Six undergraduate students in our DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted program will spend a month abroad examining the refugee crisis through field interviews based out of Jordan from late February through late March. Throughout their travels, we will be publishing “Letters Home” chronicling their experiences, including travel along migration routes as well as their work with community partners in camps. Stay tuned to this page for updates!
I conducted my first life story interview with a family of Iraqi urban refugees in Amman, Jordan. Although we had a translator present, the young son in the family often chose to speak in English, either to practice or because he knew his words were more powerful coming directly from himself. His quotes, like the one above, jarred me.
He later added, “When we got to school and back, we don’t know. Some time a boy [does] not come back to the house. They be killed.”
He explained how car bombs and the following army gunfire were just part of the routine. His parents told a story of how an army soldier struck their son during school because the soldier wanted their son’s football. They shared how a car exploded near their daughter on her walk home from school.
“And again I sent her to school because she must complete her studies,” her mother explained.
I could not believe that despite all of this violence and chaos- bombs, gunfire, beatings- these kids still went to school. How could the parents justify sending their kids to school under such dangerous circumstances?
The answer was clear. “I need a good future for my children,” the mother simply stated. Without an education, there would be no hope for her children and possibility of a future. In Jordan, if a child misses more than three years of school, he or she cannot enroll in classes. And without an education, children are forced into a life of poverty and vulnerability. For this mother, the risk that her children would be uneducated and unable to support themselves in the post-war future was far greater than the risk that they would be injured on the way to school.
“They must be in school,” she affirmed.
It is unimaginable to most that the place that gives your child a future could be the place to take it away. It is not a dilemma that children and parents should have to face. But it is reality.
For me, education wasn’t a risk. It didn’t put me in danger. I went to school because I had to, occasionally because I wanted to. Getting my education was never a case of life and death.
This interview, subsequent interviews, a visit to an informal refugee school, and meetings with local NGOs have transformed the way I view refugee childhood education, the importance of childhood education, and my own privilege.
Refugee childhood education is improvised; it is chaotic with new students showing up to school everyday, overcrowding and limited resources. Students have undergone immense trauma and may have mental health issues. Children miss school days to help work, often illegally, for their families (This occurs because refugees do not have the right to work in Jordan. If children are caught working, they are merely sent home. If adults are caught, they are sent back to Syria). Many students walk miles and miles to school alone. Informal refugee schooling isn’t perfect, but it is necessary.
Education is paramount. It is required for socialization, competence in the global job market and, simply, survival. If we fail to provide adequate education to refugee youth, there will be a “lost generation” dispossessed of a future: a generation who has seen and lived through violence, chaos and uncertainty, yet is resilient. These children are the hope for a peaceful post-war Syria, but without access to education, their futures are dismal.
I have been trying to wrap my head around these problems while trying to come to terms with my own privilege. My education was for me, it was handed to me in the American public school system, and I was lucky enough to be born into a society where my hard work was valued and manifested with acceptance into an elite university. But I wonder, did I deserve this? Earn this? Why me and not the boy interviewed?
If I got a cold or felt feverish, I stayed home from school, because that would mean missing one day in the thousands of school days I was guaranteed to have. Refugee youth are not guaranteed to have these days, although access to education is a universal right. One day my dad took me out of school randomly to go to Disney World. While I saw a light show of fireworks at Disney, kids like the boy I interviewed saw a lightshow of missiles in Iraq.
Yet, he was at school. I was not.
I left my interview feeling guilty for my privilege and frustrated that I could not do anything to help him at that moment.
Refugees at the informal school in Azraq put in the same number of school hours that elementary school children in the West do, yet because their school is not “official,” their hard work, time and effort means little. A consequence of my birth, my hard work means something. I live in a society that validates the effort and time I put into my education. The days I spent in the school, homework I completed and tests I took manifested into a degree that had value and allowed me to work. That is my privilege. Even if a refugee child somehow makes it through the school system, despite numerous systematic and logistical obstacles, and earns their degree, without the right to work in Jordan or the right to migrate anywhere else, they have no opportunities.
“I want to be a pilot,” the boy I interviewed told me. “Because I can fly. Fly anywhere in the sky.”
