. One was holding a baby son with purple Converse sneakers. The other held several x-rays. Would their little boy be able to get the care he needed?
I won’t pretend that I truly understand what it’s like to desperately need help, and worry that you still might not get it. But I won’t forget that little boy or his purple shoes. And I won’t stop hoping that he got, just as I had, all the attention he needed. It’s not that I wouldn’t have cared for the boy’s wellbeing before being in the hospital myself. But, as we both waited to be ushered into the air-conditioned examination room, he and I were put on a level playing field. In some small way that is so subtle it can almost only be felt and not described, the boy and his family and I now had common ground. A common ground I have been searching for since I arrived to Nepal. I wasn’t American; they weren’t Nepali. We were people. End of story. It didn’t matter that we were suffering different ailments, had different life stories and probably different futures. We couldn’t speak, but still, we could relate. And in a way, that feels more powerful than words. That’s a connection worth craving.
My hefty infection worked like an odd charm. And while I don’t recommend getting yourself sick as a way to feel more connected with others, I won’t deny that it worked for me. Several days and many antibiotics later, I have this nagging thought, though. What if the little boy hasn’t been healed? If we truly had that commonality between us, it seems wrong that our outcomes could have been so wildly different. The boy with the purple shoes and his tired parents, their story has become real and significant to me, an otherwise stranger. Hopefully it has a good ending.
Friday, June 20th was World Refugee Day.
I came to the camps alone that Friday. I had been invited to join the celebrations as a WFP staff member. When I arrived, I was first at a loss for where the central celebrations would be taking place, so I blindly followed the horde of people over to a large blue tarp that was strung over a bright green, wooden stage. (Lucky we had the tarp because only a few minutes after I arrived, a monsoon started.) What followed was joyful, but also haunting.
JOY: Being welcomed by name, upon my arrival, by the speaker on the stage, then receiving a large badge that read “Special Guest,” and the most touching addition of all: the red tikka on my forehead.
HAUNT: The man who spoke when I first arrived. He did not use any English words, but there are some things you can hear through a language barrier. And I heard his anger as he shouted with his hands raised above the lectern.
JOY: The man who leaned over, out of the blue to translate a speaker’s words for me: “Where there is coal, there is diamond. It means there is sparkle in our future.”
HAUNT: “We are sad to be refugees…Because for us refugees, there is no destination.”
JOY: The times when raucous laughter broke out amid the crowd when a huge splash of water would suddenly tear through the tarp and soak some unsuspecting folks below.
And the little boy who stood proudly in the center of the audience with his large umbrella, directly under one of these leaks.
HAUNT: A speaker who implored UN workers to provide all refugees with ID cards, though I have learned in the past five weeks that there are sometimes situations in which the UN can offer no help. “Please… They’re not getting your rice… We’re touching your leg… Give rice from your mouth!”
JOY: Watching every member of the Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum be awarded on stage for their community leadership.
HAUNT: The refugee who was still awaiting resettlement. When he said that his brother and father hanged themselves in the United States, because they believed they would never see him again.
JOY: 90% of Bhutanese refugees have been resettled. When compared to UNHCR’s claim that only 1% of all refugees of concern are actually resettled, this is truly an extraordinary accomplishment.
JOY: The 4-year-old girls who danced, slightly out of sync, to a traditional Bhutanese song while wearing puffy white dresses.
Though the schedule for the day was filled to the brim with dancing, singing, and prayer readings, these celebrations, I soon realized, weren’t just smiles and gaiety. They were also grounded in the still-throbbing pain of these refugees’ past. And I guess that’s the irony of it all—in order to celebrate the fact that you are a survivor, you have to acknowledge the very horror it was that made you “survive” in the first place. Too often when we look at dismal situations, like a refugee’s circumstances, we quickly identify the “bad” parts and the sparse but existent “good” rays of hope, without linking these “bad” with the “good.” That is, we do not appreciate that many of these good rays of sunshine would not exist in the same way were it not for the bad thing that necessitated the hopefulness to be created in the first place.
In Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, a novel I recently finished about Nigerian refugees in the UK, the protagonist argues that scars are beautiful because it shows that a person survived. So while I was listening, hearing, feeling the passion of so many of these refugees as they spoke to the crowd, I sure was seeing the pain. I was bearing witness to their scars. But at the very same time, amidst these aches, beautiful stories of strength and perseverance were shared with me—stories of people who were able to adapt, and still find inspiration. To laugh when the tarp started leaking rainwater on everyone and everything. To find the diamond present in the coal.
Some people think it’s walking down the red carpet while the paparazzi snap photos. For my dad, it’s riding a shiny red Ruby racing bicycle. But for me? There are few things that seem more glamorous than working for the UN. I think it’s dead sexy.
And I am hardly the only person who feels this way. If you get charged thinking about human rights, international development, or humanitarianism, you probably share my enthusiasm. But this excitement is couched between criticisms. Before this summer, I had heard many a cynical report about the impacts and effectiveness (or lack thereof) of UN interventions around the globe. More than one former UN employee had told me that if I really wanted to make a “change,” the UN was not the avenue in which to do it.
So naturally, when I came to work for the WFP sub-office in Damak (“the SOD” as I have started calling it), I was curious to see which opinion would win out. Seven weeks into my work here, I have realized that such a conclusion is hardly black and white.
The biggest project of my internship so far has been implementing nutrition-themed comic books in the camp. The comics narrate the adventures of Meena, a small girl who lives in a village reminiscent of a camp setting. Each book has a slightly different focus: food hygiene, healthy eating, micronutrients, and anemia prevention. WFP had been hoping to get these books distributed within the camp for over the past year, and due to being understaffed, had had no such luck. Since my arrival in Damak, I have jumped through many bureaucratic hoops, the details of which I won’t bore you with here, to get these books into the camp. (Suffice it to say that there had been enough reports and emails written that I was beginning to sympathize with the frustration of former UN employees.)
Until I met a young refugee mother who had recently read the books. She said she and her neighbors had gathered around and read them. Everyone was excited to have them in the home. A few genuine words of affirmation from a woman I had never met. That’s all it took for me to become inspired again. To feel confident, that in one small way or another, the work I was doing at WFP was making some sort of tangible change in the everyday lives of refugees.
The woman I talked to—shame on me I didn’t even get her name—said the comics had changed her behavior. Maybe she would store her food in proper, hygienic containers. Or perhaps her child would have a more balanced diet because his mother knew what types of food to feed him. None of these scenarios will make newspaper headlines. Indeed, these images are hardly the ones that come to most people’s mind mind with the phrase “sexy humanitarianism.” Before coming to Damak, I would have been part of that majority. After all, what are concerns about proper food storage when there is world peace and global poverty eradication to worry about?
But working in Damak has challenged me to re-evaluate what glamorous work truly means. It is work that doesn’t just sound good, but actually does good. There’s beauty in mundane intervention, if that intervention actually works. So the efforts to teach the woman how to store food properly? That is, in fact, sexy.
I’m sure we could debate about the effectiveness of international organizations ad nauseum and still have no real consensus on this issue. I will not pretend that this entry offers some argument in either direction. But I have come away with one conclusion to share with you cynics and idealists, both: It’s great to dream big, so long as we dream real.
“Sister, where are you from?”
By now I have heard this question several times. So I will admit that when the refugee man came up to me as I was walking alone in the camp, I did not think twice about responding to him. It seemed like it would be a familiar conversation. I explained that I was from the United States, and that I was working as an intern at WFP for the summer. He smiled and then quietly asked, “Uh sister, everyone is leaving. But I do not want to resettle, and I do not want to go to Bhutan. I want to stay in Nepal. Will I still get food?”
Yes of course, I wanted to tell him. But I stopped myself. Because honestly, I had no idea. I did not want to give an answer for fear that I would say something incorrect, that he might cling to a phrase and spread it to his neighbors who were also anxious. That I might inadvertently misrepresent WFP’s position, and cause unfair anxiety or hope.
