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.

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.

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.