I am amazed at the radical hope of this boy: his ability to imagine a bright future with a past filled with violence and chaos and a present saturated with uncertainty and disappointment. And I struggle with the possibility that because of his situation and the consequence of his birth, his dream is nearly impossible.
This boy is one of over a million Iraqis currently living in Jordan, many of whom are children with dreams, aspirations and radical hope for a life without bombs as alarms or beatings from soldiers. I will never be able to fully understand the life experiences of the refugees I interview. But for the boy I interviewed and others on the verge of becoming a lost generation, I will try my very best: to share their stories of hope and future, flight and possibility.
On top of the shelf, a traditional Arabic hymn resounds from two small speakers. Stringed instruments proclaim a cheerful melody as the shrill beat of the hand drum keeps time. In the center of the room, a man dances with an infant in his arms. The baby beams with delight. He lets out a cackling laugh, revealing a row of barely grown teeth. In the corner, the television quietly changes scenes. Across the screen flashes footage of an explosion: a pillar of smoke rising menacingly behind a city of sandstone. But the music plays on. Placing the child on his shoulders, the man hops gracefully across the room. A rhythmic chant bounces off the walls. The baby waves his hands in the air. Onscreen, the television depicts people running, cars crashing, and soldiers marching. But the television stays muted. The only sounds allowed in the room are the soulful flow of the music and the sharp ring of the baby’s laugh.
Here in Jordan, violence is never too far away. It can be sensed through everyday reminders of the traumatic situation in the North –the situation that many refugees call a daily reality. It can be heard in the voice of a Bedouin man asking for spare tent supplies in Zaatari. It can be seen in the tank parked within sight an elementary school in Azraq. I can be felt through the stories and descriptions of the refugee families we interview.
Violence takes many forms. Originally, refugees fled physical violence in the communities where they lived. Now in Jordan, refugees continue to experience violence. They feel violence from native Jordanians, who blame refugees for many of Jordan’s domestic problems. They feel violence from the Jordanian government, which discriminates against refugees through state-imposed hiring quotas. They feel violence even from systems of humanitarian governance, which provide the means to live but not to build a life.
As an American with a stipend, I am shielded from this violence in a unique way. With every interview, field note, and day trip, I witness the devastating effects of violence on refugee communities in Amman and Northern Jordan. With every day, I am reminded of the hard realities facing these communities. But I can always escape. After a long day listening to people’s traumatic experiences, I retreat to my hotel in the touristy district of Rainbow Street, walk through a metal detector that the guards never bother to turn on, and rest comfortably in my room on the third floor.
The hardest part about this trip is remembering the ones who can never retreat. To many refugees, every day brings crushing reminders of what they have lost –of the families they once had, the homes they once shared, and the communities to which they once belonged.
In different ways, the refugees I have interacted with try to shut these reminders out. Some do so by throwing all their energy into providing school for their children, knowing that their own chances for education have passed. Others do so by uniting closely with their families, clinging tightly to each another for support. Still others do so by turning the volume down on the news, holding their infants in their arms, and simply dancing to the music.
But, unlike me, these refugees cannot retreat. They are as powerless to ignore the reminders of violence around them as they are to erase the memories of trauma inside them. Everything they see threatens to open old wounds: from the olive trees that trigger memories of home to the news articles that remind them they can never return.
This presents an ethical dilemma: how can I understand and be sensitive to the violence endured by refugees when I am shielded from experiencing it myself? What moral obligation do I have to those who, unlike me, are haunted by memories of trauma on a daily basis? I believe the answer is twofold: 1) I have a responsibility to listen to the stories, descriptions, and opinions of those who have suffered with an open mind emptied of preconceptions, and 2) I have a responsibility to remember that the issues we explore in Duke Immerse outlast the duration of our trip. Though I personally may be shielded from the impacts of violence, this should not prevent me from doing everything I can to advocate for those who do.
In two weeks, I will leave Amman, board a plane, and return to my comfortable life in the U.S. But these refugees have no plane; these men and women are forced to contend with memories of trauma for the rest of their lives. They may have survived life-threatening danger, but they can never be made whole. They may have endured unspeakable challenges, but they can never rest. They have have fled, but they cannot escape.
