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.

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.

Do Headlines Tell the Story?

Syrian border
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?

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.