The Meaning of Diaspora

June 5, 2009

Jamila is gone.  She left for Australia a few weeks ago.

We talk online sometimes, and she graciously translated a survey for me via email.  But things are irreversibly different.  I will probably never see her again.

Before she left, Jamila told me, tears welling up, “When I was in school in Iraq, I would read on the bus, always.  But when we crossed the Tigris, I would put my books down and say, ‘Good Morning, Tigris!’”  I’ll never forget Jamila’s face, two tears running down like Iraq’s two rivers.

As a Mandeaen, and follower of John the Baptist, Jamila’s relationship with water is vital.  Her baptism, marriage, and all life transitions should be blessed by immersion in river water.  Jamila’s daily greetings to the Tigris are as much as part of her religion as they are part of her childlike personality, and Iraq is the final bedrock of her people.  I’ve read articles titled “Will the Mandeaens survive Diaspora?” or “Mandeaens at Risk of ‘Exstinction.’”  But the Grand Scheme is hardly on Jamila’s mind.

She is preoccupied with something more immediate.  She whispered about the Tigris, “I never got to say goodbye.”

Remember in Beauty and the Beast when Belle gives herself to the Beast in place of her father?  Belle is angry, upset, crying, not because she is doomed to be a prisoner to the Beast forever, or because she might never see her father again, but because the Beast “never let [her] say goodbye.”

As a little girl I always hated that part of the movie– I could barely relate to the idea of permanently losing my mommy and daddy, but the lack of closure for poor Belle was still agonizing.

“We left our house the way it was when we fled.  The door is unlocked, the dishes are still in the sink, and our dear dog was left in the yard…  we had to leave him behind without even kissing him goodbye.” said Dr. Zina, an Iraqi refugee now running an NGO here in Amman.

Watching a woman in a suit sitting behind an executive-style desk crumple into tears is disheartening.  “I love that silly dog so much!”

What survives in Diaspora?

Our English class ends late every week, and tonight after class we talked with Um Ali (name changed) and she cried and cried.

Iraqis here have described many things to me:

—the doctor that was machine gunned down in his living room, blood spraying all over the ceiling and dripping down on people heads for hours afterwards–

—the daughter whose attempted kidnap left her completely regressed and distraught–

— the two sons who were killed in simultaneous car bombs and the father who found out when ones body appeared on the news (he immediately had a stroke and has never walked since)—

–the children who are beaten at school because they are either ostracized or psychologically disturbed–

But what seems to cut deepest is “Diaspora.”

And, now, weeping like a neglected little girl, here is Um Ali, pouring her loneliness into words.  “All I want, in the whole world, is to be in the same place as my son and daughter.  My daughter is in Germany, my son is in Baghdad, and I’m alone here.  I can’t see my own children!  We are spread apart.  I want to see my babies…”

And then it struck me.  I’ve never seen an Iraqi cry unless they were describing Diaspora.  That one, cutting word, the final knife of many knives that hits a nerve.

Diaspora is not the spreading of a culture or ethnic group across the globe as articulated in its technical definition; rather it is the father who cannot see his child’s elementary school graduation because of a little paper called a visa.  It is Um Ali who has never met her grandchildren.  It is Jamila who cannot marry in her Tigris River.

Or it is Dr. Mehdi, who came to Jordan from the US for a conference on stem cell research, and was not allowed to return home.  His wife and children were alone in the US and had to sell their belongings and join him here in Amman to be together…  because of what was later deemed “a human error.”

Diaspora might have a sweeping historical significance, but here and now, its meaning lies in those moments, those days or years of anxiety within which the unknown takes place without you…

Your children become adults in your absence, or they are killed in your absence, or your parents die alone without your ability to bury them, or you are 2 days from graduating and your school is bombed and you have to start all over again earning a diploma you already earned, because your original diploma is meaningless across the border.

Stop.  You can never go home again.

You will know your parents through Skype calls at 3 am.

Your children will start calling your sister “Mom.”