The professor talks to them about Hanan Al-Shaykh – the author of the story that they are reading. She tells them that while the author has excellent English, she writes in Arabic because Arabic is the language in time with “the beating of her heart.” The professor tells her students to write in Arabic if they feel that it speaks to them in a way that another language cannot. For a moment, I am confused. Because the class is in English, I had figured that English language skills were part of of the academics. Then it hits me. This class is not about academics in isolation. This class, first and foremost, is about their stories.
Stories are enigmatic things. They are not concrete. They’re interpretative and subjective. Stories are thought to interest and entertain, but they are not seen as the vehicles of change. Change is meant to happen through policies, through institutions, through representatives. Change does not happen through a narrative. I could almost believe this if it weren’t for one thing: oppression relies on narrative. The Muslim terrorist, the oppressed Muslim woman, the violent Palestinian, the faceless refugee– the narratives are endless.
I am sitting in the center of a green auditorium. Around me there are Arabs, Americans, and Europeans all gathered to listen to a lecture on Palestine. “One day Gaza will be free. One day Palestine will be free.” Will it? I cannot say. What I can say is that the dominant narratives, the narratives of essentially evil Palestinians out to destroy all Jews, are what justify the slaughter and oppression of an entire people. These narratives are what make the murder of over five-hundred and fifty children in fifty days something less than atrocious.
“Terrorist or freedom fighter?” “Attack or defense?” I see the words on the big screen in the center of the room. The words we choose matter because they reveal the stories we accept. Choose better words. Choose better stories.
Going into my second interview, I don’t really understand the power of a narrative. I go into her home nervous. I am terrified that I am doing something wrong. I don’t know if I have the right to carry her story. I don’t know if I have the right to poke and prod into her being. I am afraid that the audience I can reach is too small to justify any pain I might cause. I am not sure if I am meant to be the one to disseminate these stories. I am afraid that this isn’t my place.
My recorder brings irrational hope. My questions bring pain. I am eating food she may not have to spare. Her words have far more weight and depth than my body can hold. I keep telling her over and over again “I’m just a student. I’m very low-level. I won’t be able to make anything happen.” I tell her this before we start. I tell her this before we end.
“I am very happy that you came today and heard my story. You are interested in what happened to me and do not look at me like just another person from Iraq. I am not only the widow. I am not only this lady whose husband was killed. That happens to most Iraqi ladies. I don’t like this kind of language. I appreciate that you are hearing my story and what happened to me.”
I think there is something there, in the telling of one’s story. Before subverting the dominant narrative, before being disseminated, before creating large-scale change, stories have the power of microscopy. Maybe, by being able to craft her own narrative, her own ordering of her life, she finds a kind of peace. It is a space for her to reclaim herself. She can declare her personhood beyond the reductive narratives that attempt to consume her. Perhaps, just having someone listen to this telling and accept it as truth, is potent on its own.
I am still not convinced we can do justice to her story. I still don’t know if we are the ones to be telling it. But this was her story, and she chose to share it with us. I am choosing her story because it deserves to be heard. Its truth deserves to be witnessed. I will not be able to overturn all the narratives stacked against her, but I will do everything I can to honor her. I choose her story. Will you?
So began my second interview of a refugee living in Amman, an Iraqi mother of three dressed in a black abaya and a matching hijab. Though she remained composed, the pursing of her lips and intensity of her dark brown eyes demonstrated the freshness of her pain.
Looking lovingly to her young, happy son, she added: “Now my life is for my children only, and I try to find a future for them.” While I was overcome by her strength and selflessness, my first instinct was to ask how he had died.
Throughout the first six weeks of my DukeImmerse experience, the five other members of my cohort and I reflected, almost obsessively, on the ethics of our research. What was the point of the interviews in the first place? How could we best honor those who shared their experiences with us?
After countless formal and informal conversations on the topic, we decided that our objective was twofold: 1) to hear the lives of refugees as they understood them, and 2) to respect the human dignity of those we interviewed.
Despite these lofty ideals, in this moment, I wasn’t interested in dignity or self-determination. I wanted to take the reigns of the interview, to push a woman to expound on an event so traumatic that she said it had “stopped” her life. I was more fascinated by her pain and sadness than her love and hope. Why?
The answers to this question are multiple and messy.