Though I have learned several things about WFP programming and international aid more broadly during this internship, I am the first one to tell you that I am no expert. The more I learn the more I realize I have to learn; the political dynamics within and outside the camps are incredibly complicated. And now that resettlement has created a largely transient population, the camps are in an almost constant state of transition. No one—not UNHCR, not WFP, not the Nepali government—has been able to definitively answer the million dollar question: What will happen to the residual refugees who do not resettle and cannot repatriate?
So maybe that’s why his question about food, one so seemingly simple with only a yes/no answer, made me so uncomfortable. Because it wasn’t so simple. Until that moment, I had not fully appreciated just how stressful and anxiety-inducing it must be for the refugees who want to remain in Nepal and fear they cannot. I have frequently heard the story of a family or individual enduring the agonizing wait for their resettlement. I have seen people’s depression as they explain that their process is stalled, and the fact that they are effectively “stuck” in the camps. But until I heard from this earnest man, I didn’t think about the fact that of course it wasn’t just the refugees awaiting resettlement who were stuck. Also in a state of limbo were the refugees who did not want to resettle at all. Their world was changing. Neighbors were leaving. And all of it they could not control.
Rather than finding words to answer this dear man’s question, I could only stare at him. Even if I could find the words, I felt completely underqualified to do so. Incorrect information can spread very quickly through the camps, and I did not want my response to inadvertently (and perhaps inaccurately) reflect on any of the UN organizations. I finally responded to him as truthfully, and vaguely as I could: “No one will be forced to resettle. And it is very important to WFP that it meets the needs of the refugee population.”
The man smiled at me again. I could not tell whether my forced response had comforted him or not. Perhaps my words had no effect. The effect of his words on me, however? Now that’s a different story.
I’ll admit I didn’t know how to respond as my friend and fellow UN intern, a trained architect, explained his disappointing findings after touring one of the refugee camps earlier that afternoon.
Corners of bamboo huts are charred black due to poor ventilation of indoor smoke.
Steps, not ramps, lead into homes of disabled refugees, including those with wheelchairs.
Construction and close proximity of huts violate the fire code as set by UNHCR.
What to feel…
Angry with the organizations that were responsible for these alleged infractions? Yet at the same time, defensive of them? I have so long admired and wished to be a part of the humanitarian scene. So part of me really wanted to protest my friend’s words. After all, I have been to the camps countless times. I have spoken with many refugees who appear quite comfortable. I have come to understand that the Bhutanese refugee operation is one of the best managed, if not the best managed, refugee operation in the world. In many more ways than one, it is a true success story. Furthermore, can I fairly expect any humanitarian intervention to be perfect? …One can only do one’s best. But as my friend shared his observations, I wondered was UNHCR/WFP/insert-organization-name-here actually doing their best?
I’ve already written about the entrancing sexiness of the UN—how such glamour can blind us to what effective interventions might actually be. But last night I realized another trap we must be wary of when doing humanitarian work: self-satisfaction. When we focus on how the help has helped, rather than critically evaluate any unintended consequences it might have caused. When we don’t challenge the status quo. When we let the standards slide from “good” to “good enough.”
Take the risk of fire in the camps due to haphazard construction and close proximity of huts as an example. In 2011, there was a large fire in Beldangi camp which destroyed around 100 homes. As common an occurrence as fires are in refugee camps across the globe, this fire, as I understand it, was still devastating. In the consequent efforts to rebuild the damaged sectors of Beldangi, the huts were built in a less flammable arrangement. But according to the engineer of the project, there was no talk of how to adjust the other huts, which comprised the majority of the camp, in order to reduce the risk of widespread fire in the future. In fact, were it not for the initiative of the engineer, the newly constructed huts in the damaged sector would have been built in the exact same way as before.
So is this extraordinary negligence or just the reality of strapped, resource-constrained humanitarian organizations? There are two sides to every story; I’m sure the same can be said for this situation.
For one thing, it would be a logistical nightmare for the UN to re-design hut arrangements on a camp-wide scale. And besides, these high-risk huts still supplied shelter, didn’t they? From a certain standpoint (read: the “humantarian” one) the huts were “good enough.” But surely the refugee woman I met in the camps this past February—the one who said she couldn’t sleep at night for fear of the flames—would feel differently.