Your hard work and grades—erased from the record.

You are an infant today, a dead one.  You lost yourself somewhere between the abandoned house and the Tigris river.

So, we move on, crying rivers, strangers to our own family.

Um Ali is closer to this American girl who can hug her as she cries when what she really wants is to hug her son, because he is still in Baghdad and God will never forgive her if he is killed, because then, like Jamila, she’ll say, “I never got to say goodbye.”

Or “hello” for that matter.

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The Meaning of Gathering

May 31, 2009

Today was long.

We spent the morning, afternoon, and evening with a ______ of people.  I say ________ because it wasn’t a crowd, wasn’t a family, and not a group…

What do you call this kind of gathering?

Dr. Muna, a little overweight, very kind and warmhearted; her 50’s-ish husband who is wild, talks with his mouth full, and wears a gold chain on his gangly arms; Mahmud, a stout, chain smoker gentleman who pays for everything and loves his mother; Muna’s two beautiful daughters, quiet, well-preened, and gentle; Mahmud’s mother, very old, religious, insistent, perplexed by our habits and opinions; the youngest boy (age 8), socially awkward, his first boy-party running through the hall in masks…

It is not a family, but there is something like familial warmth.  It is more intimate than a crowd, but there are so many people in and out.  It is not a group, because it does not remain cohesive, but shifts from moment to moment—besides we hardly know each other.  One thing, though, is that all of these people, expect for my mom and me, are Iraqi refugees finding solace in their unity.

So, this ______ of people ate and talked and passed the whole day together.

Of all ages, classes, religions, genders, and political views, we talked over four kinds of meat, three salads, and three rounds of desert.  There was argilla (hooka) wafting across the women’s faces, and a big, winged bug that twilighted around us for awhile before one of the men stomped him out.

There was “Why do you eat with you left hand?” and “I hate the Iranian government” and “What is the rent in Oakland?” …and then the stories of Iraq.  Always the evenings are washed in Iraq.

The stories come out just when you think you will leave, but when they start, you know the evening has only begun.  We had lunch, you know, not dinner, but we didn’t leave until 10:30 pm, and only then because I was very sick and sleepy.  Pictures, cell phones, tea and after tea after tea.
Homesickness, cigarettes, homesickness… it laps at our ankles like the mosquitoes.

A debate about the name of a thing, then tea and tea after tea.

“Dr. Muna, you should lose weight!”

“Oh yeah,” I say to Mahmud,” When is YOUR baby do, fatty?”

Everybody laughs and laughs.  Iraqis joke all the time, even about death.  How can they not?

“I am very much afraid that in the US they burn the bodies, they don’t bury!  I want to be buried on Arab soil, but I am up for resettlement,” says Mahmud’s mother.

“Don’t worry,” my mom responds, “We can put you on icepacks and fly you back here to be buried.”

Everybody laughs and laughs.  “It’s true though, I mean it!”

Okay, okay.  So you will freeze me not burn me?

Laughter.

Out comes another story.  The militias, the slaughter…  “my uncle was killed last year, you know,“ someone whispers before putting the argilla to his lips.

“They came in and cut him up—just like this fish!  He says, pointing with a carving knife.  (We are eating a big fish.)

Hahaha… we laugh, “Like a fish!”

“Here, take this.”  The old woman gestures to my mom…  “You are obviously Arab underneath, you are my daughter.  Take this Koran and learn to read it!  And here, I will show you this: prayer beads—you say, ‘One for Allah, one for Mohammed, one for Allah, one for Mohamed.’”

‘Thank you.  An honor.”

“No daughter…  you know, when I was in America—my husband was a very famous writer and we traveled the world—I saw all the sites on the East Coast!  The statue of Liberty has almost no clothes on!”

I say, “She is not the statue of chastity— she’s liberated…”

“Like Iraq!” says Dr. Muna.

Hahaha.  Laughter.