For the first 19 years of my life, the only refugee narratives I knew were those that had been sensationalized in American media. These stories depicted such people solely as helpless victims. Refugees were poor, starving Africans fleeing violence in the Sudan. They were Syrians escaping torture at the hands of ISIS. They were Iraqis emerging from black plumes of smoke in Mosul.
Indeed, I had only thought about refugees in terms of persecution, loss, and displacement, as though what they fled was all they were. But following this logic is a dangerous trap. Globally, such an emphasis on the suffering of refugees feeds directly into notions of Western cultural superiority.
When we only talk about certain cultures, religions, and races in terms of crisis, it is difficult to not think of them as violent, uncivilized, or somehow inherently lesser. Furthermore, focusing on this “helpless victim” narrative allows America to codify itself as the impartial distributor of humanitarian aid and to ignore any potential involvement in the creation of these crises as well as its own domestic challenges.
My work with a variety of Kenan initiatives over the past two years has helped me complicate this single story. In both Durham and Amman, I have come to share food, friendship, and yes, struggle, with refugees. Like all people, their lives are a complex combination of joy and triumph, sorrow and failure.
Discussing our protocol, the interviewee commented:
“You….do not look at me like just another person in Iraq. I am not only the widow. I am not only this lady whose husband was killed. That happens to most Iraqi ladies. I don’t like this kind of language. I appreciate that you are hearing my story and what happened to me.”
A PhD recipient, this highly educated woman had no interest in making her life legible to me by forcing it into the box of a preexisting, reductive narrative. In saying she was more than just a “widow” or a woman defined by her husband’s death, she took agency back in explaining her life. Her narrative is one that rejects “language” that categorizes her, like “most Iraqi ladies,” as a person defined by loss. Indeed, her repeated use of personal pronouns shows the importance she places on the individuality of her experience.
I likely could have pressured this accommodating woman to give me the gory details of her husband’s death. Back at Duke, I’m sure I could have given a powerful monologue that laid bare her despair for all to see. The crowd, expecting this kind of refugee narrative, would have responded with an appropriate amount of shock, sadness, and pity. It would be easy, but that doesn’t make it right.
The woman I interviewed did eventually come to explain to me how her husband, a university professor, had lost his life in a car bomb explosion at the hands if ISIS. But she also told me how loving and kind he was, how he had waited seven years to get her family’s approval of their marriage, how he was willing to die rather than be silenced by terrorists.
It’s tempting to stop at the surface level and see her story as just another example of how ISIS’s violence is ravaging lives. It’s much more challenging to confront her full humanity and see how fundamentally this death has undermined her sense of purpose in the world.
Why should I go to this extra effort in this first place? What does this larger picture do that a simplified persecution narrative cannot?
After hearing this more complete story, I’m no closer to stopping the forces driving Syrians and Iraqis into Jordan. I still can’t change Jordanian policy to give these people rights so basic as the ability to work. And I probably won’t singlehandedly dismantle the thinly veiled Islamophobia dominating our national conversation on refugee resettlement.
But just because macro-level institutional change isn’t a likely outcome of our research doesn’t mean it is pointless.
As part of the interview, we ask participants to describe the seven most important events in their lives. After discussing her marriage, education, and persecution, this woman put our presence with her on that list. For the first time since becoming a refugee, someone wanted to know something more about her life than just its darkest moment. Someone was there to experience her wit and kindness, to validate her selfhood and agency. That has value that simply can’t be quantified.
In a week’s time I will be back at Duke and will have the honor of sharing this narrative, among others, with friends, family, and the Duke community as a whole. It’s a daunting task to be responsible for representing voices that are not mine. While I have doubts in my ability to do them justice, I am equally sure that I have a responsibility to upset the monolithic “refugee narrative” that we have all heard countless times.
One of the refugees we interviewed told us multiple times during the interview that his story was not ‘easy.’ Why did he do that? Why did he feel the necessity to say that multiple times?
It is the sad reality of the humanitarian system working with refugees that there is inherent competition involved in it, competition in terms of vulnerability. You have higher chances of getting services from humanitarian organizations if you can prove that you are more vulnerable than other individuals. And it is the same case for resettlement. Even as the numbers of refugees coming into host countries increase, resources are still limited. Hence, competition.
What are some of the consequences of said competition?
