April 27, 2009
If you are a refugee, your sense of time and space has been suspended. If you are not a refugee, it is hard to know what this sense of timelessness means.
I like to lay my clothes out before I go to sleep, so that in the morning I am organized and get five extra minutes of sleep. But this simple act requires a certain psychological context in order to take place.
In order to lay out my clothes for tomorrow, I must have a sense of the Future. I must believe that tomorrow will be something like today, but also that I will have a unique purpose for waking up– even if that purpose is to have no purpose at all (which is a luxurious goal).
This sense of future is more fragile than I thought before living here. For Shayma (name changed), putting her clothes out each morning was something she did back in Iraq, but not anymore: “I just don’t feel like getting prepared for the next day. I am more like a machine, just work, sleep, and then get up again and put on whatever I find. I used to put on makeup and do my hair all nice…”
Shayma’s sense of a Future has been interrupted by the US invasion of Iraq. Before, she used to get up every morning and get ready for work. Shayma’s tomorrow and today were not so different from each other that they lacked continuity, but her tomorrow was also unique and purposeful… back before the invasion. Now, “like a machine,” Shayma seems a little numb to the Future. One could say that lacking a Future has made Shayma feel less human.
What will happen tomorrow? Who knows. The UNHCR might call and tell her she will be resettled to Canada. Or a bomb might kill her brother in Baghdad. Or she might wait for something to happen, and pass her entire day trying to stay busy (Jordan does not allow refugees to work), or just wait…
Waiting, as we all know, is the most agonizing feeling. And waiting certainly doesn’t motivate a person to lay out her clothes for tomorrow, or even to go to bed at all. What’s the point?
Shayma’s sense of timelessness and waiting are echoed by other Iraqi refugees. “If the UNHCR called and said, ‘Okay, you’re here for life, so settle down and get used to it, I could. If they said, okay, you’re resettled and you’re leaving tomorrow, I could. But I hear nothing. I know nothing about my own future,” said Mustafa (name changed) in a meeting we had about the UNHCR.
“A day is a very long time for a refugee!” -Dana (name changed).
“I would like to get married, but I can’t.” -Mohammed (named changed).
Life is literally on hold for my Iraqi neighbors. And worse than time having stopped altogether is the sense that at any moment it might begin again, or it might not…
This Futurelessness is paralyzing the Iraq people, causing depression and futility. It keeps them from marrying, finishing their college degrees, and buying homes. But more importantly, it keeps them from enjoying their present, from doing something simple and comforting, like laying out their clothes for tomorrow.
In this way, the future means something very different to Iraqi refugees than to you or me:
To me, the Future takes place in the future, and whether it will take place at all or not rarely crosses my mind, because the existence of a Future is a certainty. For Iraqi refugees, the Future defines their Present, and it crosses their minds every minute of every day.