2017 DukeImmerse Research Journals


Seven undergraduate students in our DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted program spent a month abroad examining the refugee crisis through field interviews based out of Jordan in February and March 2017. Based on their interactions with local refugee communities, the students wrote “Letters Home” chronicling their experiences, including the stories of those they met, travel along migration routes and work with community partners in camps.

Josie Tarin: Offering Help

If you’ve never been to Wadi Rum, you’ve never experienced feeling like a single drop in the entire ocean. Wadi Rum, according to Bedouin legend, is said to have been the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago. Only the very top of the rocks was land. Today it is a large desert with red sand that appears like it’s from a different world, and on one of the last days we spent in Jordan, as I sat and watched the sunset, I saw the large rocks and sand that went on for miles. All I could hear was the silence that had fallen upon everyone and my voice inside my head telling me that in all of this greatness, I did not matter and that no matter what I did, I would never make a great difference.

I am not simply referring to Wadi Rum and its magnitude, but also to the refugees that we interviewed. I could listen to their stories, and I could empathize with them, but at the end of the day, that’s all I could offer them. “They cut our salary from organization. Why do you cut it? Let them [the UN] bring us back. Let them give us our salary. And take us outside, cause my mom is sick,” a five-year old little girl called to us as we were leaving an interview with her dad. We stood there in silence, shocked that a little girl could ask us a question that carried so much weight. She was just a child, and even though I would have given anything to help her, I couldn’t in the grand scheme of things. I was not the United Nations. I was not an organization. I was just me, a college freshman. Throughout all of these interviews though, one thought resonated inside me—when I’m older, I’ll be able to do more. I’ll work with the organizations to make a difference.

Later, in our meeting with the International Organization for Migration, Kate, the deputy manager at IOM leading our meeting, said, “once the refugees are on the plane, they are now out of IOM’s control.” An organization known for working with refugees could best define their work by basically stating that they don’t offer services to others once a refugee steps on a plane. Once the refugees are on the plane, they are directed to affiliates that are then expected to get them apartments, show them how to get a job, and offer any additional help. I had thought that one day, I would be able to get a job at organizations like IOM, and that from there I would be making a difference. I had not realized that the organizations that worked for refugees could only do so much. One takes care of assisting them with monetary needs every month, the other takes care of conducting their interviews, another for getting them on a plane, and another for educating them. There is not one organization that can do everything.

These organizations make up a movement that helps refugees through many aspects of their lives. There are organizations that help feed them, others that help children in school, some that focus on helping people learn useful skills that can help them make some money, the IOM, which conducts basic interviews and then gets refugees on planes. Two of the struggles that organizations face are that no one organization can do everything, and it’s also hard to get organizations to come together. At our meetings with organizations, many mentioned how hard it is to partner with others due to the competition that comes from receiving grants. Instead of wanting to work together, they want to make sure that their organization is the one getting the money to help refugees. These organizations, however, in the grand scheme of things, cannot help refugees completely, they can only help them in what they specialize in.

Much like myself, when it comes to refugees, organizations are a tiny drop in the ocean of the refugees’ problems. I imagine that these organizations feel much like I did when I was in Wadi Rum, looking out in what seemed to be an infinitely new world and feeling like the amount of work to help them solve their problems is forever increasing. As the refugee crisis grows, and as their funds and ability to help do not, they can only do so much for those that need them most.

Sara Evall: ‘Welcome Back’

A teacher reads to children in the library of the White Hands School in Jordan.

I landed in the airport in Durham with my mind reeling from all that I have learned and experienced in Jordan. Thoughts of individual refugee narratives, the aims of different organizations, the challenges that refugees face when trying to attain an education, and so much more have dominated my headspace. In light of the educational problems and disparities we witnessed especially, my return to Duke, to a place that for me is simultaneously my school and my home, has been surreal. The night we landed back in North Carolina, I was able to come back to my Central Campus apartment, sit and talk with my roommate and one of our mutual best friends, and then after the Duke game ended around 11 pm, four of my closest friends knocked on my door. We sat on my bed talking about our lives, and as they asked me about my time in Jordan, and the people we met and organizations we worked with, I tried to figure out how to describe the month I had just experienced.

Walking around campus the next day left me overwhelmed by words of “welcome back,” hugs, and further questions about Jordan. Instead of walking around streets full of character, street vendors, art work, poverty, and small children selling gum, I spent the day strolling through gothic architecture, classic Duke construction, the massive array of food in West Union, and past obvious displays of wealth and luxury. While Duke can be an extremely challenging place full of pressure and stress, Duke is also a place of laughter, love, friendship, and comfort. It is a place that I rely on to be my home, and a place where I know the boundaries of my mind and knowledge will be pushed and stretched. And while I am thrilled to be back, to see all of my friends and enjoy the comfort of life here, there is a huge part of me that feels uncomfortable and out of place.

While still in Jordan, the Immerse group visited two different schools for refugee children, schools in Azraq, and a school called the White Hands School, just kilometers away from the Syrian border. We also discussed how the Jordanian education system has been pushed way over capacity by the influx of refugee children generally, and has had to split its school days into two shifts in order to accommodate as many children as possible. Syrian refugee children typically must attend the second shift of school, which is said to be much worse in quality than the first shift – but these children are at least attending school. Many others – refugee children from Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan – do not have as much of a priority as far as accessing education as do the Syrian refugee children, and so many are out of school altogether, unable to afford the school fees for public schools, the uniforms, the books, or to find a school with space. And still, substantial numbers of even Jordanian and Syrian children are out of school because of a simple lack of space. Schools like the one at Azraq, which are informal and unaccredited, but at least give children the opportunity to gain some sort of access to education and literacy and basic math, have sprung up to try to fill the gaps in education, but they are underfunded, under-resourced, and not nearly big enough to serve the needs of all children.

Being back at Duke, and thus being confronted with all of the grandeur and excess of a top American university, is bringing my mind back to these schools and the children who attend them. The educational opportunities I have had throughout my life by virtue of my birthplace and parents’ socioeconomic status have given me an unbelievable advantage over these children. The educational disparity between every single Duke student and the children at White Hands and Azraq (whose educations are often further disrupted by displacement and work), and the children who cannot access any schooling at all, is almost unfathomable. A huge part of my discomfort, standing here at Duke, is knowing that I am no more inherently deserving of the education and opportunities I have access to than any one of these children, and yet, in my position as an undergraduate, I have no idea how to begin to correct this disparity in any meaningful way. So instead, as I walk through Duke with a much more critical understanding of my privilege, I will write about it and speak about it, and I will do what I can to avoid complacency. And I will know it is not enough.


Isabella Arbelaez: Hope

A Syrian toddler boy is lost in the library at White Hands School in Mafraq, Jordan.

Hanan, a young Iraqi mother, smiles as she shows the Immerse team her son’s recent marks in school. Red stars and “Montex [Excellent]” have been written across his worksheets. Included in the pile of worksheets is a certificate of completion of KG1. Hanan kisses her son Hamzi as he shows the family’s visitors his work. Hanan and her family have been in Jordan since 2012 since fleeing Saladin, Iraq. Despite the high education fees that Iraqi refugee families have to pay for their children’s education in Jordan (equal to what any foreigner has to pay), Hanan’s three children are all in school.  This raises the question of why a family like Hanan’s or the countless other refugee families we met, who can barely afford to fill their fridge with food, would sacrifice that money to send their children to school.

For Iraqi and Syrian refugee families alike, their children present a certain hope. In the midst of being a refugee and the uncertainty that derives from this state, for these parents, their children provide a constant source of promise for the future. During our interviews, the topic of children was always tied to the question of future. As Hanan shared with the Immerse team, “Because both of us [she and her husband], no one supports us. We built ourselves from zero. We are sacrificed for them.”

This hope is consistent across both Syrian and Iraqi families. Muhammad, a 61-year-old Syrian man who only left Syria in 2013, knows his time on this earth is short. He shared with the Immerse team, “For me, forget my future… I wish the good future for my children. I wish, I believe I had a good life. So, it’s okay if I’m going to live for the next couple of years from up to down, I’m going to handle it. But for them, they didn’t see anything, they’re still young.” His two sons look to be in their early twenties, both of them had been in the university back in Syria. Now in Jordan, the family cannot afford to pay for their education and his sons spend their days selling candies at the local mosque. For Muhammad, he acknowledges his old age and impending death; his wife had only passed away a few months ago at the age of 53. Yet, he  holds onto the future his children will build for themselves, a future that he hopes will be different than their current state.

For younger parents, however, a loss of hope for the future is still as pervasive in their minds. As Badour, a 24-year-old Iraqi mother whose husband was killed in a suicide bomb in Baghad, shared with the Immerse team, “I have no hopes here in Jordan. My major hope, that my family is going to leave Jordan because my future – stick with them future.” She sits next her toddler son Khalid as he burrows himself into the couch between his mom and the cushions. She pauses occasionally during the interview to whisper in his ear or kiss his head, and as she talks about Khalid, she comments, “I prefer a good future for him because I lost my future.” Badour suffers from depression, and attributes her emotional health to being forced to flee from Iraq. Nevertheless, she still holds onto Khalid’s future. Her young son brings her assurance despite the uncertain circumstances of her life.

For refugee parents like Badour, their children pull them out of the emotional and mental turmoil of being a refugee. The wait to return to Iraq or Syria, the inability to work, the discrimination they receive for being a refugee, all of these put an emotional toll on refugees.  To those who have put their children in school, education brings consistency to their lives. For Hanan, her schedule revolves around her children’s school schedule; she finds purpose in the daily task of providing for them. Even for Muhammad, whose sons cannot afford to go to college in Jordan, their futures bring promise to Muhammad’s life; he can no longer find happiness in his present state, but his children’s futures refresh him. These refugee families may never return to Syria or Iraq, but their stories will continue through their children. Hope is what allows these parents to survive, to wake up everyday to better the opportunity for their children.

Louden Richason: An Obligation of Humanity

On March 6th, President Trump signed his second executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry in to the United States.” In addition to suspending refugee resettlement to the United States for 120 days, this order sets the quota for refugees admitted for fiscal year 2017 (which ends September 30th) at 50,000. As of March 6th, 37,328 refugees have already been admitted. Of the number left to be resettled, around 2,000 of them will come from Jordan. After 120 days, though the refugee admissions and rescreening process takes an average of 18-24 months, resettlement will only resume after a review during which the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence will determine for countries which they feel “additional procedures are adequate to ensure the security and welfare to the United States.”