Firstly, the more protracted the nature of a refugee’s status, less are the chances that particular individual will get services. Funding moves from one crisis to another, and as there is a new crisis in town, the old one gets largely forgotten. Ask the Palestinian refugees in Jordan. All the organizations have moved on to deal with the Syrian populations. Now they only have UNRWA. And even UNRWA is struggling to get funding. Ask the Iraqis in Jordan. Most of the non-governmental sector providing services to refugees in Jordan came up during the Iraqi refugee exodus in the mid to late 2000s. And now, many of them deal primarily with Syrians because a lot of the funding coming in from foreign donors is ‘targeted’ towards the Syrian population. Why? Because at this moment in time, Syrians are the ‘most vulnerable’ population.
Secondly, numbers matter. The larger the population, the more likely you are to attract funding for your cause. Ask the Somalis and the Sudanese refugee populations in Jordan. Most organizations don’t work with them. As many people we spoke to told us, there are just far more Syrian refugees. Hence, they get most of the services. Why do numbers matter? Because the larger the population, the easier it is to prove that you have more people who are vulnerable.
And lastly, the competition creates a system where individuals have to tell their stories in a way in which they can portray their ‘vulnerability’ to its maximum extent. This is the phenomenon that the individual we interviewed is a part of. Every story has to be perfect. And because many of these individuals tell their story so many times, it becomes a need even when the situation does not involve refugee status determination or an application for resettlement. We weren’t interviewing the man for any of those two. We just wanted to hear his story, any story he wanted to tell us. And he did. But he wanted to make sure that one of our main takeaways was that he was extremely vulnerable, that even though his story might ‘sound’ easier than other refugee stories we might hear, it didn’t necessarily prove that he was less vulnerable than others.
So what can we do about this competition? What can I, as a researcher, as someone who is listening to people telling their stories, do about the impact this competition has on their lives?
Whether we like it or not, there is not a lot we can do about the inherently competitive nature of the humanitarian sector in the current situation. Limited resources can only be put to limited uses. There have to be trade-offs. I don’t have any illusions about that. It is [unfortunately] basic economics. We can only try our best to make sure that the trade-offs are fair, that more vulnerable individuals are the ones who get access to resources first. Are the protracted nature of the conflict and greater numbers the best ways to measure vulnerability? I don’t think so. And yet they become some of the metrics organizations end up focusing on to judge vulnerability because they are some of the easiest metrics to use. Easiest. Not necessarily the fairest.
On an individual role, as a listener, I do have a big responsibility, however. I have the responsibility to communicate with the individual I am interviewing, that for once, his story does not have to be ‘perfect.’ That for once, his story will not be judged on a comparative level with other stories. That for once, his story will be appreciated for what it means to him, not for how it might fit into the broader scheme of things. That for once, he does not have to tell me again and again that his story is not ‘easy.’ While I cannot even imagine what he has gone through, I can appreciate the fact that he is taking the pain to share his story with me. I can understand that his story is hard and painful. And I can accept that he is vulnerable, without having the need to think about him being more or less vulnerable than someone else.
Even though the interview is only for ninety minutes, I can attempt to help him momentarily escape the competitive environment surrounding his vulnerability for that brief period of time.
As hard as I tried, I just could not.
By the second night of my month in Amman, I had been harassed on the street a number of times. “Want to fuck?” “Have sex with me?” Anything from obvious lookdowns of my body to explicit verbal harassment, I had heard it all. It really took a toll on me mentally, making me not want to venture out alone. At first, I felt like all Jordanian men must not respect women. However, I realized that this notion was fueled by the Western narratives of Arab men as inherently violent. As I thought through it, I remembered receiving harassment in other parts of the world- the streets of Napoli, my hometown, Greenville, and most certainly as I walked past construction sites at Duke.
I came to realize that the reason why the street harassment was so excessively directed towards me in Jordan was because I stood out. Most other places I had traveled in Europe and the USA, it was not physically obvious that I was an outsider. I blended in with the white majority just about everywhere. For the first time, I was not in this majority. This did not mean that I was not privileged, because I definitely still was. Being educated, white, and American granted me opportunities that others didn’t have. My nationality gave me the capacity to cross borders easily. My race garnered “flattering” attention from males. My socio-economic status gave me a place at the table that others did not have. I still had immense privilege, but being a part of a minority subjected me to closer observation, more obvious surveillance, and more harassment than I would have had if I blended in. Being an “exotic” outsider was a foreign concept to me: a phenomenon that of course I was aware of, but one outside of my true understanding before I experienced firsthand myself. My experiences in Jordan opened my eyes to only a small fraction of the kind of treatment minorities in the US must face on a daily basis.
