“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.