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.

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.

Finding Hom

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.


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.