“I want to look like her (me) you when I grow up.” An eight-year-old daughter of a man Sanjeev and I interviewed looks up to her mom, telling her this. Sanjeev shared this with everyone that night, and a friend in Immerse said, “Well that’s problematic.” At first, I was taken aback and, honestly, a bit hurt. I was flattered when this young girl told me I was pretty. Is it problematic that she thought I was beautiful? It hurt me that the first thing my friend said was how it was problematic for me to be seen as beautiful. So, I sat down and processed it, and I realized how damn right she was. I soon realized that my friend’s words had merit. I— the white, American girl — am the mainstream notion of beauty shoved down the throats of girls across the world. Although I may not feel like it, I am the popular girl on most television shows. My face is plastered on magazines. I am what society has affirmed as beautiful. And that is problematic. The young girl telling me that I was beautiful was not controversial, but the fact that she thought she had to look like me to be beautiful is. Society tells young girls of color that “white” means “beauty” and that this is something to strive for. But it simply is not. Realizing your privilege means humbling yourself down, and constantly using your moral compass to critique how your privilege has affected others.
Throughout the trip, as I thought about Qias’ quote, I realized that the reason why my notions of feminism conflicted with various cultural and religious practices in Jordan is because my western feminism was rooted in exclusivity. Duh. Whether it be classes at Duke, feminist books such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, or the programming for the Women’s Center at Duke, the feminism preached is not for all women, if not most women. For example, at Duke, most feminist programming is rooted in the sexual liberalization of women, with events encouraging safe sex and talking about stories of sex. This is most certainly important, but for conservatively religious women, what is this going to do for them? Mainstream feminism here at Duke also preaches that men should educate themselves, and it is not our role to educate them. In Jordan, we attended a Feminism Theory English class at the University of Jordan. The professor at one point told the girls, “We always talk about how women are under pressure, but so are men. Teach them the idea of masculinity. Make them a cup of tea with mint, and talk to them. Women have to break in. Feminist theory has failed in this country, because we have not engaged with men. Do it slowly at home.” At Duke, this quote could create a riot. The loudest feminism here preaches against us educating men, but in Jordan, how is there going to be change if the women do not take it upon themselves?
Sanjidah, my brilliant Immerse peer, pointed out that the western notions of feminism as sexual liberation of women and the vehicle to get women to Wall Street does not work for her and many women around the world. For many women, especially religious women, sexual liberalization does not fall in line with their religion or desire for themselves. Likewise, for a woman who has no desire to join the patriarchal structure of Wall Street, for objections against the patriarchy, passion for another career, or disapproval of using their talents primarily for profit, these exclusive notions of what it means to be a feminist are not applicable. Furthermore, for most women, working on Wall Street is not something realistically within their reach.
The most problematic aspect of these notions of feminism is the way in which they frame how other women live. These notions of feminism make it easy to look at cultures or religions, whether it is conservative Christians, Muslims, or anyone else, where many women dress conservatively, and to say that this “oppression” is a product of the patriarchy and fear of female sexuality. But, this is assuming and ignorant of the agency of the millions of women who choose to dress conservatively. Not to negate that many women have major constraints on the choices they are able to make, but to reduce the choices of these women is to ignore their agency. Framing of a cultural or religious practice makes all the difference, but when western, white feminists are the predominant ones who are given the platform to frame the way women live, of course their framing will be problematic.
Although it is not a feminism-focused trip, the research done on this trip gives the platform to the refugees themselves to frame the way they live, their beliefs, their problems, and their successes in their own words. Feminism, similarly, must give the platform to women from all walks of life to use their own voice to frame how feminism works for them.
At Duke, the mainstream feminism is too rooted in exclusive notions of female sexual liberalization and the need for women to fill in the positions of men on Wall Street. There is currently not enough room at the table for women whose feminism extends further than those ideas. Will you make room at the table? I plan to.