Sloan Talbot at Wadi Rum

“Bring our stories back” “Share our stories with those in the States” “Tell the world about us”. At the end of almost every interview, these, among other sentiments are told to me when I ask, “Do you have anything else you’d like to tell us?”

Since my first interview here in Jordan to completing my 10th interview yesterday, the idea of how to give back to someone who has given me so much by sharing their story is something I’ve struggled with.

Reciprocity is an idea that is talked about a lot in humanitarian work. When an individual or an organization gives someone a service, resources, or provides something, they also gain  experiences and insight, invaluable information, and memories from the people they are  “helping”. While this Duke Immerse: Deconstructing/Reconstructing the Refugee Experience is not meant as humanitarian aid or a service trip, the research we are conducting via these interviews leaves me thinking many times that I have gained a lot more than I can give back to these people. The Immerse itself is a way for us as students to understand migration and displacement in the world in the context of the refugee crisis, but also listen to and then share individual life stories from refugees to allow them to share their story, as they would like to tell it. During this Immerse, the interviews we conduct with Syrian and Iraqi refugees are providing me and my team information, insight, and to put it frankly “data” for our research papers, monologues and the group magazine we create together. But what am I providing the individuals who decide to share their stories, who put their emotions, life, stories of loss and pain all out on the table for me to write down and record?

Before every interview, we read our groups’ protocol to each interviewee, explaining that we don’t give anything, can’t provide assistance or support, or even lobby UN officials or resettlement agencies for their individual cases. Each person we interviews agrees to this protocol, most saying that by us simply listening to their story as they want to tell it, we are giving them something amazing, grateful that we are simply listening to what they have to say.

However, after each interview, I never feel like I am returning the immense gift the interviewee gives to me by sharing their story. There isn’t real reciprocity if I am able to gain so much through their stories, but I am not giving something of the same caliber back. The one thing I can try to give back, is to tell these stories in the most authentic and truthful way possible, share these interviews back in the States with as many as I can, to try and deconstruct the stereotypes Americans and our government have about refugees, showing the complexity and depth of not only the stories of displacement, but of the person behind that story.

The task that myself and my group face after returning home in less than a week, is to take what we have heard, seen, and been allowed access to in terms of these stories and these individuals lives, and share it in a way that humanizes refugees, and makes them more than their persecution, but also breaks down stereotypes that circulate American media of the middle east, conflict, Muslims, Arabs, and refugees. Upon our return to the States, the task at hand for the group will be to prepare individual monologues of two of the interviews we conducted, one Syrian, and one Iraqi, these will be presented publicly to the Duke community, but also with plans to present them to the local Durham community, via public schools or community centers. There will also be each team members’ individual papers that will be written using the interviews as data, pertaining to a larger theme or idea that we wished to analyze through the stories we head. Finally, the group will create a magazine that will be published and dispersed, with small op-eds from each team member, and pictures of Jordan showing the places and people we encountered.

Through these modes of sharing what we have learned during our time in Jordan, we can try to begin to get folks back home, at Duke, in Durham, and our own families and communities more engaged in the refugee crisis, deconstructing the universal refugee story and reconstructing it to show individual people. Refugee stories are more than their persecution, or their nationality, or their potential resettlement, and with the stories we have gathered, hopefully dispersing them to the general public will show that refugees’ lives and identities are incredibly different and unique from one another, not one story is the same, refugees were people before they became displaced, and are still individuals with their own story to tell. Hopefully when I answered, “Yes, I’ll try to share your story” to the people I have previously interviewed, I’ll be able to keep my promise, doing so in a way that perhaps helps to change American mentalities and public perception, even in our small Durham community, and thus giving back a little, to the refugees who have shared and given me, so much.

Sloan Talbot is an undergraduate student researcher, a participant of Kenan’s Summer Purpose Program, Freshman Focus, Duke Immerse, SuWA, and Citizenship Lab.

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