Evidently, the cries of unhappy refugees do not seem to get very far. This enrages me, and begs the question—if not the refugee population, then who pushes these organizations to work beyond “good enough” and strive for the good, the great, the excellent? …Anyone?
Yet it would be naive of me to suggest that the refugees’ cries remain unanswered due to pure carelessness or indifference. (Though surely those allegations would be fair in at least some cases.) Working at WFP has showed me just how complicated, and sometimes seemingly impossible, it is for humanitarian staff to implement changes in the camp. Sometimes refugee (and aid worker) cries are muted by bureaucracy; they are drowned out by politics that delineate the extent to which the UN is responsible and able to provide to the refugees.
Refugees around the world, Bhutanese included, are often a source of animosity among the host community for their perceived “easy life.” This perception is no doubt due in large part to the aid they get from groups like UNHCR and WFP. If local Nepalis in wheelchairs do not have ramps into their homes, should the UNHCR provide ramps for the Bhutanese living across the street? What if this could make the already-controversial presence of the Bhutanese even more resentful a subject? Maybe this is one reason that UNHCR maintains that it provides basic, “good enough” protection. Or perhaps it is that excellent, no-cut-corners protection would have an opportunity cost: fewer resources to invest in other needy populations around the globe.
This post could go on forever about these ethics of obligation. But I’ll be honest with you, I’ve barely scratched the surface and I already feel tired of it. Because at the end of the day, even though these are complicated, powerful issues, it’s all talk. The huts will still be at high risk of fire. The rampless housing will still fall short of the needs of the immobile, Nepali and Bhutanese alike. And to me, even if there exist a thousand reasons to explain this injustice, it sure feels inexplicable.
It means white.
Hanging out with some local Nepali friends the other night, I dryly (or perhaps poorly?) joked that the only reason people in Damak did not think I was Nepali was because of my poor pronunciation of the language. They didn’t realize I was kidding, and one of them looked at me. Laughing, she said, “No, it’s because you are seti. We are cali. You are white. We are black.”
Now, now keep your socks on folks! It, too, shocked me that my dirty-blonde hair, fair skin, Chaco sandals and maxi skirt reveal that I am not local to Jhapa district…But jokes aside, there was something about my friend’s comment that I could not really get over. Maybe it was how she so starkly pointed out our different ethnicities. And though I had studied at an international high school that focused on celebrating differences—be they racial, cultural, or something else altogether—I felt a jab of discomfort when my friend reminded me that, here, I was different. It was the distinction between “we” and “you.” Was it unreasonable for me to want her to say “us” instead?
Now that my time in Nepal is (terrifyingly) close to an end, I find myself appreciating just how comfortable I have become in Damak. The details of this place that were at once overwhelming and foreign are now familiar and endearing. It’s not a perfect place, but perfection is not what makes you feel at home anyway. I can now seamlessly weave through the motorbike-rickshaw-livestock-bicycle traffic that had originally felt like a chaotic death sentence. Stubborn haggling to lower the price of pants in the market no longer seems insensitive but a way of life. The faces that once looked at me with a harsh curiosity—unblinking and painfully conspicuous—now look at me with gentle and warm familiarity. Kanchan, the man who sells me fresh yogurt and paneer, waves when I see him on his motorbike across town. For the little girl who lives close to the office, I have become a staple of her morning routine. (And she, a staple in mine.) As I walk by, she jumps up with fervor to say hello. I try to echo the enthusiastic greeting, and wonder how, in all the excitement, she has again not spilled the rice from her small, silver bowl.