For context, Obama originally set the target for 2017 at 110,000 refugees – setting the quota at 50,000 decreased the expected number of arrivals by 60,000. In 2016, the United States resettled 84,995 refugees, and in 2015, the United States resettled 69,933 refugees.

Jordan, in contrast, is currently working the serve the 2.5 million refugees in its country and has more and more arriving daily, despite its GDP being 0.22% of the GDP of the United States. A country the size of the state of Indiana, Jordan lacks both the capacity to handle 2.5 million refuges and the influence to convince other countries to resettle their fair of refugees or pay their fair share of aid. Of the 2.5 million refugees, only 140,000 are receiving aid from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.

140,000 of 2.5 million refugees are in living in a protracted state of waiting in the registered refugee camps of Za’atari and Azraq. They are given the bare minimum to stay alive – a stipend for 2100 kilocalories (if spent on the suggested food items) from the World Food Program. 70,000 to 80,000 more are stuck in between the Syrian and Jordanian border in an area called the Burm, permitted to leave Syria but not permitted to enter Jordan. The Jordanian Armed Forces are letting 30-40 of the most vulnerable people in per day, but the majority are forced to remain. Because humanitarian organizations are not allowed to enter the area, the only limited aid has been distributed via crane and later at a distribution point several kilometers from the site.

What does a decrease of 60,000 in the quota of refugees admitted mean to a country like Jordan with 2.5 million refugees? The 2,000 that will be resettled to the United States for the rest of the fiscal year will not even put a dent in the number of refugees in Jordan.

The outcry in the United States over changes in tens of thousands of the refugee quota is necessary – and important to the small percentage of refugees that will be resettled – but we must recognize that it is a minor aspect of the lager issue of the lack of an adequate international response to the refugee crisis. In a statement released last week, a United Nations official said that the world “faces the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945,” yet in the face of this crisis, the United States, along with other nations, is decreasing the number of refugees it will resettle and threatening to decrease the amount of humanitarian aid it donates. This crisis is global in nature, but the response from the international community has been far from global.

America, a nation that represents hope, freedom, and livelihood to so many refugees, has the potential to lead an international response to this crisis. We must avoid retreating into shells of indifference, comfortable with the idea that taking in refugees would negatively impact of our daily lives. Of course, America cannot take in an unlimited amount of refugees or solve the crisis single-handedly, but our fear and indifference have allowed us to elude our obligation and our humanity.

Sloan Talbot: 28 Days

Wild poppy, Umm Qais, Jordan

Twenty-eight days. Twenty-eight days was the total amount of time that I, a Duke undergraduate participating in the Duke Immerse: Deconstructing/Reconstructing the Refugee Experience, was in Jordan, interviewing refugees from Iraq and Syria, and meeting with NGO’s and governmental organizations who have direct involvement with refugees on the ground to hear about what they are doing to help refugees. Does twenty-eight days abroad make me now some sort of expert on the refugee crisis and displacement of refugees in Jordan? Not in the slightest. Does my time in the city of Amman, and my experiences listening to families and people talk about their lives before and after their displacement make me responsible for sharing the information I learned to my communities back here in the States? I’m not sure.

Responsibility, at its most minimal state is being, “liable to be called on to answer” according to Merriam Webster dictionary. My experiences this past month has opened my eyes to the complexity of a refugees’ life in migration. I have seen families who came from great wealth and prosperity from big cities like Baghdad and Damascus, to people who worked on farms in rural areas of the same country, all there, in Amman, Jordan. Living their lives in the “in-between” not yet resettled, not in their country of origin, and not allowed to become citizens of Jordan. All the stories I heard and the people I met gave me a deeper understanding of the refugee experience, yet it is not a complete one. As I sit on Duke’s campus now and reflect back on my positionality as a student researcher, temporarily coming into the spaces of refugees, and then twenty-eight days later being able to leave and come back home is full of privileges that the families I talked with do not currently possess, the privilege of home, the privilege to travel, and the privilege to be born in a country that I do not have to flee from persecution from.

With these privileges that I possess, what am I to do with them? I don’t have the capacity to help every family I met with personally, or go back to Jordan and bring supplies and resources. But the stories I heard, the memories I have of my interactions with these people put me in a position to do something, to be “responsible”.  To do nothing with the information I gained and the stories I heard would be the greatest misuse of twenty-eight days of experiences that I could ever do. The question this then poses, is what would this responsibility be? Being back in the States for just two days, already friends, family, and peers have asked me about my time in Jordan, what I heard, and saw, and what my opinions are now of the refugee crisis as a whole. By talking and responding to a few of them, mentioning what I saw, and how it has impacted my views on displacement and the resettlement process, sharing tidbits of the stories I heard, I think now that, my “responsibility” is to share my experiences.

With this Immerse, our post-trip agenda is to prepare two monologues from the interviews we had, narrating the stories we heard in a public performance, and to curate a magazine that has our photos, and small features of topics that each of us individually focused on during our time in Jordan. With these two projects, the goal is to share with our communities and the greater public what we heard, and to dispel assumptions and stereotypes of refugees. These assumptions of refugees as one-dimensional, potential terrorist threats, stereotypes of the resettlement process as “easy” and a “flood gate waiting to open” when in fact it is one of the hardest processes to go through. With my and the groups’ positionality, Duke students with the ability to travel in and out of our country, US citizens, I do think we are responsible for sharing the stories we heard to the very best we can do, to be as authentic to the people’s lives as possible, showcasing them in a way that humanizes refugees, as individual people with complex stories and lives. I am held accountable to do my part, to be held responsible to these people, I am now in a position where others are asking me about my experiences, what I saw, my opinions on the crisis, and if I don’t share, or if I don’t accurately tell about my time in Jordan, I am allowing the stereotypes and negative images and unknown assumptions of refugees to prevail, a dangerous thing to do in our current political state. Twenty-eight days makes me no expert or authority figure on displacement and refugees, but it does put me in a position to try and change the perception of refugees in my social circles and communities, and for that, I am responsible.

Idalis French: Identity

A young boy playing with toys at the White Hands School.

I walk away remembering the smiles. I remember the happiness and joy of our interviewees whenever they talked about family, hobbies, and their lives before the crisis. I remember seeing such incredible strength as these refugees opened their hearts, allowing themselves to be completely vulnerable with a stranger like me. I was dumbfounded by the many people who still had hope in God, that regardless of the outcome of the refugee crisis, their lives would be okay.  These interviews showed me that even when people are experiencing the worst hardships possible, joy is not unobtainable.

I think about the many times I walked in and out of homes wondering whether or not the pleasantry and optimism of these families was staged or real. Nevertheless, their images of contentment remain fixated in my memory. I am mesmerized by the prominence of hurt and hope that keep them going every day. It is terrible to think that refugees in Jordan will remain in a constant state of sadness, but for the ones that remain hopeful and optimistic even in the midst of today’s politics, I cannot help but wonder, why? Why do you have so much hope? Why did this have to happen to you? Why aren’t you as devastated about the current situation as I am? I think about their strength and wonder if I would have ever been able to accomplish half of what they have.

For the refugees we interviewed, I wonder about how displacement for weeks, months, or years affects their mental health; I wonder whether or not this burden of displacement lessens with the passage of time. I have only been able to rationalize their peace by imagining the extended time period as a method of healing for their hurt and pain. Both Syrian and Iraqi refugees know the dangers of returning to their country of origin, but many also show an unimaginable hope of returning to their former lives in the near future. Several of the refugees we interviewed were not sad about their current situation, but rather very accepting of their life’s trajectory, because they believe it to be God’s will. Through faith, many of them are able to find their peace. When I think about this inconceivable joy, and type of joy that completely contradicts their current way of living, I realized I have learned one important lesson in Jordan: that the dreams of refugees are just as real as mine.

The identity of a refugee is not rooted in this label. Their identity is rooted in who they were before the conflict—a person living through life’s journey just like the rest of us. Refugees experience emotions just as we do. They experience the highs, the lows, the beautiful moments, and the horrific ones. To me, the smiles of the refugees in Jordan represent people, able and strong, even when life takes a drastic turn for the worst. Universally, smiling does not have to mean pure joy; smiles represent emotion at a certain moment in time. Although I am left with many smiles of far-fetched hope, I have begun to see Iraqi and Syrian refugees as people with values, goals, and many similarities to American citizens. I am not able to connect with their experiences, but at least I can connect with their solace after listening to them talk about the things of the world that make them feel alive.

Bryce Cracknell: A Formal Education Shortfall

According to the United Nations, education is a fundamental human right. In Jordan, we visited two schools, a formal school and an informal school. Formal schools are accredited by the Ministry of Education and can give certificates to their students. Informal schools on the other hand are not accredited by the Ministry and their education is thus unrecognized by the government. According to Human Rights Watch, one-in-three Syrian refugee children registered with the UN did not receive a formal education in 2015. With the large influx of refugees in the past several years, government schools have been overwhelmed by the number of students and have resorted to a 4 hour school day during the morning hours.

To account for the influx, international NGOs have come in to provide education to those who are not enrolled in the government schools. The price? Students will not receive recognition for it. On most accounts, the education that these schools provide is better than that of formal education. This is embarrassing for the Jordanian government thus providing no incentive for them to accredit these schools.

One of the NGOs that is filling the gap is the Middle Eastern Children’s Institute (MECI). They are primarily funded by UNICEF and have rapidly expanded from three schools to twenty schools in the past few years serving vulnerable communities in Jordan. MECI primarily aids Syrian students with some remedial education for Jordanian students. Their numbers show a high improvement for all of their students making them one of the best education providers in Jordan. MECI, however, is not accredited with the Ministry which has actively slowed down their expansion into new areas.

Iraqi, Somalian, Sudanese and other refugee populations may not receive any education as they are largely unrecognized in Jordan. Most international money and attention is currently given to Syrian refugees regardless of the fact that many of these other populations may be more vulnerable. For those who are able to go to formal schools, Syrian refugee students do not have to pay for their education fees whereas Iraqis and other refugee populations do.