And so the evening goes, darkening, homesickness, a pause as we argue over the direction of Mecca while someone steps off the pray.  Space is essential.  North South East West.  Where are you now, do you know?  Mahmud knows.  He is praying.

Shall we go inside now?  Yes, lets go.

Okay, we say, but we sit and sit.  No one moves for three hours more.  That’s “going inside.”

“Oh Muna, not another desert!  You bring them out an hour apart so I can’t say no!”

“These are special Iraqi deserts.  We call them Lady’s arms, because they are shaped like the upper arm of a fat woman, and rolled in cheese!”

“There is another name I can’t say,” grins Mahmud.

“I can guess!”  Girls giggle.

Pause.  “Before 2003 we had no Sunni Shiite nonsense.  We were all the same, Iraqi, and I had many friends from all different religions, Mandean, Catholic, Sunni, Shia, even Jews!  Now though, Iran and Saudi are pulling in both directions, dividing people to take the resource, the oil and the social political power.  At least with the US, it’s a known enemy, I can say: What do you want?”  But with Iran, it’s ME they want…  I can’t negotiate my own self…”

“Oh this war this war—another war, and this time we are not rebuilding like before…”  mutters Dr. Muna.

Yah Allah!

Quiet, gargling argilla; warm, sweet smoke on my face.

“Wow, Kali, you are very thin!”   “I am sick… “

“Why are you sick?”    “I don’t know, germs.”

“No no, you are too thin!  It must be homesickness.”

“But she is close to home here, next to Iraq!”

“No, she is apart form her friends, her familiar country…”

“No, she is home here—she is thin because she is anxious.”

“Maybe the heat.  Hm.  I think it is ghareeb…  tisk, tisk— home-sick-ness!”

“…Well, we can send her back to Iraq and see— if she comes out fat, then we know she is home!”

Hahaha— laughing, laughing, laughing…

Home-sick-ness, we all sigh together.

And so the night rolls on, and even as we are truly leaving, it takes 30 minutes to kiss everyone three times goodbye …and then we took a taxi back with Mahmud and his mother, who paid the whole trip even though they got off before us …and then the taxi driver tried to teach us as much Arabic as he could …and then we were home trying to haggle a working refrigerator into our hotel flat with the Egyptian brothers downstairs.  And then we are borrowing their fridge, and then we were…

Alone, the two of us, as alone as we can ever be from that warm ________ of people, and only then did I feel at all homesick.

That, I think, is what Gathering means.


The Meaning of Cholera: Social Pressure in the Middle East

May 27, 2009

In the US, if you ask someone to point to their soul, they go for the chest—somewhere inside the body.  If you ask someone here, they will wave their hand around and say, “It’s the space between people.”

I am not one to succumb to peer pressure and never have been.

Anyone who knows me knows I have never smoked a cigarette, never tried smoking pot, never had a beer…  I usually have no problem offending just about anyone.

So it’s hard to believe that sheer social pressure dictated my actions as directly as it did last week.

There was a moment, just after the glass touched my lips, that it hit me: This glass is not clean. It has been used before, was rinsed with unfiltered tap water, and will be used again after me.

Not only that, I was in Syria, a country with endemic Cholera: you know, Cholera– the one where you have diarrhea until you die of dehydration?

So there I was drinking from a communal glass, “cleaned” with Cholera-water.  And there was our new companion, beaming with pride over this special date juice that had been made in his own country, in his own streets.

“It’s just very, very good!  A very special drink!” he explained as he paid for three drinks despite my mother’s attempts to pay first.

The moment my mom and I realized what we had gotten into, we made eye contact, acknowledged the risks, and kept drinking.  What were we to do?

Well, stop.

Well, how?  If you have been in the Middle East, you might understand how incredibly powerful social constraints are.  Social graces determine the prices you pay at the grocery store, the chances someone will save you if you are screaming for help, the degree of love and trust you receive from friends, the quality of your neighborhood safety net, etc.

Dr. Ziad (name changed) comes to our apartment almost daily.  I would never offend him by handing him a glass that was less-than-overflowing, a full glass is a sign of respect.

