April 19, a dozen undergraduate students gathered at the Nasher Museum of Art to present narratives of refugee life curated from information collected during their month of field research with Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan.
The DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted program, a collaboration between the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke, is in its third year. It provides a semester of four interdisciplinary classes around the theme of forced migration in addition to service learning opportunities with locally resettled refugees and abroad.
A recurring theme among the refugees’ stories, students said, was their appreciation for an international audience. Many of the refugees struggle with their sense of personal and cultural identity because of displacement, and believe their voices and stories are often unheard.
The refugees told students about past experiences fleeing their home countries, their current situations in refugee camps and future plans. While both groups of refugees have been shaped by persecution and the trauma of displacement, their differences — in education, socio-economic background, and individual journeys — reflect the many facets of the refugee experience, students said.
In their home country, many of the Bhutanese refugees worked small farms in rural areas with few educational opportunities. They began to flee in the early 1990s because of government violence against civilians. As a distinct cultural group with strong ties to Nepali traditions, the Bhutanese government began to isolate them and deny them citizenship rights. The group eventually sought protection in United Nations-established refugee camps in Nepal. These camps have since become viewed as some of the most successful in the world, with more than 86,000 of the 108,000 Bhutanese permanently resettled to foreign countries since 2007.
Many of the Bhutanese refugees in the camps await resettlement in the United States. Some already have family members in America who have paved the way for them, including creating employment opportunities. First-year student Lily Doron shared the story of a 43-year-old tailor eager to become a partner in his brother’s tailoring business. While the Bhutanese cannot legally attain employment in Nepal, there is opportunity for those with particular skills or training.
According to Doron, the tailor said “customers, both refugees and locals, bring clothes to my hut. Most of my work is making clothes for people who are about to resettle. Many Bhutanese who have resettled say that clothes are expensive in the U.S.”
Many of the Iraqis and Syrians who have sought refuge in Jordan are educated and fled middle-class lives because of sectarian violence and political instability. Bordering Israel, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, Jordan has for decades been a destination for those displaced by conflict. However, the staggering numbers of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers are placing huge strains on the country’s resources and infrastructure.
Junior Tra Tran related the experience of an Iraqi man classically trained in ballet. Faced with persecution from religious extremists, he fled briefly to Syria, where his sister was kidnapped. After trying unsuccessfully to establish himself again as a dance teacher in Iraq, he has now fled to Jordan in an attempt to reach America.
“I want to get back to my life,” Tran said, in the words of the Iraqi man, re-enacting his anxiousness in Jordan. “Here, I am just waiting. It is expensive here — I can only hope that my time here is temporary. I cannot work because it is illegal. I used to have a lot of things, but I had to sell everything for rent. I even sold my phone! I’m disconnected from everyone now, so I have no one keeping me here.”
While the narratives represent only the life stories of those awaiting resettlement, the program gives a more complete sense of the effects of displacement throughout the refugee experience by engaging locally resettled refugee populations in Durham.
Videos of this year’s monologues as well as those of past recitations on the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ YouTube channel.