These issues give rise to a series of questions that the Jordanian government and international NGOs are contending with. What does it mean for people who are informal citizens of the world to receive an informal education? Whose responsibility is it to fund and provide such an education? How do you provide a quality education to all refugee populations? How can you improve the education of formal schools which are often understaffed and overpopulated?

Currently, the answer to many of these questions is for these informal schools to operate in a supportive role to formal schools. In other words, the school will continue to provide support for refugee students until they enroll in a formal school. There are conversations among NGOs and the Education Ministry around whether students should be able to test into a grade to allow for students who are accelerating to skip grade levels. In my opinion, a path for informal schools to become accredited would help with the influx. Furthermore, formal schools should try an adopt some of the social and counseling methods of informal schools to best accommodate students and their learning methods. Finally, informal schools should look to bring in more refugee populations into their schools. Regardless, in order for a formal education to be provided to every student some major restructuring must occur.

Josie Tarin: Understanding the UN

“Why did the United Nations make us live this life here?” Gamal asked our Duke Immerse team during an interview. Gamal is an Iraqi refugee who came to Jordan ten years ago. He is an older man with dark olive brown skin and a jet black goatee. Wrinkles have formed across his forehand and under his eyes. His age can be seen in his balding hair and drooping eye lids. He sits on a red chair across from our team, hunched over his legs as he answers questions.

Before coming here, my idea of the United Nations was that they offered the best aid possible. The White Helmets that could be found inside Syria were helping as many people as they possibly could, even if it meant putting their own lives at risk. They were the superheroes of the humanitarian world. Not only is the United Nations providing refugees with a safe place to live, but they are also giving them the opportunity to have some normalcy in their lives.

But as our Immerse team started interviewing both Syrian and Iraqi refugees, it became apparent that neither liked the United Nations. In an interview, one Syrian man stated “Do you think they are [too] stupid to know they don’t know the situation? They know the situation.” An Iraqi man shared “This is the United Nations; this is the organization. So we are suffering as Iraqis from them.” He was referring to the fact that he was only receiving a little amount of money per month to sustain his family. He believed that the United Nations could give them more, but were choosing not to. As a result, I started to see how these families struggled. I realize the Iraqi man received 160 JD, about 225 USD, a month and was expected to keep a roof over his family’s head and feed them all at the same time. Even though160 JD is well above the Jordanian poverty line, there still seemed to be a disconnect between the expectations that these refugees had about the UN and the reality of the aid that the UN provided. Another refugee family our Immerse team interviewed had no furniture in their house except for wheelchairs for their two daughters. Where was the UN support?

I started pointing fingers at the United Nations for forgetting about families like this one. I started seeing what was wrong with the organizations we visited as opposed to seeing the great work they were doing for those in need. I was becoming disenchanted with the humanitarian world.

As it turns out, UN aid was not only going towards these families, but the millions of others like them. The United Nations was responsible for making sure these refugees had a roof over their head, but not necessarily the furniture inside. While the man and his family might need furniture, it is not up to the United Nations to provide it. Other organizations might be able to help but to point fingers at the United Nations for only giving enough is not the correct response. During my time in Amman, it had become easy to point fingers at the United Nations, but I was forgetting what first fascinated me about the organization: the fact that this was an organization of people willing to risk their lives for the aid of others. The amount of money they were receiving was greater than that of the poverty line which 1/3 of Jordanians live below. Even though this money made it difficult to sustain a family, it was enough to put a roof over their family’s head, and still have some money for food left over.

My experience in Jordan has opened my eyes to the nuances of the Unite Nations as a international humanitarian organization. The United Nations concerns itself with keeping people alive, not necessarily providing people with luxuries. They supply those in need with just enough to get by because there are so many people they have to give to. As the refugee crisis grows, the funding does not, so the United Nations has to identify those that are the most in need and help with what they can. The United Nations concerns itself on survival, not necessarily excess. For some refugees, this is enough, but for others, their desperation continues even with UN support.

Sara Evall: Responsibility of Media

Two brothers, both Syrian refugees.

After an interview I conducted earlier this week with my interview partner, Idalis, the young man we had interviewed and his uncle asked if we could sit and talk for a while. They wanted to understand our perspective on the Syrian crisis – they asked what we knew about it, what we thought about it, and what other Americans thought. Idalis and I ended up telling them about the problems with the American media, and the ways in which this region, and refugees like them, are falsely portrayed. We talked about how often the media characterizes refugees as dangerous, conflates Muslims and terrorists, and fails to capture the true dynamics of the region, instead painting all of the Middle East as dangerous, destabilized, and overrun by radicals – including Jordan.

In response to our frustrations over the media, the man we were interviewing – a young man of 25, who helps to take care of his three deaf siblings and left Syria with his elderly grandmother – asked us a few questions we could not answer: why is it that the American media does this? Why does it stray so far from truth? What is its motivation in demonizing an entire religion?

Idalis and I looked at each other, dumbfounded and slightly panicked. We could not properly explain away something that, when truly questioned, is appalling. There is no justification for demonizing an entire population, and pretending the majority of people who have fought against or fled from conflict are the same as the small minority causing conflict for extremist purposes. It would make sense to try to raise awareness about a safety concerns if they legitimately existed. However, claiming that all refugees and even all Muslims pose a substantial security threat, and will target and kill Americans while destroying American culture is blatantly wrong, and has been extremely harmful; it has altered the narrative surrounding these people, and there has been a massive spike in cases of white American men murdering people who look like they could potentially be Muslim. It is interesting to note that the media has done nothing to suggest that radicalized “nativist” Americans who have gone on killing sprees could perhaps be more dangerous than refugees, who have committed zero acts of terror in the United States.

Alternatively, a possible reason for the spread of fear and falsehoods is to support a political agenda. To me, that would be worse than doing it for the sake of raising awareness about some extremely misjudged safety concerns, because that would mean that people in positions of power at news agencies like Breitbart and Fox are willfully sacrificing the opportunity for Muslims and refugees at large to feel safe in America for the sake of a political party. I have no idea what values that could begin to reflect, but I know that I cannot support them.

Neither of these answers was good enough, and so the one we gave ended up being frustratingly inadequate. We told them that maybe, it’s the ugly history of racism and xenophobia that stains America continues to permeate so much of society that is to blame, or maybe it is willful ignorance, or maybe it is for the sake of politics that the media does such things. And we tried to assure them that many see past the lies being spread; many Americans, like us, continue to fight for awareness and truth. We seek ways to alter the narrative surrounding them, to ensure that the truths of their humanity, their goodness, and their struggles are heard, but this is incredibly difficult, and we are still learning how to make change.

At its base, this whole exchange was extremely unsettling, because it served as an extraordinarily powerful reminder of how problematic American media is. As American university students to whom refugees have opened up and shared some of the most intimate and painful details of their personal histories, we have not fulfilled our responsibility to investigate why things are this way, who these narratives work for, and what justifications are used to convince individuals that these groups are sacrifice-able. So now, we can use the conversations we have had and the incredible amount that we have learned from refugees here in Jordan, and try to fight against media that continues to devastate people that have already lost so much.

Isabella Arbelaez: Informed Opinions and Alternative Facts

“Standing right now. You guys don’t know the situation. We are just actors here. There is a big, big people playing with all of us. Even you.”

Muhammad’s voice rises as he talks, and his thick, wrinkled olive hands tense up. He is an older man with thick black-rimmed glasses that frame his large brown eyes. Wrinkles have formed across his forehead and bags beneath his eyelids; they deepen as he talks. His age is evident in his droopy eyes, and when he speaks, a long history of smoking can be heard in his deep, raspy voice.  He pulls out a laminated, green Syrian ID card from the coat pocket of his thick charcoal robe, and explains, “I spent four years here, it looks like fifteen years.”

Muhammad and the other refugees we interview in Amman, their lives will continue after the Immerse team leaves Jordan and so will ours back at Duke. But for one brief moment, our erratically different paths intersect here in Amman. Despite the very different positions that we occupy in this world, as “university students” and “refugees,” we are able to truly encounter each other in this moment. In this moment, we see the humanity in each other.

Muhammad turns towards the Duke Immerse team and adds, “I dare you. If they can do anything. Because if they want to try to win the media, telling the people the truth, they are not going to allow them.”

The truth is that these refugees and their families do not feel at home in Jordan. They are no different than you and me, but because of where they were born, their lives have been forever transformed. The big players that Muhammad speaks of are in control of his safety, not him, and the only thing he desires, it a new life. For some refugees, like Muhammad, a new beginning will come when they can return to their home countries. For others, they are seeking a new beginning through resettlement.

Muhammad’s dare forced me to confront the purpose of my experience here in Amman. I recognize that as Duke University students we have been given this opportunity to understand the refugee situation in Amman; those words have been programmed into our interview protocol. But why do we continue our work? In the global refugee crisis, we play a very small role. But can even the small players make a big difference? Our Immerse team is consuming these refugees’ stories in order to share them with another audience halfway across the world. But why?

As this question continuously probed me, I started to realize that my purpose here is not as big as changing the media’s mind, but rather recognizing where are the smaller battles of ignorance and prejudice. As the Immerse team, we are the microphone for a voice that is currently lost in the conversations around the Oval Office. Progress has to be made in steps, and the first steps happen in our innermost circles at Duke and with the families we meet through Mastery.  Change will begin to happen as soon we step off our plane in Durham, North Carolina. With our monologue show in April and Immerse magazine, we will continue to fight on behalf of these unseen populations and hope that these stories can make their way from their home in Amman to Durham and beyond.

As Muhammad closed his interview, he shared, “I respect you, all of you, as Americans. Not America, but as Americans because… You are very kind and you guys trying to search for the truth. But sorry because most of the people, they couldn’t reach it. The truth.” As members of the Immerse team, we are responsible for telling the truth. We will not be able to change the national narrative alone, but informed opinions are better than “alternative facts.”

Louden Richason: Do Headlines Tell the Story?

These are two elementary school classrooms for Syrian children living 15 kilometers from the Jordanian-Syrian border.

“I want to ask a question. Do you think back in Syria or in Iraq – don’t you see there is just 1% [who are] criminals and 99% are people live in peace. But there is this 1% doing all of this to 99%? Do you guys (meaning the United States) know really what’s going on in Syria?”