I would also never smile at the grocer in our supermarket, lest he think I am flirtatious.

I would never show someone the bottom of my foot–even by accident, I would never point with my index finger, I would never refuse offered food, I eat with my left hand (almost never)…

Symbols matter.  If I point at you with my index finger, I will cast the Evil Eye.  If I refuse your food, I might be holding a grudge against your race and consider you an unclean person.  In other words, I can communicate a lot more without words than with them.

A world with such powerful, communicative symbols indicates such a well-structured social system that the most subtle cues mean the beginning or end of a relationship.  And in this world, relationship is everything.

In the US, if you ask someone to point to their soul, they go for the chest—somewhere inside the body.

If you ask someone here, they will wave their hand around and say, “It’s the space between people.”

If the soul exists in the space between people, then the interactions between people must be designed to sustain a holy space, worthy of the soul. Social graciousness is the mechanism for carving out a soul-bearing vessel from this space, and thus social pressure becomes integral to existence itself.

Where biological pressure or physical need may seem like the bottom line to my friends at home, social pressure and spiritual need are by far more pressing issues among my friends and neighbors here.

There is evidence of this everywhere.  An example: I interviewed the project head of International Medical Corp in Amman.  He said, “We came in with a budget for meeting medical needs, but now psycho-social support and community building are our biggest projects.  People were just more interested in having those needs met first.”

Biological and physical needs are not the bottom line here.  That space between two people, the space that cocoons the soul… that is the bottom line, and the social graces to sustain this space are as necessary as they are intricate.

The point of all this is that, now that I am sitting in my bed with Cholera, 20 pounds lighter and very weak, I can honestly say I had no choice.

It was simply not an option to do anything but take the glass, thank our friend, and swallow the most delicious juice I ever tasted in the most gracious company I ever known.

(Note: Cholera is treatable with antibiotics, which I am taking.)


The Meaning of Moral Decay

May 24, 2009

This post was written by Kali Rubaii and co-author Debra Ellis.

“The US brought with it a kind of rot.  The rot is seeping into the fiber of Iraqi people, their culture.  We never had Iraqis stealing from Iraqis until now.  And they say they are building strip malls in Iraq.  We never had this either,” said Jamila (mentioned in previous blog).

“There was a rug holding the ground together.  And the US came in and ripped up the rug, because it was a Saddam Rug, heavy but steady.  And when the rug came up, all the worms came out” said Dr. Khan (name changed).

These women are describing the complete collapse of stability in their country, an instability that sent them both running from “worms” and finding refuge here in Amman, Jordan.

From instability is born a certain mistrust that nags and unravels the edges of social structure.  Without etiquette, without cultural norms and social standards, life is…  solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.  There is killing in the streets, kidnapping, and corruption.

“Iraq had its share of problems, like a woman’s hair has many threads.  But the US came and pulled out that final hairpin, and all the threads came loose and wild.”  Mariam, like many others, relies on metaphor to explain the new complexities that have befallen Iraq.  The word moral decay is not quite enough to describe what has happened, but I’ll use it here.

Moral Decay has something do with uncertainty: people, unable to trust longstanding honor systems, begin to steal and lie to one another, or worse, become hired killers.  Neighbors fail to trust each other, and friends start calling in their loans and favors.

Moral Decay has something to do with opportunity: an unsteady Iraq makes space for all sorts of “merchants” and “warriors” to operate without consequence. There are now reports of child trafficking in Iraq, a market that has never before existed.  These children are sold both nationally and internationally for sex abuse, organ harvesting, and adoption.

Moral Decay has something do with money: the erection of strip malls while Iraqis still lack water and electricity, and the pulsing of Western capitalism in a world where consumerism is a sign of moral and spiritual collapse.  Even brand-name NGOs in Iraq have investigated the disappearance of some cash…

And last, Moral Decay has something to do with children– and this is where Iraqis start to get really upset–  and the dismantlement of their sacred social role.

