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.

Idalis French is a T’19 Undergraduate who participated in 2017 Immerse Program, and is a current Kenan Student Research Assistant

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