Sara Evall: ‘Welcome Back’

A teacher reads to children in the library of the White Hands School in Jordan.

I landed in the airport in Durham with my mind reeling from all that I have learned and experienced in Jordan. Thoughts of individual refugee narratives, the aims of different organizations, the challenges that refugees face when trying to attain an education, and so much more have dominated my headspace. In light of the educational problems and disparities we witnessed especially, my return to Duke, to a place that for me is simultaneously my school and my home, has been surreal. The night we landed back in North Carolina, I was able to come back to my Central Campus apartment, sit and talk with my roommate and one of our mutual best friends, and then after the Duke game ended around 11 pm, four of my closest friends knocked on my door. We sat on my bed talking about our lives, and as they asked me about my time in Jordan, and the people we met and organizations we worked with, I tried to figure out how to describe the month I had just experienced.

Walking around campus the next day left me overwhelmed by words of “welcome back,” hugs, and further questions about Jordan. Instead of walking around streets full of character, street vendors, art work, poverty, and small children selling gum, I spent the day strolling through gothic architecture, classic Duke construction, the massive array of food in West Union, and past obvious displays of wealth and luxury. While Duke can be an extremely challenging place full of pressure and stress, Duke is also a place of laughter, love, friendship, and comfort. It is a place that I rely on to be my home, and a place where I know the boundaries of my mind and knowledge will be pushed and stretched. And while I am thrilled to be back, to see all of my friends and enjoy the comfort of life here, there is a huge part of me that feels uncomfortable and out of place.

While still in Jordan, the Immerse group visited two different schools for refugee children, schools in Azraq, and a school called the White Hands School, just kilometers away from the Syrian border. We also discussed how the Jordanian education system has been pushed way over capacity by the influx of refugee children generally, and has had to split its school days into two shifts in order to accommodate as many children as possible. Syrian refugee children typically must attend the second shift of school, which is said to be much worse in quality than the first shift – but these children are at least attending school. Many others – refugee children from Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan – do not have as much of a priority as far as accessing education as do the Syrian refugee children, and so many are out of school altogether, unable to afford the school fees for public schools, the uniforms, the books, or to find a school with space. And still, substantial numbers of even Jordanian and Syrian children are out of school because of a simple lack of space. Schools like the one at Azraq, which are informal and unaccredited, but at least give children the opportunity to gain some sort of access to education and literacy and basic math, have sprung up to try to fill the gaps in education, but they are underfunded, under-resourced, and not nearly big enough to serve the needs of all children.

Being back at Duke, and thus being confronted with all of the grandeur and excess of a top American university, is bringing my mind back to these schools and the children who attend them. The educational opportunities I have had throughout my life by virtue of my birthplace and parents’ socioeconomic status have given me an unbelievable advantage over these children. The educational disparity between every single Duke student and the children at White Hands and Azraq (whose educations are often further disrupted by displacement and work), and the children who cannot access any schooling at all, is almost unfathomable. A huge part of my discomfort, standing here at Duke, is knowing that I am no more inherently deserving of the education and opportunities I have access to than any one of these children, and yet, in my position as an undergraduate, I have no idea how to begin to correct this disparity in any meaningful way. So instead, as I walk through Duke with a much more critical understanding of my privilege, I will write about it and speak about it, and I will do what I can to avoid complacency. And I will know it is not enough.