Akeem, the man who exasperatingly stated this to me in an interview a few days ago, is one of many people I have met in Jordan who struggles to understand the misconceptions dominating the media. The media, and to a lesser extent, the state, he went on to say, creates and contributes to the idea that Syrians are animals only capable of violence. And he’s absolutely right.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, stories focused on the Middle East have almost exclusively focused on oppression and violence. Consequently, the people of the Middle East become associated with a propensity to violence. For example, when people back in the States hear that I am in Jordan, they typically respond, “Is it safe there?” The actions of the 1% completely overshadow the actions of the 99%.

Decision-science studies have pointed to the fact that because we are unable to understand the world in its complexity, we form a simplified view of the world using heuristics – based on the information available to us. Because of the massive amount of information we receive on a daily basis, most individual stories we hear and conversations are eventually forgotten – and what remains for memory retrieval is the positive or negative feeling the story or conversation elicited about its subject. These positive or negative encryptions are cumulative, adding or subjecting to our pre-existing conceptions of reality.

For a person living outside of a major city in the United States, his or her available information and only exposure to Arab culture or Islam could very well be what he or she reads on Fox News or on his or her Facebook page. Frankly, this news is overwhelmingly negative, fueling bias about refugees and Muslims that was already negative in the first place.

As proof, here are some Fox News headlines for the year thus far:

  • “Trump signs executive order for ‘extreme vetting’ of refugees” 1/27
  • “Two Iraqi refugees detained at JFK airport” 1/28
  • “Are refugees connected to crime increase” 2/21
  • “300 refugees subject of terror investigations” 3/6
  • “Report: Hundreds of refugees investigated for ISIS ties” 3/8

And here are some more headlines, straight from the twitter of President Trump

  • “We must keep “evil” out of our country!” 2/3
  • “The judge opens up our country to potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests are heart. Bad people are very happy!” 2/4
  • “I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making my job very difficult!” 2/5
  • “The threat from radical Islamic terrorism is very real, just look at what is happening in Europe in the Middle-East. Courts must act fast!” 2/6
  • “Our legal system is broken! “77% of refugees allowed into U.S. since travel reprieve hail from seven suspect countries.” (WT) SO DANGEROUS!” 2/11
  • “72% of refugees admitted into U.S. (2/3-2/11) during COURT BREAKDOWN are from 7 countries: Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, Libya & Yemen” 2/12

Thus, headlines that portray refugees as being associated with crime and terrorism deepen pre-existing negative feelings. In the absence of conversations with Muslims or refugees in everyday life, there are no positive interactions to combat those consistent negative associations.

Consequently, the 99% is neglected – first by governments/terrorists groups and then by the rest of the world. Ordinary citizens like Akeem are grouped with the 1%. His biggest crime becomes the fact that he did not commit one – the simplicity of his life in Syria before he was forced to flee is irrelevant. Even though the “1%” – the Syrian government and ISIS –  detained him, tortured him, and stripped him of his home, he is still associated with them. He therefore poses an equal threat.

Thus, Akeem will spend the immediate future in a small square basement in Amman without furniture, the ability to legally work, or a means for providing for his family. Because of Trump’s executive refugee quota, the United States will only settle 10,000 refugees for the remainder of the year from specific countries – and only 2,000 from Jordan, a small, poor country with 2.5 million refugees.

Later in my interview with Akeem, he stated once more, “Let me ask you this question. Do you guys (meaning the United States) know really what’s going on in Syria? What about us? We are human.”

The question remains: what will it take for Akeem’s story to hold weight against misinformation?

Sloan Talbot: Promises

Sloan Talbot at Wadi Rum

“Bring our stories back” “Share our stories with those in the States” “Tell the world about us”. At the end of almost every interview, these, among other sentiments are told to me when I ask, “Do you have anything else you’d like to tell us?”

Since my first interview here in Jordan to completing my 10th interview yesterday, the idea of how to give back to someone who has given me so much by sharing their story is something I’ve struggled with.

Reciprocity is an idea that is talked about a lot in humanitarian work. When an individual or an organization gives someone a service, resources, or provides something, they also gain  experiences and insight, invaluable information, and memories from the people they are  “helping”. While this Duke Immerse: Deconstructing/Reconstructing the Refugee Experience is not meant as humanitarian aid or a service trip, the research we are conducting via these interviews leaves me thinking many times that I have gained a lot more than I can give back to these people. The Immerse itself is a way for us as students to understand migration and displacement in the world in the context of the refugee crisis, but also listen to and then share individual life stories from refugees to allow them to share their story, as they would like to tell it. During this Immerse, the interviews we conduct with Syrian and Iraqi refugees are providing me and my team information, insight, and to put it frankly “data” for our research papers, monologues and the group magazine we create together. But what am I providing the individuals who decide to share their stories, who put their emotions, life, stories of loss and pain all out on the table for me to write down and record?

Before every interview, we read our groups’ protocol to each interviewee, explaining that we don’t give anything, can’t provide assistance or support, or even lobby UN officials or resettlement agencies for their individual cases. Each person we interviews agrees to this protocol, most saying that by us simply listening to their story as they want to tell it, we are giving them something amazing, grateful that we are simply listening to what they have to say.

However, after each interview, I never feel like I am returning the immense gift the interviewee gives to me by sharing their story. There isn’t real reciprocity if I am able to gain so much through their stories, but I am not giving something of the same caliber back. The one thing I can try to give back, is to tell these stories in the most authentic and truthful way possible, share these interviews back in the States with as many as I can, to try and deconstruct the stereotypes Americans and our government have about refugees, showing the complexity and depth of not only the stories of displacement, but of the person behind that story.

The task that myself and my group face after returning home in less than a week, is to take what we have heard, seen, and been allowed access to in terms of these stories and these individuals lives, and share it in a way that humanizes refugees, and makes them more than their persecution, but also breaks down stereotypes that circulate American media of the middle east, conflict, Muslims, Arabs, and refugees. Upon our return to the States, the task at hand for the group will be to prepare individual monologues of two of the interviews we conducted, one Syrian, and one Iraqi, these will be presented publicly to the Duke community, but also with plans to present them to the local Durham community, via public schools or community centers. There will also be each team members’ individual papers that will be written using the interviews as data, pertaining to a larger theme or idea that we wished to analyze through the stories we head. Finally, the group will create a magazine that will be published and dispersed, with small op-eds from each team member, and pictures of Jordan showing the places and people we encountered.

Through these modes of sharing what we have learned during our time in Jordan, we can try to begin to get folks back home, at Duke, in Durham, and our own families and communities more engaged in the refugee crisis, deconstructing the universal refugee story and reconstructing it to show individual people. Refugee stories are more than their persecution, or their nationality, or their potential resettlement, and with the stories we have gathered, hopefully dispersing them to the general public will show that refugees’ lives and identities are incredibly different and unique from one another, not one story is the same, refugees were people before they became displaced, and are still individuals with their own story to tell. Hopefully when I answered, “Yes, I’ll try to share your story” to the people I have previously interviewed, I’ll be able to keep my promise, doing so in a way that perhaps helps to change American mentalities and public perception, even in our small Durham community, and thus giving back a little, to the refugees who have shared and given me, so much.

Idalis French: Finding Home

Four young girls leaving school in South Marka.

In our interviews, we often ask people where they consider home. People have often responded that home is either Jordan, Syria, or Iraq, but there have been others that have responded they have no home. I recently conducted Syrian and Iraqi interviews in which refugees explained that “home” will always be their home country no matter what happens in the future. I ask these interviewees about their home that is either non-existent or unattainable, while knowing that in just a few days I will be able to return to the place I call home. I am heavyhearted while listening to these answers because I cannot fathom what that must feel like and what that must mean for their personal identity.

I am blessed to have a home at Duke. There, I know I am able to wake up and sleep peacefully at night… that my safety will never be of great concern. I am afforded the luxury of not having to worry about being abruptly removed. This differs greatly from the plight of the refugees we interview, as they are not able to return to their home. When we ask this question, we have to think about what home can possibly mean. Is home a place of relationships and camaraderie? Or is home a place where someone is able to frequently feel safe and comfortable?

In an interview Sara and I did yesterday, a young man explained that all he wants is to go back to Syria because Syria is the place where he feels most content. We agreed that it was unnecessary to ask more about where home was for him because of the way he talked about Syria. Nevertheless, during my time in Jordan, I have always known that I will not be staying here for a long time. My departure from Jordan seals a field experience, and it is very possible that after this trip, I will not be able to visit Jordan or the Middle East again. I wonder about the refugees that also imagined Jordan as a pit stop. I wonder what they feel right now as they continuously hope that they are able to discover home again. When we ask these questions of home, it is likely that the refugees we interview will never again experience the feeling of happiness when returning to the place they formally lived.

Sara and I have started adding a new question to the end of our interviews, in which we ask people if there is anything else they would like us to know about them that was not said in the interview. Most of the answers remain the same, all revolving around the idea that when someone has to leave their home country or home, they will never be the same. There will always be a part of life that is missing, that cannot be repaired until displaced people are given back their place of residence. When will these refugees be able to return home? Will that ever be the case? There is so much uncertainty around the recognition of home in Jordan, but at this point, many refugees are only able to foresee a life in Jordan for their near future. For that, I will recognize my advantage as a visitor of Amman with great significance, as the people sitting across from me during interviews cannot even imagine the certainty of returning to the place they know and love, a place they call home.

Bryce Cracknell: Light from Darkness

In speaking with refugees over the past three weeks about the darkness that is the refugee crisis, I have found light in some unexpected places. Can an experience so devastating for these refugees bring about new opportunities that may not have been available otherwise?

Last week, in an interview I asked a young Iraqi woman about how she makes big decisions. She told us that she did not make those decisions, her dad did. “I can’t be the leader,” she says. “I always follow the command. That’s the way most Iraqi’s raise their daughters.” It is no secret that women’s agency and rights are limited in most cultures. In the United States, for instance, a women’s right to make healthcare choices about her own body is still contested and restricted in many states. In the interview, I follow up by asking how her decision making has changed since she’s been in Jordan. The answer I received was somewhat surprising. “Yes it has changed,” she said. “If [my son] gets sick, I will take him to the pharmacy by myself. I feel confident now.” Previously, this woman could not cross the street without holding a man’s hand but now as a refugee, she has the agency to make decisions for herself, and it has meant so much to her.