My friend’s comment shook me. Because no matter how comfortable I may feel in Damak, no matter how much of a home it might be, I was still only a guest. As she put it, seti. At the beginning of the summer, this probably would have bothered me much more than it does now. I would have preferred to ignore the differences between me and my local Nepali friends. But now, as I look back on all the friendships and experiences I have had here—moments of burning belly laughter and deep frustration included—I realize that they were all influenced, in one way or another, by the fact that I am not from here. It’s what enabled me to wake up fascinated, scared and excited about what the day would bring. It forced me to maintain an open mind. It gave me the courage to dance (terribly) to traditional Nepali music and not fear judgment. It helped me to keep pushing through bumps in the road at work, especially when I noticed that they were due to cultural difference. It empowered me to reach out to others—replacing the feelings of loneliness that had once greeted me with familiar faces instead.
So sure, you could say I’m an outsider. But at least I’m an outsider who got inside.
I won’t act like this was any real kind of accomplishment—because if you reach out to people, they will usually reach back. I had no choice but to throw myself into this beautiful, whimsical, confusing Nepali world. I had to embrace the fact that I was ignorant. That I had so much to learn. Every day has been a constant reminder to be open—and I’ve found that both humbling and liberating.
This past weekend I traveled to the famous Pokhara in Nepal. If you find yourself, as I did, suddenly transformed into a tourist in the very same country that the day before had felt like a home away from home, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- When you arrive, cramped after 7 hours spent on a microbus that smells of incense and whose ceiling is covered with posters of Hindu gods, do not feel disappointed if the town seems like most other Nepali towns you have encountered over the past few months. You have not seen much of Pokhara yet. And besides, how cool is it that you are at least familiar enough with Nepal to observe similarities between its cities: the architecture of the cement buildings with store fronts on the ground floor and homes above; the prominent Coca-Cola advertisement that is the same everywhere in the country; and the black-and-yellow striped roundabouts that are in the chowk parts of the town.
- When the taxi driver tries to charge you a rip-off rate, haggle. Even if he says, “This is very special price, Madam.” Even if you only get it lowered by 50 rupees. Or none at all. Be glad you tried. It’s part of being that savvy traveller you so want to be. And as your friend says jokingly, “It’s principle!”
- Don’t let the leeches keep you from enjoying your hike in the jungle. Some ancient healers believed that leeches only took the “bad” blood anyway. And it is impressive how the buggers smaller than your pinky nail can latch on to your ankles so quickly and so strong. …right? (All the same, keep watch on your shoes.)
- Prepare yourself for an onslaught of questions from several different children you run into, all interactions go something like this: “’Tourist!? Where are you from? Do you have chocolate? Do you have pen? Do you have money?’ ‘No sorry…’ ‘[Undetterred] Ok! Bye!’ ”
- And perhaps most importantly, don’t be surprised if you struggle with the feeling of being a tourist. After all, for these few days in Pokhara, you’re occupying a completely different role than the one you’ve been in these past few months—one that is surface-level. Distanced from the locals. Extravagant. Maybe it’s just pride that motivates you to distinguish yourself, in this new tourist role, from other Western tourists. Or maybe you’re just trying to hold yourself accountable to the kind of traveler, and human being, you want to be. The one who challenges herself to really engage. Either way, throw yourself into every encounter you have in Pokhara; accept the challenge.
- For example, when your trekking guide, a Pokhara native, responds to your description of your work with the Bhutanese refugees in Damak with a single question (“…They’re still there?”), don’t get too defensive. It is a great privilege of yours that the experiences of these refugees remain so vivid in your own mind and heart. You cannot expect all Nepalis to be as intimately familiar or invested in it as you are. Regardless, now is the perfect opportunity to shine some light on these refugees’ stories. Explain to the wilderness guide that, yes, they are still there. Yes, many are still in a painful limbo, wishing to be rid of the “stateless” tag that has followed them for the past 20+ years. Yes, many are still “surviving” their life rather than “living” it—inhabiting cramped housing conditions, illegal job markets and the ever transient refugee camp community. But be sure to say what is perhaps the most important, and striking detail of all: that through all of this they are kind to you and each other; they are hospitable and routinely offer you tea during hut visits; and though many loathe the idle lifestyle they have been forced into, they still smile.
- Be grateful when you finally return to Damak. Because here you’re not a local, and you’re not a tourist; you straddle a middle ground. At times you struggled to find your footing. But you’re grounded now. You have found your friends, your routine, your (dis)comforts. Even your favorite Nepali momo shop. Though there is still much to learn about this place, don’t underestimate how much you already know about it.
