Finding Purpose in People

A wall in Amman, Jordan was painted over in English and Arabic, reading “We are so #HAPPY.”

Josie and I conducted our first interview in Jordan together. We met with a Syrian woman and spoke to her via our translator, Maher, for around an hour, discovering every detail of her life. She was mostly soft spoken, and had a sweet, lightly freckled face with big, light brown eyes. Her demeanor was unimposing and contained. Her delicate body was hidden beneath a large, knee-length coat and hijab. Despite our language barrier, I could tell from our unbroken eye contact that she spoke with intention. Her laughter lit up the room, causing Maher and the other women in the room to laugh with her. I was upset that I could not hear her words firsthand, but I tried through body language and emotional expression to connect past the barrier of a person acting as an intermediary between us (while Maher is a translator and wonderful facilitator, connection is simply more difficult without immediate understanding).

Toward the end of the interview, we had covered a variety of topics that were not at all typical to those in the media’s “refugee narrative.” We instead talked about this woman’s children and their passion for swimming, what their home looked like back in Syria, and how they used to sit in their garden for meals with their extended family. I asked Maher if there were any other major parts of her life that she would like to share, and her response was surprising and humbling.

She essentially said, “thank you for listening to me, for being interested in me, in my problems. It’s very nice to have this interview.” She nodded and smiled, eyes crinkling, as Maher translated this for us. At the end of the interview, she asked for a photograph with Josie and I to keep. When we left, her and her 17-year-old daughter gave us hugs, and her daughter told us that she loved meeting us, and asked us if we had WhatsApp so she could stay in touch.

When I talked to family and friends about this program before I came to Jordan, they all asked what we were doing, and how our research would be used. They asked if we would be writing big papers, if we would be published, if this could change policy, and how we could make an impact on the increasingly xenophobic narratives and laws surrounding refugees. And while we will write essays using this research and can contribute to years of interviews done by previous Duke Immerse students, it is of vital importance to remember every day who we are and what we are doing.

We are all undergraduate students. We are not Ph.D. candidates or recipients, spending years living with a community making groundbreaking contributions to academia. We are not policymakers, and policymakers will not take us seriously nor will they care about our opinions on the refugee crisis, no matter how informed they might become. And while we might hope one day to be in those positions, for now we can only show people that they are important as people. While governments reject them, the media paints them poorly, and they suffer more than we can imagine, we can still show those with whom we work that we care about them. We aim to, at base, address the big picture issues of the refugee experience, and seek out the overarching problems facing these populations. But at the same time, we seek the delicate balance of bringing respect and understanding to an individual’s life through their interviews. We care about their stories, their intricacies, their humanities, their laughter, and all the component parts that sum up to make them who they are.

If in the process of collecting our research in our life story interviews, we can lift some of the burden of loneliness and isolation, and remind people here and there that they matter, then I will consider this month more than well spent.

Sara Evall is a T’19 Undergraduate. She has been a participant in Duke Engage Dublin, 2017 Duke Immerse, and was a Kenan Student Research Assistant. 

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