In a meeting with the Jordan Health Aid Society, President Dr. Aljouni shared information about what he sees as a light in the Syrian crisis. Thirty years ago, he said, women were not allowed to go to school or watch TV. Since the crisis, women have become exposed to other areas of the world and the rights and privileges they have, where they begin to see how unjust and unfair your situation is and demand access to healthcare, good education, and self-determination. Without the turmoil that is the refugee crisis people may not have been exposed to a more liberated lifestyle.

Similarly, in a site visit to a White Hands school in Mafraq earlier this week, we got to witness the beautiful and happy primary school kids from Syria. Mafraq is a very rural area of Jordan, only 15 km from the Syrian border. Many of the kids live much closer to the border and also come from very rural backgrounds. The school is accredited by the Jordanian government. When speaking with some of the teachers and staff at the school, they mentioned that many of these kids would not have access to an education in rural Syria, but because they are refugees here in Jordan, they have access to a quality education with dedicated teachers and staff.

To find light in a world of darkness by no means justifies the darkness; however, it can certainly make it less gloomy. It is incredibly unfortunate that people somehow gain agency in survival situations and not in comfort. In other words, something so drastic must happen in their life to level their respective playing field. In other words, people have exposure to a new world that they would not have known unless they survived the conflict. This exposure lets them know that they can want more and achieve more.


Josie Tarin: Being Happy

What allows us to be happy?

At Azraq we met two seven-year-old girls. Azraq is an informal school that works with refugee children in order to help them keep up with their public education. While I introduced myself to them, they asked, “Are you happy?” I wanted to say no. I wanted to respond that I was not happy, that I often found myself wondering what happiness even was. But then I thought of where I was. I thought of the mountain of privilege that I was standing on, and of the fact that I could visit their school, where I could walk in, and be treated like royalty, just because I was American. The school staff brought our Immerse team tea, then later coffee and towards the end we were even served cake. We moved in and out of the offices, entering classrooms, disturbing their learning time. All of this, only for us to take some nice pictures.

In one of my classes for Immerse we read Hanna Arendt, where she stated that where we are born, determines the rest of our lives. And as I left Azraq pensive, I began processing all the privileges I had back home: my large single dorm room, my highly acclaimed college, and at least two places to call home. I have all this, but I hear stories of families that have had to live multiple large families to a single apartment. I think of the car I share with my sister back home and the privilege of getting to drive it, while some refugees cannot afford even a taxi. I thought of how we as Duke students complain about our education, seldom being thankful for an education. Yet there are families in Amman that are not sure if they will have enough food for the entire month. There are people that don’t even know where they will be next year. They have no place to call home.

I was born in the United States of America, a country where my parents thought they could offer their children a better life. And they did. I had food growing up, a free education, a place to call home. Yet, I often thought about how unhappy I was. I saw my free education as a close-minded bowl, I was picky about the foods that my parents bought, and I saw all the imperfections of my house, instead of seeing the love that made it a home. I kept looking for the negative. Meanwhile, the little girls I met in Azraq were laughing, loving the attention they were receiving from the camera. A camera was enough to make them happy.

How could it be that I, having so much to be happy about, was often not? It took two little girls asking me about happiness in order for me to realize that I needed to change my perspective. To change my mindset. Yes, I want to be happy. Yes, I want to be able to comfortably answer those little girls with honesty.

Sara Evall: Religion and Identity

A view from Jerash, not far from Amman.

Growing up in Los Angeles, one of the places with the highest concentration of Jewish people in the world, my Jewish identity was never a qualifier for marginalization, obvious identification with minority status, or a source of discomfort generally. Synagogues are everywhere in Los Angeles, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were frequent, I had days off of school for our most important holidays, and I attended Hebrew School. At the same time, my education about Israel as a young child was very simple; I was taught that after the Holocaust, Jews needed a safe place to escape persecution, and that Israel had been rightfully restored to the Jewish people as that safe place. It was a straightforward narrative: brave people protected the Holy Land from people who were unjustly hateful towards the Jews, and landed claimed by Palestine belonged to Israel.

The first time I understood the status of Jews as a minority population was when I came to college. I was shocked at the discovery that friends of mine from the USA had neither met a Jewish person nor had any conception that there is a sizable contingent of Jews living within their own country. But this reframing of my conception of my identity, and the realization that I have to navigate a world in which many people have huge misunderstandings of Judaism (especially as hate crimes against the Jewish community in my own country skyrocket in conjunction with the new administration) is incomparable to the challenges to my identity posed by being a Refugee and Migrant Studies major spending a month in a nation with a massive population of displaced Palestinians.

At minimum, half of the taxi drivers I have met are Palestinians who have been forced to leave their home nation, or whose parents or grandparents once fled. There are stores and restaurants run by Palestinians, and clothes covered in pro-Palestine slogans right near our hotel. A huge number of aid organizations in Jordan that we have discussed, met with, or I have read about serve the Palestinian population, many members of which are impoverished, in urban slums, or in refugee camps (some of whom belong to families who have been in refugee camps for generations – essentially since the founding of Israel). According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, there are over 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Kingdom of Jordan alone.

I find myself grappling with my religious identity here in ways that I have never been in my life, uncomfortable responding honestly to the frequent questions I get from people asking if I’m Arab or Muslim, and if not, why my skin is so dark for a white American (it is not uncommon for Eastern European Jews to have an olive complexion). People who have been displaced by Israel, along with others who have experienced a complex history of wars with Israel and Israel’s expansion into what was once their land, might be anti-Israel, and this is not unjustified (others, of course, are fine with it). As a Jewish American, I’ve been told for much of my life that my religious identity in a way ties me to Israel, obligating me to support each one of its actions and signaling to others that Israel is where my loyalties lay. When someone tells me that they were once from Palestine, but were forced to leave, my instinctual response is not to identify myself to them as someone whose religion I have been taught can be associated with a government that forced their displacement; the link between Judaism and Zionism that has been engrained in me growing up, regardless of its prevalence here, makes me deeply feel strange in my own skin. I do not believe that the ejection of a people from their land is okay, and disagree strongly with expansionism in Israel now.

However, my mental discomfort is made greater by the fact that I also do not believe Israel should not exist. As evidenced by the Holocaust, before Israel, there was nowhere that would take in Jews; we are historically an unwanted peoples. Further, to eliminate Israel would be to create another mass displacement, and in this current political climate, the odds of millions of Israeli Jews being absorbed into other nations, especially if there were nothing to be gained politically from taking them in, is around zero. Right now, forcibly displaced persons are unwanted peoples, almost universally. The way that Israel’s policies have developed, and the way the founding of the nation was handled are things that I cannot support.

So, I have had to figure out how to handle the reality of my religion in these circumstances. The conclusion I have drawn is that I neither need nor deserve the ability to handle my interactions surrounding issues of religion and Palestinian displacement with mental comfort and ease. This sort of cognitive dissonance that I cannot accept is what forces me into a space of thinking more critically about my opinion on and role in these matters, and will ideally prevent any sort of complacency. While I might be torn ethically, as a person, I am growing.

Isabella Arbelaez: Partnership or Competition?

A Syrian boy and girl huddle together at an informal school in Azraq, established by HRJ: Helping Refugees in Jordan.

When our Immerse team met with a UN officer here in Amman, he shared that in every meeting he attends, he is expected to know all the facts about the region he manages. It seemed to be a theme between aid organizations and government negotiations that we have met so far –  success is measured on knowing all the facts and having the necessary numbers. There is an expectation for these UN officials to come to each meeting prepared for discussion, just like the existing expectation for these aid organizations to be making a mark on their communities. And where do these UN officials and agencies receive their facts? From the partner aid organizations that they fund. It’s an endless cycle. A cycle that has turned humanitarian work into a competition.

It seems ironic that agencies call themselves “partners,” when in reality, these agencies lack all cooperation. From what I have observed during my time in Amman, these agencies are so focused on the prospect of receiving monetary support that they risk working together for the benefit of collaboration. Even more, it seems that this hyper competitiveness does not end between these aid “partners,” but transcends to all levels of the humanitarian sector.

Walking into the Jordanian headquarters of one of these refugee agencies here in Amman, I was amazed by the hundreds of folded bright red and navy backpacks that were stacked along the floor and up against file cabinets all throughout the office. The headquarters’ main office was comprised of a large white room, but the space felt cramped and cluttered with all the different school supplies and cardboard boxes. These backpacks were to be distributed to the agency’s students, who were currently enrolled in its twenty different informal schools throughout the country of Jordan. With the influx of refugees, hundreds of schools have been created to compensate for the lack of schooling that Syrian refugees receive from Jordanian schools, and humanitarian agencies supply these schools and their students with supplies. Along the walls of the office, several large images of smiling refugee children were hanging, with the blue UNICEF logo printed in the right hand corner of the picture.

When we asked the Programs Manager about whether this agency and the rest of UNICEF partners collaborate in their work to provide for these Syrian students, she told us no. Each agency is working towards receiving the same grants, so in a sense, it becomes a competition as to who will receive the most funding.

Listening to the Program Manager explain this reality, I was immediately struck by this idea of a “competition” between humanitarian agencies. But then I realized that this was a theme between aid organizations and UN officials. The expectation to perform has stifled collaborative progress on all levels of the humanitarian sector. What does this mean for the future of the international humanitarian world? I am not certain. But I do recognize that this hyper-competitiveness has put extreme pressure on these agencies to not only perform, but focus on the quantitative measures of their charity work, not necessarily the qualitative.

Louden Richason: The Responsibility of Voice

Iman, a Syrian refugee, with her young son after an interview

As students studying the displacement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, we are challenged – as most researchers are – to navigate the distance between our own experiences and the experiences of the people we interview. We have continually grappled with questions of how we can ethically represent someone else’s voice and whether we even have the right, or the capacity for that matter, to tell someone else’s story.

I still cannot answer these questions with certainty. I do, however, try to keep some important considerations in mind as I enter this community that I can not adequately speak for and share these stories that are not my own.

Like all people, the refugees we interview are multidimensional. Though being a refugee has undoubtedly been consequential to a person’s life, it is only one part of their story. Their ‘refugee story’ does not define them as human beings nor does it shed light on their personhood. This refugee story, often portrayed as a story of tragedy, not only infantilizes refugees by presenting them as helpless victims but strips them of their agency, their resilience, and their claim to their own story.