After all, 7,423 miles from home, you’ve just arrived home. Welcome back.
I’m leaving Nepal along with the mango season. But besides that, my departure hardly feels timely. This is partly because of the hard goodbyes I have made. But it’s also, to get right to the point, because I don’t feel like I have finished my job, though I’m not sure what “finishing” it would look like in the first place.
A few days ago, I was discussing my impending departure with a friend who was also working in the Bhutanese refugee operation. She had been in Damak for over two years, and did not have immediate plans to transfer elsewhere. She told me firmly, “Yup, I’ll be leaving with the last refugee.” Woah, I thought. How admirable. I soon realized, however, that she was completely kidding. “If I did that, I would never leave!” she explained with a wide-eyed laugh.
Part of me understood, and agreed, with what she was saying—especially because there is expected to be a residual (read: permanent) Bhutanese population of several thousand that live in Nepal after the resettlement processes come to a close. So, if my friend really wanted to stay with the last refugee—she’d be here for a while, because that last refugee is (probably) not going anywhere.
So my friend’s comment was completely resonable… and problematic. How do you stay inspired to work with the refugees when, at the end of the day, there will still be problems and people struggling in many of the same ways when you leave?
In the world of academia, we’re taught to resolve problems. We’re taught certain modes of thinking, and then are expected to apply this in the professional world. We’re taught that if the problem’s still there, the job isn’t done. I think this is a good thing; it demands accountability. My Duke education is preparing me perfectly for this. But my internship this summer kicked Duke’s ass in terms of helping me understand what it means to be a “professional” humanitarian: you can’t expect to be the big fixer who helps everyone. (Sometimes, with all your hard work, you can’t expect to be a fixer at all. I saw that time and time again as the bureaucratic chains of these international organizations prevented those same organizations from making many improvements in the camps.)
As I sit here, preparing to return home, I wonder how I will answer the questions. What did you do in Nepal? I worked in the Bhutanese refugee camps with the World Food Programme. Ah, working with a humanitarian organization! So you helped the refugees? …I guess? I hope so? I can’t pretend that my 3 months at WFP had any kind of profound impact on the lives of the Bhutanese refugees, as much as the job description might imply. I hope, in one small way or another, I helped to make their lives easier or more comfortable. Or at a minimum, enabled them to get their food rations because of logistics I coordinated. But I hesitate to say this with much confidence because many of the issues I worked on are still problems. Malnutrition is still high among certain demographics in the camps despite my efforts designing education interventions targeting them in the camps. There are still issues getting volunteers to help carry food rations to vulnerable members of the community, despite my direct targeting and (attempt) to designate responsible parties. And I imagine that there will still be cooperation issues among partner organizations in the camps, despite several meetings in which the staff agreed to communicate better.
Maybe I sound like a budding cynic. But I refuse to be one. So, to repeat my question from before, how do you stay inspired to work with the refugees when there still may be problems despite your efforts to resolve them? My answer: Believe in the work you’re doing. Stay committed. Yeah, you can’t help everyone. And yes, many of your efforts will be in vain. But sure as hell, keep trying, and as one man told me: “remember me always as your refugee friend.”
I don’t know when it happened, when my time in Damak became less of a countdown to when I could return to my familiar and comfortable home and instead a place that I was truly hesitant and sorry to leave. I think it began around the time in my internship where I started to feel a real attachment to the work I was doing. When I stopped exchanging quiet smiles with the refugees, and replaced those timid smiles with conversation. When I visited their homes, heard their stories and became terrified that my time at WFP would bear no fruit for the refugee population, only for me and my resume. When I realized that there wasn’t time enough in the world for me to get it all done. When I realized that that didn’t matter; a time limit was no reason not to start trying. Because whoever replaces me next at WFP, perhaps they can take over from there. They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Work in a refugee camp was no exception. Who knows what journey I’m headed on. But I’m certain that Nepal was an incredibly enlightening step in the right direction.