If children are the ultimate measure of a society’s moral fortitude, I am forced to reflect on the moral decay of my own country, which Iraqis accurately view as incapable of its keeping its children safe the streets (see previous blog: the Meaning of Neighborhood).

Iraqi children are communally loved, adored, and protected. Their education and health are of paramount concern.  Most of the Iraqi refugee families are finding some way to continue their children’s educations.  Until the recent occupation, children were raised by their parents and extended family, all of whom lived in the same building.  Children played safely in the streets (and still do in Jordan, although we are learning that many Iraqi families keep their children inside at all times because of fear and trauma).

But Iraq wasn’t invaded by a child-loving country like Italy or Japan.  The US does not offer safe streets, well-funded schools, or universal healthcare for its own children: Iraqis hardly expect the US to restore a child-loving society within Iraq, given this reality.

How tragic it must be for Iraqis to witness the loss of safety for their children.

You can shield your children from violence, turn off the TV, if you want to.  I could not protect my children from the violence, and this new generation has seen so much of it.  What will become of our society, or culture, after this?”  Salwa almost yells this at my mother.

In her lap, her two-year-old plays with a plastic gun, the muzzle is in his drooling mouth.

She speaks the truth: 100 percent of the children I have met have seen a dead body and lost a relative.  More than half of them have watched someone die right in front of them.  Some of them have themselves been kidnapped and tortured, or had a parent kidnapped and tortured.

What moral and social code will this next generation know and live by in their new Iraq?

It is evident to me that cultural structure is vital in creating a space for human goodness to flourish.  The destruction of cultural norms and expectations also unravels a pattern of being, a certain woven “fiber” of moral consistency, which might be why so many Iraqis refer to cloth or woven fabric in their metaphors to explain morality and post-invasion moral decay.

“It will take a lot of women weaving to pull this country, these people, back together again!” says Salwa. “We were always close-knit people.  Mandeans, Christians, Sunni, Shia, Jews… we were all close.  Now, someone wants to pull those threads apart and divide us.  It is up to us mothers to weave it back together…”


Entering the Axis of Evil, Host to Millions of Refugees

May 19, 2009
Entering the "Axis of Evil"

Entering the "Axis of Evil"

“Don’t wear anything bright. Put on sunglasses. Try to look as local as possible because the police will interrogate you and not let you into the refugee camps!”

Like Amman, Damascus is an enormous city. It hosts somewhere between 2 and 4 million Iraqi refugees and roughly 1 million Palestinian refugees, but you would never know by looking. One has to seek out the refugee crisis in order to see it.

We took the advice of our friends in Jordan and the US to be paranoid about our appearance, documentation, etc. We emptied our camera chip, hid passport copies in our bras, and alerted our friends in Jordan before we headed off the infamous refugee camp in Damascus city. As it turned out, we didn’t have much hassle entering the camp.

We didn’t have to bribe any officers, or hire a secret taxi. We boarded a crowded bus, paid 10 cents, lied about our destination, and got off at AlSayda Zenab Camp. Perhaps because of our careful appearance and our practice sauntering like local women, we strolled into AlSayda Zenab  with no police questioning.

It was clear that the fear and drama surrounding refugee camps in Syria had kept most people out, because as we strolled the streets of the Camp, curios people poked their heads out in surprise. A little boy naked from the waste down ran down the street to sound the alert: “Foreigners are here! Foreigners are here!”

AlSayda Zenab Camp was hastily constructed for the major influx of refugees that have fled Palestine and Iraq. Some houses have electricity and water, others do not. Walls are crooked and unsealed. Trash is everywhere. There is a dusty central market in which refugees peddle their old belongings to survive, mostly junk but also some old antiques, which indicated that the ragged the peddler selling them was once a very rich and important man back in Iraq or Palestine…

Familes Selling Their Belongings

Families Selling Their Belongings

But above any poverty or suffering, there is evidence of community, life, and emotional health. Recycled cans, from USAID food drops in Iraq, now serve as flowerpots brimming with geraniums. School children terrorize the streets with their noise and energy. A fat old lady laughed and laughed when we stopped to take a picture of the Palestinian and Syrian flags that adorned one street. There is suffering in this camp, there is poverty and anguish. But there is so much life and delight as well.

