Narratives and Stories

Caroline Wang with Irish President Michael D. Higgins

This past Tuesday, my fellow DukeEngage members and I honored World Refugee Day by attending an event hosted by the Dublin City Interfaith Forum, which highlighted refugee stories of faith and hope. This event was accompanied by a slideshow of artist-drawn images depicting the migration process. While each work of art shed a unique light on the refugee experience, the image that stuck out to me most was a sketch of a girl drowning in the ocean, weighed down by a television screen broadcasting news commentary. It’s been three days and I still can’t get that image out of my head.

Throughout the past week, I’ve thought a lot about the role that media plays in shaping what we believe to be the refugee experience. In the United States, most of the information that I hear regarding refugees and migration comes from national news outlets. I could argue that some media outlets handle the crisis better than others, but I don’t believe I could name a single one that hasn’t placed a strong emphasis on negative reporting. These are the headlines that we are inundated with – tales of hate crimes and terrorist attacks and bloodshed. The problem with this method of journalism is that the public isn’t told anything that it didn’t already know about the refugee crisis.

With nearly 65 million people in the world falling under the category of “refugee,” it’s incredibly naïve of us to believe that we have heard all of their stories. So then, why do we keep hearing the same narratives every day? The repeated stories we hear of loss, separation, and terror lead many individuals to either pity or loathe those involved in the crisis. While I will never understand the vitriolic response to refugees that some people have, pity is easier to understand. The stories we hear regarding these individuals are often so negative that we may believe that this group of nearly 65 million people is entirely helpless. However, this is often not the case, and most refugees don’t want our pity any more than they want our hate.

At the same event, a Syrian refugee shared some of her experiences in Ireland. She spoke of the incredible opportunities she’s had since her arrival, and how she is now a small business owner and entirely self-sufficient. On the verge of tears, she felt the need to emphasis that she is not a burden on anyone. The word “burden” comes up a lot in the debates surrounding the refugee crisis, as if these aren’t remarkably resilient people self-motivated by the thought of a better, safer life. In Ireland, many refugee minors perform extremely well in the education system. Like the event speaker who now runs her own business, refugees who can enter the job market often contribute greatly to society. These people are far from being burdens, or terrorists, or whatever else sensationalist media portrays them as. They are complex humans who deserve to live without the social stigma that being a refugee carries.

Instead of broadcasting negative news, which highlights differences, I would hope that media outlets would seek to portray the refugee experience in all of its fullness or as much as is possible.  This kind of coverage would allow readers to see refugees as people like themselves. This kind of coverage, moreover, is critical to changing opinion and breaking down prejudice. Indeed, these newcomers deserve to have their lives–which are as complicated and nuanced as our own–acknowledged, rather than merely pitied or criticized.

The Personal Value of Citizenship

Wait, can I get a picture with it?”

I smile at my client, whose eyes are wide with anticipation and pride, and nod. I hand back her application packet and exchange for it her smartphone camera, which I use to snap a couple of pictures to capture the moment. “Sorry for being annoying,” she adds, “I’ve just been waiting forever for this moment.”

I work at the Citizenship Application Support Service (CASS), a consultation service that assists individuals with the Irish citizenship process. After learning the intricacies of the process and how difficult the application can be at parts, I wholeheartedly believe in the value of our service. In fact, I hear on a daily basis from our clients that they couldn’t have done it without us. Unfortunately, CASS is currently in a tight spot. The organization lost its funding from the Department of Justice and Equality at the end of May, just one week before I arrived in Ireland ready to work, and had to begin charging in order to keep its doors open.

The problem with introducing money into the matter is that you sometimes lose sight of the important things. Every day I sit at the front desk and watch potential clients walk in, hear of our price change, and walk right back out in shock. Between my supervisor’s frustration and the hushed conversations with board members that I heard pieces of, I knew the office could not operate much longer if we didn’t start making more money. I desperately wanted to help and began to put what I’ve learned in school to the test – I analyzed our situation, considered costs and revenues, and finally created a business strategy to maximize profit margin based on the value provided by our service. Long story short, all of this analytical work required me to assign a numerical value for citizenship.

It’s difficult for me to discern the value of CASS’s service because citizenship means different things to different people, but my closest point of reference is my parents, both of whom are first-generation immigrants. I still have memories from when I was young of sitting on the floor of my parents’ study as they filled out forms, stayed up late memorizing information for the citizenship test, and scouring mountains of documents to prove their residency. All in all, it took seven years for my parents to achieve citizenship in the United States. I can’t wrap my head around how exhausting that process must have been, but according to my parents, it was worth it for the sense of belonging and ownership that comes with being a citizen of the country you live in. I think about my parents, and the countless commemorative photographs I’ve taken for proud clients, and I can’t help but think that there’s no number big enough to capture the true value of citizenship.

Now, when I walk into work and sit down with another client, I try not to think of them as another figure on our annual report but rather an individual taking another step closer to becoming an Irish citizen. I think of my parents and the pride they take in citizenship, and remember that the value of citizenship is too intrinsic to be quantified for a cost-benefit analysis. As I input another entry into our database for “approved” applications, I don’t think about how that’s our 305th approved application thus far this year and how great that’ll look on our annual report. Instead, that’s another person who gets to take pride in Ireland and call it his/her own, and that’s valuable in itself.