Instead, to do more justice to their personhood, we try to represent the stories and multidimensionality of refugees. In this way, stories beyond tragedy can shine through – stories of hope, stories of sacrifice, and stories of incredible human triumph.

Typically, in a UNHCR interview – at which refugees are applying for official refugee status or applying for resettlement – the worker at UNHCR controls every aspect of the interview. Since this worker is only interested in facts about a refugee’s life, he or she strictly asks questions relating to persecution. Inconsistencies are detrimental to receiving a desirable status, yet minute details are repeatedly requested. As an Iraqi man named Gasan told me in an interview a few days ago, “Who’s Gasan Al-Qasi? [The United Nations] is going to tell you. Don’t judge me. You don’t know me. But she (the worker at the UN) immediately judged me. She destroyed my family… If you (the UN) are not going to support us, who is going to support us?”

Personhood cannot be captured in an intense interview focused on details of persecution, built on the premise that the person sharing will be judged at the end of the interview.

In contrast, our interviews are focused on understanding who these refugees are as people – and the stakes are not life-altering. By asking broad questions focused on areas such as family, community, religion, values, and moments of significance, refugees can direct the interview to areas that are important to them. In telling the story on their own terms, they can choose which parts of themselves to share. This strategy can not only give us a glimpse into the experiences which have been meaningful to a refugee but also can allow us to come closer to understanding their story from their perspective.

Thus, the structure of our interviews – centered on empathy and open mindedness – do no harm to the refugees sharing their stories, at the very least. Sometimes sharing (and having a person present who will listen) can also be restorative, especially when interviews with the United Nations can be so exploitative and unforgiving. However, despite our efforts, we will never be able to fully understand someone else’s experiences.

For that reason, we have to be really cautious about our representation of people. To most accurately represent someone’s voice, we must do all we can to be true to what they told us – including what they included and excluding what they excluded. Our voices and our privilege can bring legitimacy because we are students at an American university – as problematic as that is – and we can try to use that legitimacy to broadcast voices that society has chosen to silence. That legitimacy, which in our case is not much compared to that of policy makers or more experienced researchers, brings a responsibility to advocate ethically on the behalf of those with whom we spoke – representing their multidimensionality and shedding light on positives and negatives, capacity and constraint, tragedy and triumph.

Sloan Talbot: Stereotypes and Assumptions

“Iraqi? Iraqi Not Good” -Photo of the inside of a Taxi Cab, Amman, Jordan.

Whenever the group travels to an interview, our Iraqi translator explains the general location to us and then once we are in a cab, we call and put him on the phone with our driver so he can give them specific directions. Typically, after the cab drivers briefly interact with him over the phone, they will try and talk about the fact that he’s Iraqi, saying thing like, “Oh Iraqi? Iraqi Mish Kwayiss” which roughly translates with our limited Arabic to “Iraqi? Iraqi’s not good”.

This comment highlights a larger phenomenon that I have observed in Jordan — the tensions, assumptions and general discrimination amongst Iraqi’s, Syrians, and Jordanians about one other. These assumptions operate both informally with the day to day interactions and conversations heard, and then institutionally, with some programs restricted to certain groups, Syrians getting school fees waived, but Iraqi’s having to pay, a lower rate for health insurance for Syrians and higher for Iraqis, all getting more aid than the Sudanese, Somali and Yemeni refugees. How these tensions operate serve to highlight a larger question posed by those here in Jordan and external NGO’s and governments, regarding who needs help, and in a time of limited resources, who receives aid, and who does not?

On a surface level, the day to day assumptions mostly come from a place of misunderstanding. We have heard many people express the common assumption that Syrians receive the most aid in the form of food vouchers, access to work, and resettlement. The type of aid given to refugees varies largely due to factors of when displacement occurred, number of refugees in Jordan, and other unknown numbers and positions.

The institutional levels here in Jordan are also creating these tensions. The Jordanian government mandates that all NGO’s wishing to work with refugees’ reserve 30% of their assistance or aid, for Jordanians. The Iraqi’s, Syrians, and small organizations we have talked to, like the Collateral Repair Project (CRP) and MECI have told us the discontent many feel about Jordanians receiving air or a spot in a program, when the Jordanian government is supposed to help Jordanians more than the refugees, the organizations expressing tensions about how funding is awarded and the limits of refugees they can take into their programs because they must fulfill the Jordanian quota. Yet many Jordanians do in fact need this assistance, as they suffer from the same problems that refugees have in terms of inadequate schooling, and expensive rates of living in Amman and Jordan. The larger issue of Jordan formal schooling, and the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens, is not being addressed. As a result, NGO’s must work with both communities in order to receive funding, but this lessens the numbers of refugees able to receive this assistance.

There are constructed, man-made divisions specifically amongst Iraqi and Syrian refugee communities when it comes to funding allocation for groups that create hostilities towards the other, and discontent towards the UN, and the Jordanian government. Many organizations we have talked to have pointed to the announcement by the Jordanian government to allow a certain number of work visas for refugees in Jordan to be given. However, these work visas are specifically ear-marked to Syrian refugees, leaving out the ability to work for the numerous other nationalities of refugees in Jordan. With the inability to work being the main factor for economic hardship, and loss of agency, to limit this option to a specific nationality of people will create discontent from other populations not receiving this aid, Iraqis, Somalis, Sudanese, and even local Jordanians themselves. Talking to the U.S. embassy recently here in Amman, two field officers explained that the U.S government is one of the largest donors for UNHCR, and local non-profits, mentioning that the official U.S. policy is to give equal funding and resources to all refugees, regardless of nationalities. However, as the group, going to organizational meetings and speaking to both Iraqi and Syrian refugees in interviews, there is no equal funding being given, and a large population of refugees, like Yemenis, Somalians, and Sudanese are completely overlooked.

Ultimately, from general misunderstanding of different refugee populations, to limited resources or specific rules for NGO’s to abide by, and overall stereotyping of populations creates tensions between groups that leaves Jordan, and the people living here disjointed, and separated. With long term displacement being the reality for many refugees here in Amman, to avoid talking about these issues is out of the question, but how does one change the narrative of varying groups, when this narrative is given factual evidence by policies implemented by government and NGO’s? As seen from the examples above, the stereotypes and assumptions formed on the ground about refugees or Jordanians do not come from prejudice or stereotyping, but stem from the larger issue of unequal allocation of funding to all refugee groups in Jordan.

Idalis French: An Intrusive Outsider

In South Marqaa, a white graffiti wall displays a large “Welcome” next to the UNRWA flag and the Jordanian flag.

Other the past few weeks, I have had to go back and forth on this question: How do I incorporate my value system into our research? If anyone knows me, he/she knows I’m a healer, always trying to find new ways that I can help others. Whether that be something spontaneous or a normal duty, I am always prepared to help others, because that is where I find my joy. Unfortunately, as a student researcher, I cannot help the refugees I interview. I am literally unable to do anything for them, other than take up space in their home and provide some good company. My world is currently spinning on a peculiar axis, and it’s taking me a little while to get accustomed to it.

I am a southerner, raised to say “yes ma’am” “no sir,” to simply be pleasant whenever I am around anyone new or anyone I am currently meeting. However, in my interviews in Amman, I feel like I’m using my manners in a way that does nothing but take. I am taking away the experiences of others while blissfully drinking their tea, and then heading off to my hotel to write up their interviews for other Kenan students to analyze in the future. This exchange seems so uneven it hurts, as I know I’m not able to give these refugees the things they desire most—comfort and peace. My discomfort here with our work isn’t just about my status as a student; I feel like this would be uncomfortable even if I were a seasoned, professional interviewer. I struggle with the fact that I am on somewhat of a treasure hunt, looking for the greatest moments of a refugee’s life, and then leave once I’ve found this treasure. But once I leave, what do I leave with these refugees? A false sense of hope?

In each interview, I have been able to see the excitement, joy, and hope that many of these refugees have. In the back of their minds, they’re always thinking, maybe just maybe after my story is heard, I will be moved somewhere else. They cry in front of me, express their deepest feelings and darkest moments of their lives, hoping this experience will give them something in return. It isn’t something stated, as most of the refugees explain how “glad” they are to help me with my research, but as any person would, I know they think of the endless possibilities from their interview. I have been in at least five different homes, some Syrian and some Iraqi, and the hospitality I have been afforded has left me both gracious and despondent. At the time of the interview, I imagine what I can do to help this family. But then, day after day of more interviews, I barely remember the many intricate details of how one refugee story differed from another.

I am outsider here, both ethnically and culturally, so I also have to address what it is that makes me feel like I am supposed to save. It is proper for me to feel as if there is something I can do to help these people? And what point do my inherent savior desires become demeaning? Is my thought that, “Yes, I can do something” my way of simplifying the refugee story in a way that devalues it? I have yet been able to answers these questions. In each interview going forward, I have to turn off my feelings, put them in a box, and allow them to come out once my work is completed. But there’s one thing, harder than I ever expected to it be. When serving and saving is such an integral part of my personhood, how do I separate who I am from what I should be, so that I am able to get better results? I don’t yet know.

Bryce Cracknell: Awareness of Vulnerability 

An old sports car sits in a garage in Abdoun, one of the expat districts of Amman.

In reflection of our time in the field thus far, many questions and issues have come up that I had not previously thought of before starting research. Looking at the issues of wealth and class in the context of refugees and humanitarian work, two separate questions come to mind. One, do you have to be poor to be vulnerable? And two, can people with very privileged backgrounds and/or identities effectively assist refugees?

The first question asks that we define what it means to be vulnerable while acknowledging that there may be many types of vulnerabilities both induced and not induced by wealth and class. My first interview in Jordan was with two Iraqi sisters who are the relatives of a high government official in Iraq. Back home, they had it all. This sharply contrasted from what I understood to be a refugee. Their apartment was beautiful and full of things that could only belong to someone of a wealthy background. Some may argue that their wealth provides them the opportunity to make decisions on how they spend their money that other people may not have. However, these women are still refugees, they have fled persecution and thus have suffered as a result. The loss of one’s family members, home, possessions, livelihood, country, and the ability to work is unfathomable to most, including myself. In today’s global society, one’s profession often defines one’s worth and often gives a person purpose. Without the ability to work, people lose that crucial piece of their identity. There is no doubt by having the basic comforts of a home, clothes, and food makes them better off than most refugees. But to be a refugee is to be vulnerable. Without health insurance their health is vulnerable. The trauma they experience makes them vulnerable. Without citizenship their very existence is vulnerable.