Recycled USAID Food Cans

Recycled USAID Food Cans

We did not enter refugee homes or hear their detailed stories (we will return to Syria in 4 weeks to do this), but it is evident from my short visit to AlSayda Zenab Camp that refugees in Syria are fairing better emotionally than those in Jordan, because they live in a dense  community with other members of their cultural and social community.

Conversely, in Amman refugees do not interact much with one another because they are physically isolated from other refugees, UNCHR has trouble reaching their homes, and informal networks are harder to form. Depression, agoraphobia, and distrust of fellow Iraqis are all high. In all my home visits, I never once saw planted flowers or other such signs of emotional liveliness.  AlSayda Zenab’s  emotional peace was apparent not only in subtleties like flower pots, but also in refugee chidlren’s extensive support network.

AlSayda Zenab Camp has schools within the camp specifically designed for refugee children. We stumbled on a UNRWA middle school, and were immediately swarmed by schoolboys. “What is your name!?” “Where are you from!?” We had come upon “The Exchange,” when the boys run home from morning school and the girls flood in for afternoon school.This school caters directly to the refugee community, and we noticed signs posted: “You have the right to return to your homeland.”

Boys in Front of their UNRWA School

Boys in Front of their UNRWA School

I am not sure how Syria created a refugee camp community within this crowded city, but it seems to be serving the emotional and social needs of refugees well.

There are pitfalls to the camp setting as well: criminal economies, often involving child trafficking and prostitution, a long term failure of refugees to integrate into the host society, and the rise of gang-like power brokers who control internal-external interface on the camp’s borders. We plan to do more investigating on these issues and others when we return.

For now the only thing I can personally attest to is the superior social/emotional health of refugees living in a community of other refugees, rather than in isolation as they do in Amman, Jordan.

Mural by children in Refugee Camp

Mural by children in Refugee Camp


The Meaning of Words and Institutional Interface

May 10, 2009
Asylum Seeker Certificate Held By All Registered Iraqi Refugees

Asylum Seeker Certificate Held By All Registered Iraqi Refugees

Refugees spend a lot of time navigating institutional bureaucracies.  They hold appointment slips.  They have file numbers.  They stand in long lines.  They wait for phone calls.

Iraqi refugees here in Amman, Jordan interface most frequently with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), but also with NGOs large and small.  While Iraqis are grateful for the assistance they receive, I can sum up the quality of their institutional interface as delayed, deceptive, and unilateral.

The delays are agonizing.  Iraqi refugees wait for months, even years, for returned phone calls from UNHCR on matters of resettlement: “If UNHCR calls you and you don’t pick up– maybe you are showering– they won’t call back for another six months!” Raed (name changed) told us.  I confirmed this policy with UNHCR.

Refugees are also often given “the runaround,” hearing their file is in one office or another.  They feel deceived: a UN employee admitted to me that she does this intentionally to “avoid having a bunch of refugees appealing their status.  It’s a huge HR issue– we don’t have the staff to handle angry refugees, so we avoid telling them if they have been rejected or anything.”  While I sympathize with UNHCR’s heavy case load, dishonest communication seems unnecessary and unethical.

Lastly, refugees face a unilateral system with zero accountability.  They do not know the names of the employees who help them, and when mistakes are made, refugees pay the price:

“One of the lawyers made a mistake writing the date in my story.  So I was rejected for resettlement by the resettlement office.  But later they realized it was his mistake.  Nothing happened to him, but I waited here for two extra years of my life,” said Mohammed (name changed) about his file.

These three qualities of communication within UNHCR and other NGOs are not listed here to undermine the efforts of these organizations and employees: they do incredible work and help thousands of people.  However, I do want to highlight systematic flaws in the structure of communication between Iraqi refugees and the institutions that serve them, and try to understand some of the causes.

