Complicating the Refugee Narrative

Stories from Amman

Duke Unfiltered | Reed McLaurin | April 24, 2016

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“When I wake up, everyday I remember what happened to me in the past in Iraq…My life stopped when my husband was killed.”

So began my second interview of a refugee living in Amman, an Iraqi mother of three dressed in a black abaya and a matching hijab. Though she remained composed, the pursing of her lips and intensity of her dark brown eyes demonstrated the freshness of her pain.

Looking lovingly to her young, happy son, she added: “Now my life is for my children only, and I try to find a future for them.” While I was overcome by her strength and selflessness, my first instinct was to ask how he had died.

Throughout the first six weeks of my DukeImmerse experience, the five other members of my cohort and I reflected, almost obsessively, on the ethics of our research. What was the point of the interviews in the first place? How could we best honor those who shared their experiences with us?

After countless formal and informal conversations on the topic, we decided that our objective was twofold: 1) to hear the lives of refugees as they understood them, and 2) to respect the human dignity of those we interviewed.

Despite these lofty ideals, in this moment, I wasn’t interested in dignity or self-determination. I wanted to take the reigns of the interview, to push a woman to expound on an event so traumatic that she said it had “stopped” her life. I was more fascinated by her pain and sadness than her love and hope. Why?

The answers to this question are multiple and messy.

For the first 19 years of my life, the only refugee narratives I knew were those that had been sensationalized in American media. These stories depicted such people solely as helpless victims. Refugees were poor, starving Africans fleeing violence in the Sudan. They were Syrians escaping torture at the hands of ISIS. They were Iraqis emerging from black plumes of smoke in Mosul.

Indeed, I had only thought about refugees in terms of persecution, loss, and displacement, as though what they fled was all they were. But following this logic is a dangerous trap. Globally, such an emphasis on the suffering of refugees reinforces cavalier tendencies towards Western ethnocentrism and armchair empathy.

When we only talk about certain cultures, religions, and races in terms of crisis, it is difficult to not think of them as violent, uncivilized, or somehow inherently lesser. Furthermore, focusing on this “helpless victim” narrative allows America to codify itself as the impartial distributor of humanitarian aid and to ignore any potential involvement in the creation of these crises as well as its own domestic challenges.

My work with a variety of Kenan initiatives over the past two years has helped me complicate this single story. In both Durham and Amman, I have come to share food, friendship, and yes, struggle, with refugees. Like all people, their lives are a complex combination of joy and triumph, sorrow and failure.

Discussing our protocol, the interviewee commented:

“You….do not look at me like just another person in Iraq. I am not only the widow. I am not only this lady whose husband was killed. That happens to most Iraqi ladies. I don’t like this kind of language. I appreciate that you are hearing my story and what happened to me.”

A PhD recipient, this highly educated woman had no interest in forcing her life into the box of a preexisting, reductive narrative in order to make it legible to a Western researcher. In saying she was more than just a “widow” or a woman defined by her husband’s death, she took agency back in explaining her life. Her narrative is one that rejects “language” that categorizes her, like “most Iraqi ladies,” as a person defined by loss. Indeed, her repeated use of personal pronouns shows the importance she places on the individuality of her experience.

I likely could have pressured this accommodating woman to give me the gory details of her husband’s death. Back at Duke, I’m sure I could have given a powerful monologue that laid bare her despair for all to see. The crowd, expecting this kind of refugee narrative, would have responded with an appropriate amount of shock, sadness, and pity. It would be easy, but that doesn’t make it right.

The woman I interviewed did eventually come to explain to me how her husband, a university professor, had lost his life in a car bomb explosion at the hands of ISIS. But she also told me how loving and kind he was, how he had waited seven years to get her family’s approval of their marriage, how he was willing to die rather than be silenced by terrorists.

It’s tempting to stop at the surface level and see her story as just another example of how ISIS’s violence is ravaging lives. It’s much more challenging to confront her full humanity and see how fundamentally this death has undermined her sense of purpose in the world.

Why should I go to this extra effort in this first place? What does this larger picture do that a simplified persecution narrative cannot?

After hearing this more complete story, I’m no closer to stopping the forces driving Syrians and Iraqis into Jordan. I still can’t change Jordanian policy to give these people rights so basic as the ability to work. And I probably won’t singlehandedly dismantle the thinly veiled Islamophobia dominating our national conversation on refugee resettlement.

But just because macro-level institutional change isn’t a likely outcome of our research, doesn’t mean it is pointless.

As part of the interview, we ask participants to describe the seven most important events in their lives. After discussing her marriage, education, and persecution, this woman put our presence with her on that list. For the first time since becoming a refugee, someone wanted to know something more about her life than just its darkest moment. Someone was there to experience her wit and kindness, to validate her personhood and agency. That has value that simply can’t be quantified.

Now that I’m back at Duke, I have the honor of sharing this narrative, among others, with friends, family, and the Duke community as a whole. It’s a daunting task to be responsible for representing voices that are not mine. While I have doubts in my ability to do them justice, I am equally sure that I have a responsibility to upset the monolithic “refugee narrative” that we have all heard countless times.

P.S. If you want to hear more about Lugain or the stories of other Iraqi and Syrians refugees we interviewed while in Jordan, come out to the Nasher today at 6 P.M. to hear my DukeImmerse cohort present monologues of their life stories.