The second question forces us to look at our awareness, our ability to empathize, and our privilege. To do good humanitarian work with refugees requires that we better understand their experience through studying and working directly with refugee populations. Some cases and situations, however, are beyond our understanding because we have no idea what it is like to be persecuted in our home country or what it is like to be stateless. Those who have experienced some form of oppression or hardship however may have the ability to better understand what they are feeling and empathize with their situation.

“Humanitarian officials make too much money,” is something I have heard from both refugees and people who work in this field. Whether it is ethical for someone to be profiting off of helping others is another debate. Instead, officials who make a substantial amount of money, when the people they work for have no income, inherently adds several degrees of separation between them and a refugee. This in turn, may also undermine the work they are trying to do because they do not understand what it is like to have the inability to work and receive a small stipend (if they are lucky) from the UN or other humanitarian organizations. One potential benefit of the United Nations rotation requirement is that it requires all of their officials to rotate between comfortable locations and field locations, forcing officials to have direct access to the refugee population and see the situation from the ground.

We must be aware of our privilege and biases because it effects the work we do regardless of whether we have good intentions. To make sure that our good intentions bring about good outcomes requires constant vigilance to work with the populations we serve and the humility to know that we do not have all the answers.

Josie Tarin: Alive

A woman and child wait by the sidewalk in Amman, Jordan.

As Professor Rula Quawas leads discussion in her course, Feminism in Literature at the Jordanian University in Amman, she highlights the story of Edna, the main character in Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour. Edna was married to man whom many in the community considered as a good, kind husband. When he unexpectedly passes away, the townspeople are hesitant to inform his wife. They knew Edna had a weak heart, and worried that she would suffer a heart attack upon hearing the news of her late husband. But after hearing the news and excusing herself to her room, Edna exclaims, “Alive, Alive, Alive!”

Though this is an American novel, this particular story of Edna encapsulates the misconception I held about marriages in the Arab world. I imagined them as something forced on the woman, that even with a “good” husband – someone that treated her well, someone that loved her – the woman would still never truly feel like she could genuinely love him. When I thought of the way that Jordan, and the rest of the Arab world worked, I imagined that marriages were all arranged, and all women were forced into something they did not want to do.

This was all until I met a Syrian woman living in Amman during one of our field interviews.

In her interview, she explained that she was thankful that she married a kind man, someone who was respectable both in and out of the house.  “I married a good person” she told us. It struck me that, having the opportunity to share anything about her family, she thought first about her husband and the blessing he has been in her life. As she talked about her husband, she mentioned how even though he hadn’t studied, he was very smart. She was excited as she informed us that at a bazaar, her husband would be showcasing a pillow he created to help people with bad backs. She talked about how wonderful he was her, with their little girls, and also with his mother. She mentioned how he never left his mother’s side when she needed someone to care for her. Out of all of his siblings, he was the only who stayed back to take care of his mother.

Like Edna, her marriage had not been arranged, yet unlike Edna, she seemed happiest and most alive when talking about him.

Sara Evall: Finding Purpose in People

A wall in Amman, Jordan was painted over in English and Arabic, reading “We are so #HAPPY.”

Josie and I conducted our first interview in Jordan together. We met with a Syrian woman and spoke to her via our translator, Maher, for around an hour, discovering every detail of her life. She was mostly soft spoken, and had a sweet, lightly freckled face with big, light brown eyes. Her demeanor was unimposing and contained. Her delicate body was hidden beneath a large, knee-length coat and hijab. Despite our language barrier, I could tell from our unbroken eye contact that she spoke with intention. Her laughter lit up the room, causing Maher and the other women in the room to laugh with her. I was upset that I could not hear her words firsthand, but I tried through body language and emotional expression to connect past the barrier of a person acting as an intermediary between us (while Maher is a translator and wonderful facilitator, connection is simply more difficult without immediate understanding).

Toward the end of the interview, we had covered a variety of topics that were not at all typical to those in the media’s “refugee narrative.” We instead talked about this woman’s children and their passion for swimming, what their home looked like back in Syria, and how they used to sit in their garden for meals with their extended family. I asked Maher if there were any other major parts of her life that she would like to share, and her response was surprising and humbling.

She essentially said, “thank you for listening to me, for being interested in me, in my problems. It’s very nice to have this interview.” She nodded and smiled, eyes crinkling, as Maher translated this for us. At the end of the interview, she asked for a photograph with Josie and I to keep. When we left, her and her 17-year-old daughter gave us hugs, and her daughter told us that she loved meeting us, and asked us if we had WhatsApp so she could stay in touch.

When I talked to family and friends about this program before I came to Jordan, they all asked what we were doing, and how our research would be used. They asked if we would be writing big papers, if we would be published, if this could change policy, and how we could make an impact on the increasingly xenophobic narratives and laws surrounding refugees. And while we will write essays using this research and can contribute to years of interviews done by previous Duke Immerse students, it is of vital importance to remember every day who we are and what we are doing.

We are all undergraduate students. We are not Ph.D. candidates or recipients, spending years living with a community making groundbreaking contributions to academia. We are not policymakers, and policymakers will not take us seriously nor will they care about our opinions on the refugee crisis, no matter how informed they might become. And while we might hope one day to be in those positions, for now we can only show people that they are important as people. While governments reject them, the media paints them poorly, and they suffer more than we can imagine, we can still show those with whom we work that we care about them. We aim to, at base, address the big picture issues of the refugee experience, and seek out the overarching problems facing these populations. But at the same time, we seek the delicate balance of bringing respect and understanding to an individual’s life through their interviews. We care about their stories, their intricacies, their humanities, their laughter, and all the component parts that sum up to make them who they are.

If in the process of collecting our research in our life story interviews, we can lift some of the burden of loneliness and isolation, and remind people here and there that they matter, then I will consider this month more than well spent.

Isabella Arbelaez: Building Bridges

With her smile alone, a young refugee girl embraces her schooling in Azraq, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn and spend time with her Syrian friends.

“You are a subject, not an object… You don’t have to be Edna, you have to be you.”

Professor Rula B. Quawas’ voice rises as she finishes her point; her students nod and hum in agreement. She is a short, older woman with short brown hair and dark glasses. Her accent is a mix of Arabic and Irish.

Our Immerse team sits along the back wall of her classroom in Jordan University, taking down notes and nodding in agreement with what Professor Quawas is saying. The classroom is large and white with six rows of chairs. There are no personal touches, besides three stock images displaying destinations of clear blue water, white boats, and stone castles. The majority of Rula’s students sit in the front three rows, closest to her and the white board. All of her students except for one are women. The students are discussing their assigned reading, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, an American novel which Quawas uses to explore messages of self-empowerment and independence for her female students. She stands in the front of the room by the white board, pointing her fingers at her students and emphasizing certain points.

“We have to rebut, to contest, and to challenge. The roles prescribed by society… fundamental institutions that breed oppression… those we have to change.” As she says these words, several of Professor Quawas’ students nod and hum in accordance.

As a young female studying at a liberal university like Duke, I still found myself nodding and humming to what Rula is saying. Her words resonate in my ears, and I underline certain words like “wake up” and “fight” in my notebook. While her female students confront how this American novel relates to their Arab culture, I found myself in awe of how much I personally need to hear this message. Too many times, I take for granted the liberal education I have been given – an academic education that prides itself on its students’ achievements, but not necessarily on the people they are becoming. Rula’s course reminds me of the bridge that must we as students must build between these two points – our achievements and our personhood. We must develop these two aspects of ourselves, cohesively. Despite the pressures and “breeding” by Duke to become the highest achieving students, our success cannot take precedence over our development as human beings. At Duke, I recognize that I struggle to build this bridge and feel that I am sacrificing my personhood over my academic success. At the expense of getting good grades, I lose what I love as a person – time with friends, conversation, and company.

Rula explains, “The only bridge you build is to you and yourself.” She makes possible to her female students the idea that they can explore who they are beyond the roles of wives and mothers that have been prescribed by traditional Arab culture. This is a profound idea, and while Rula applies it to the context of her students’ lives, I recognize the need for similar bridges to be built at Duke. As a Duke student, I must build a bridge stretches from my academic goals to my personal goals, or in other words, my “heart goals.” I have to bring the two together in one frame. It is my responsibility, not the institution’s.

Rula shares with the class that she knows that several of them are wives and mothers. Recognizing these new social roles, several of them connect the novel to their personal lives. Commenting on their personal narratives, Rula uses the example of Edna, the main character in The Awakening, to encourage her female students to take time for themselves beyond their familial relationships. She ties the novel to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Follow the beatings of your own heart.” I know that more Duke students, regardless of gender, could use her message and claim their efforts and energy. This does not mean they give up on the major or activities they want to pursue, but rather, they refuse to allow for these pursuits to consume them.

Duke students, myself included, need time to develop themselves as people as well as their resumes. We all need more Rula in our lives.

Louden Richason: Finding Truth in Stories

A family of Iraqi refugees living just outside of Amman. Photo by Louden Richason.

“Don’t fret from us. We are civilians. We are human beings. People watching on the TV about the news, you know, killing, cutting the heads off the bodies. This is not us. This is not Iraqis. So I want you to know that and note it.”

This message, a quote from the mother of a family of Iraqi refugees that Sara and I interviewed, has been reiterated time and time again (through actions and stories) throughout our first week in Amman. Her message powerfully voices that refugees are not extremists or vehicles of suffering but human beings – comprised of good people and bad people, just like we are – with agency and the capacity to make choices, albeit often severely constrained ones.

After conducting several life story interviews with Syrian and Iraqi refugees, I am beginning to more concretely grasp the power and impact of the negative, dominant narratives that surround refugees but also the potential for positive narratives to deconstruct them. It is becoming increasingly clear that personal refugee stories may be one of the most effective means (and now possibly the only means) for challenging misconceptions and changing hearts.

