Nothing I Can Do

mahima varma dukeimmers photo 1The gasps of wonderment and awe that often follow the statement “I go to Duke” puts into most students a false sense of invincibility. It makes you believe that we can answer any question in the world, move any mountain we so desire and fix every problem that comes our way. It did for me, at least. This invincibility came crashing down in the last few minutes of my first interview with a refugee from Iraq. After spending an hour, listening to a story of her life, watching tears swell up in her eyes and barely being able to stop them from streaming out of my own, I had to look at her, smile, wish for the best for her life, and leave. End of interaction. Onto our next meeting. There is nothing I can do.

Three weeks into this trip, after interviewing 13, very different Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, I find myself repeating these 6 words ever so often. Every time I sit down with a new family, every time I stand at their door and say good bye. There’s nothing I can do. Telling myself that I am here in one capacity, and one capacity only – to listen. I need to learn my limits, understand my abilities, and allow myself to work within my own constraints. Much easier said than done, but oh, so important.

“All I brought here was the clothes on my back.” The emptiness is jarring – we sit in mattresses on the floor in houses of families with no working members. Not a picture on a wall, not more than a curtain to separate rooms. No material attachments, just attachment to one another. “I can’t remember anything and I’m tired. I don’t want to remember, I’m tired. If I’m going to mention things, it’s going to make me feel upset, so I don’t want to” When there does exist financial stability in a family, it suffers from a host of other issues – health problems, physical and mental, trauma from the past, and the feeling of being constantly tired. Each family struggles in the stagnation of their lives that comes from having been displaced, and although coping mechanisms vary by person and by family, there is still so much to cope with.

Although excruciatingly difficult, learning to accept my limits has been one of the most transformative experiences I have yet had. What I’m doing, in my capacity of listening to stories as a method of restorative therapy, and often allowing a safe space for emotions to flow for the first time, is more than nothing. And that I can do. This has changed my view on help and how it is rendered. But, beyond that, is to see families laughing through their tears, thriving through their restrictions and most importantly, living despite the stagnation of their lives. To look beyond all the things I can’t do, and really just appreciate what I can be a part of – the people I meet and the stories they tell.

My interactions with each family remains limited to the 90-minute period that I am with them for, and there are many times I walk away wanting more. But then I think of vast variety of emotions that the 90 minutes held. The swift shifts from sorrowful silence to ear-piercing laughter. The ability to smile, laugh, tease, cry and remember. The way the room felt so heavy in the silence of unsaid words, and then so energized by love in the presence of people moving forward. There’s nothing I can do – nothing beyond the 90 minutes that have been done.