As quantitative skills become universalized and data is increasingly manipulated to serve any desired purpose in our society today, it has become increasingly difficult to find the truth. Governments, media, and individuals can access and use skewed or limited statistics to ground their opinions and preconceived notions in fact. Politics are polarized, and opposing parties and media outlets across the world are unwilling to pursue truth because of the push for election (and re-election) and the importance of high ratings.

With data skewed and interpreted so liberally, how is it possible to make sense of contradicting statistics and polarized narratives?

That is where personal stories have potential – they are compelling because they do not claim to be generalizable objective fact. A story is not a number; it is a person’s recounting of their experience. If publicizing the knowledge that 65 million people are displaced in the world today no longer has an impact, perhaps the stories of unaccompanied minors, families, or individuals will. It is easy to listen to news consistent with your beliefs and trust that the corresponding statistics accurately portray reality. It is harder to seek out the truth through having conversations across boundaries and hearing stories of individuals who refuse to stay silent.

In mainstream media and policy, refugees are often painted as a threat to both national security and national well-being. Defining refugees in terms of their ‘threat’ is deceptive and dangerous in that it undermines empirical reality and allows us to retreat into a shell of indifference, comfortable with the idea that taking in refugees would negatively impact our daily lives.

A refugee has never been responsible for an attack on United States soil, yet threat narratives persist. They suppress the voices of those whose experiences can shed light on the reality of the situation and overlook the fact that refugee, a person who has been forced to leave his or her country and has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, is entitled to membership in a new state. Though it is naïve to think that country can take in an unlimited amount of refugees, narratives of threat elude our obligation and our humanity. Dominant narratives, rather, should center around responsibility, empowerment, and empathy.

As numbers become unreliable and desensitizing and dominant narratives become pernicious and misinformed, stories can bring us closer to the truth. Stories deconstruct and reconstruct narratives. Stories break shells of indifference. Stories remove us from the limits of individual experience and allow for dialogue between people who are radically different from us. Stories pave the way for understanding and empathy. Stories shed light on the arbitrariness of birthplace and the extent of our privilege. Stories cannot be ignored.

But, most importantly, stories lead to the truth.

If we listen to voices of refugees who continue to emphatically state things like, “This is not us. This is not Iraqis,” misinformed narratives of hate cannot win out.

Sloan Talbot: What it means to be a ‘Refugee’

A palm tree table ornament sits in the home of an Iraqi refugee. The tree is a symbol of Iraq.

“All my life was happy…You know maybe the media make Iraq a very bad Iraq…before 2003…It was a very beautiful life in Iraq…I had a very good life but it changed.”

This quote was taken from the first interview I conducted in Amman with a woman who had been in Jordan since 2003. Her family was extremely well-off and politically connected, and her life in Iraq as she describes it was beautiful, easy. She lives now in a small apartment, working illegally as a secretary, because refugees are not allowed work permits in Jordan. Her home provides clues to a life she once lived; the furniture imported from Turkey, the statues, and objects brought over from Iraq, all pointing to a life very different than the one she lives now in Jordan.

I had no idea what “kind” of refugees we would be interviewing. I knew the basics, that the media’s one-note image of young children and families, poor or starving could in fact be the people we were interviewing. I also thought that I was critical enough to see beyond that, to see refugees as people coming from all walks of life and backgrounds. I figured the reports I had read, the research I had done, the stories I had heard from classes and the local refugee tutoring I do in Durham meant that I understood that refugees were not all helpless and lacking agency. But these stereotypes were still present as soon as I opened the door to the woman’s apartment and saw her beautiful home, my mouth wide open, feeling dumbfounded.

As a low-income, first-generation college student attending a top school such as Duke, my idea of control, agency and independence has been tied to being financially stable. To obtain a degree at a prestigious school, and use that to obtain a well-paying job means to have agency. This assumption, carried over to how I perceived refugees. Can someone with a high education, financial prosperity, and prominent family connections come into the circumstance of being a refugee? Absolutely.

I don’t know why this never crossed my mind, but when I pictured who I would be interviewing, I did not have the imagination to picture someone who came from a comfortable life. Because doesn’t that inherently change the image of a refugee and their home country? If someone comes from a place of happiness and wealth, does that change our image of the “vulnerable refugee”? Does it make them less worthy of help? Listening to the woman’s story, her life turned upside down in a single night of terror and violence, fleeing to Jordan, and remaining here in Amman made me come face to face with my ignorance. Anyone can be a refugee, anyone can face persecution.

Upon hearing this woman and her story of the life she lived in Iraq, it became clear that she was absolutely right about the media’s false portrayal of Iraqis. Maybe her life was the exception to the rule, but even so, I have never seen the media portray Iraq as anything other than a war zone, a place that “needs” salvation, a place of danger, a place of poverty.

My very first interview with a refugee in Jordan was unlike anything I expected, and that was an important learning moment for me. Refugees are people from all walks of life. We can’t forget that refugees are not simply “vulnerable subjects”. Refugees lives before conflict were diverse and different, some coming from poverty, some not. The backgrounds of these refugees does not increase or lesson their “vulnerability” or their “need”, it does not make their refugee story more common or more unique. Their lives before are different than the lives they lead now. Iraq should not have to be described as a place of terror and sadness for a story to be believed. Iraq is complex, multi-faceted, and holds many different realities for people, besides the one we see on T.V. Iraq can be beautiful, and still be a place to flee from.

Idalis French: Busy, Busy

Three young boys pose for a picture while visiting Roman ruins in Umm Qais, Jordan.

When I arrived in Amman, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew our days were limited but busy; however, I didn’t realize how hectic and informative these days would be. In Amman, there aren’t enough hours in the day. From conducting research in the field, to interviewing families late in the evening, then writing up interview transcripts in the wee hours of the night, there is no time to focus on anything but our work. We are on, all the time, constantly writing about our experiences while simultaneous delving into the environment of Amman and Jordan. Every day is a new adventure, filled with plenty of surprises, keeping me on my toes at all times.

Not only have I been surprised by our schedule, but also I have been pleasantly surprised by the kindness of our interviewees and the Jordanians. Up and down Rainbow Street, we walk all morning and night visiting new restaurants and cafes. The locals and interviewees are extremely pleasant, never rude. Nevertheless, the few interviews I have participated in aren’t likely to represent all of my interviews with refugees in Jordan. I have to prepare myself for whatever information I am given, even if our interviewees aren’t as friendly as I had hoped. The possibility of unapproachability doesn’t discount my other encounters. Jordanians respect and welcome U.S. citizens.

The strength of the refugees we interview is incredible. As an American citizen coming from a sheltered childhood and an extremely protected institution, I have constantly had to recognize my privilege since arriving to Amman.  I have never had to face any situation as scary as having to wonder whether or not tonight was the night I would have to leave the place I call “home”. After dealing with stress of that magnitude, I cannot help but imagine how difficult it is to be strong. It makes me ask: Is strength automatic, when one has to be strong for his/her family? After being displaced, what does it mean to be “strong”? Every day, I am amazed while listening to refugees’ stories of death, loss, hope, and peace. I have learned that refugees are the definition of strength, and I am grateful to witness a small portion of their power.

Over the past week, I have learned that this experience is not about me. My personal reflections about the environment and how I am being affected are extremely unimportant. This month is about something much bigger. While I am here, my job isn’t to reflect on my feelings, but rather bring to light the past and current experiences of the refugees we meet. We are here simply as bodies, listening to the refugees, making them feel comfortable enough to tell us their stories so that hopefully, one day, more people will be willing to listen. Everyone I have come in contact with in Jordan has made me feel astonishingly comfortable, and I am excited to see what the next three weeks have in store.

Bryce Cracknell: Perception vs. Reality

Children playing soccer in an alley stop to say hello in the Marka neighborhood of Amman.

“But is it safe?” is the question I often received when I told people I was going to Jordan this month. I am writing to tell my family and friends that our perceptions of Jordan and the Middle East can be described as something closer to what Kellyanne Conway would call alternative facts. The truth is, I have felt very safe here. Like any large metropolis, Amman is a multifarious city with millions of people from around the world and across the region including Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians. As in any city, one must be conscious of their surroundings, not talk to random strangers on the street, and walk in groups. To say that Amman is secure is an understatement. The United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to make sure Jordan remains secure. Every time I leave our hotel I see men and women in uniform patrolling the streets. Explaining that Jordan is safe, however, is not the point of this letter. Instead, I want you to know Jordan is beautiful.

The Jordanian landscape is incredible with rolling hills, white rocks, and palm trees. The people are virtuous, kind, and respectful. The cityscape of Amman stands out yet blends together with the surrounding desert all at once. The tan stone buildings almost invisible, except for the oval windows and red tile roofs peeling out from the hills. During the week there are bustling bazaars in Amman, on the weekends families gather outside of the city to have a picnic, and at all times one can find deliciously fresh and tasty food. Furthermore, the cucumbers actually taste like more than just water and I am eating raw tomatoes without making a face of disgust.

The other day we visited Jordan University and sat in on a women’s empowerment class that was discussing the novel “The Awakening.” The discussion on feminism, agency, individuality, and culture left everyone in the room feeling stronger. For the women in the class, you could sense the transformation in their how they think and what they hope for by the dialogue in the room. It is in these moments that I realize how similar we all are. While we come from different places we share so much in common. We dream, we want the best for our children, we want to learn and see the world, to be able to provide for ourselves and for our children, and most of all we want to be happy. Throughout the week, we’ve been invited into the homes of refugees and have listened to their incredible stories of hardship, perseverance and family. Being a refugee is incredibly dehumanizing so we are sure to ask about their passions, their hopes, and their dreams the very things that make them human. However, it is hard to know whether they have a future when our world leaders preach xenophobic rhetoric.

It is important that we do not let our shared humanity succumb to fear. Fear makes us illogical and allows us concede the things that we should never lose hold of. We let go of our privacy and rights in exchange for security and surveillance. We let go of our ethics and love for blindness and hatred. We must do the extra work and shed the stereotypes we buy into and divest from stores of injustice. “Stereotypes are oppressive” Rula Qawas the professor of the feminist literature class declared to her students. I hope that one of the things I am able to do in this program is not only break the stereotypes that I hold, but help break the stereotypes of those around me. Diversity is difference, and differences are to be celebrated. Yet our only real difference are the places we are born and the circumstances we come into.