I feel that part of this disjuncture in communication is based on differences in language and meaning. For example, UNHCR speaks in numbers and definitiveness.  Conversely, refugees’ lives are defined by uncertainty.

So when asked in a UNHCR interview what would happen to him if he returned to Iraq, Ahmed said “Only God knows!”  This was the wrong answer.  He did not highlight pending threats or certain death and was thus not granted the opportunity to resettle.  What was lost in translation was that Ahmed had been threatened and would face certain death upon return.  His sense of the future was different from that of the UNHCR employee who interviewed him, and their expressed meanings of Future conflicted.

Another example: Family.  Institutions treat the nuclear family as a definitive unit.  However, Iraqis operate in large, complex family structures, relying on their extended family to play vital roles in child rearing, financial support, community, and employment.

Jamila, a Mandaean who was just resettled to Australia told us, “I have my mother and 9 siblings.  We are spread all across the globe now, one seven continents.  This is just one family!”  The institutional language of Family contrasts sharply and painfully for Jamila, her mother, and siblings.

There are other key words that determine a refugee’s future: Ransom is a good example.  Anyone who paid a ransom to save the life of a relative is not eligible for resettlement to the US because they are seen as aiding terrorists.  One thing I know is that almost every family I have spoken with has had a child or woman kidnapped, and had to pay a ransom to keep them alive.

The chances of resettlement for these families is based on their choice of words, rather than their real needs.  If they omit the kidnapping story from their narrative altogether, they might not convey the gravity of their threat in Iraq and lose opportunities to resettle.  But if they divulge the entire truth, they might be excluded from some host countries.  The stakes are high in this game of words, and most refugees try to balance the truth with careful language.

Words are everything for Iraqi refugees, and yet they very often find out the importance of key words after they lose opportuinties within institutional interfaces.  This seems like an unfortunate consequence of institutions’ delayed, deceptive, and unilateral communication with refugees, which forces refugees to guess about the outcome of their words on their own futures.  I look to Iraqi refugees, UNHCR employees, as well as my creative peers at home, to find solutions for this not-so-flawless process.


The Meaning of Safety: What Makes Us Safe?

May 4, 2009

The Inside of a Wall

The Inside of a Wall

If a grenade is ticking in a room full of people, the room is unsafe.
Once the grenade goes off, and everyone is dead, the room is finally “safe,” because suddenly the death rate drops from 100 percent to zero percent.

When we read in newspaper headlines about tourists’ safe travel to Iraq, we might believe that “safety” means something like zero-percent-death; safety as a number.

But Iraqi refugees here in Amman, Jordan describe safety as a direction, a partitioned area in social or physical space. In a physical sense, safety is one side of a wall, the inside.

For a lobster, the inside of his shell is safe, the outside is not (until he is thrown into boiling water…)

If a wall is built in Baghdad, the question of which side is safe depends on your religion.  If you are Sunni, the Sunni side is the inside.  If you are Shiit, the Shiit side is the inside.  If you are Christian, neither side is safe.

In other words, social spaces, like sectarian identity, determine the safety of physical spaces.  And social spaces are shaped by ever-changing micro-histories, politics, and fear.  So at one time and place, being a Sunni is safe.  At another, it is unsafe.  And while time and place change, one’s Sunni-ness cannot.

Thus it is by the flip of a coin that one lives on the inside of a wall, or the outside.

“Someone called us from an unknown number.  They said, ‘If we find you inside your house, we will kill you and rape your daughters.’  So, our house was no longer safe.  We left right away,” said my neighbor, Omar (name changed).  His experience reiterates the narratives of countless others.

But the thing about social spaces is that they aren’t real.  Like money, or words, they quickly lose their validity in a new physical space.  When refugees cross the border into Jordan, they seem to shed their social spaces, more or less, and mutually occupy the inside of a new country.  (Omar lives safely next to his Sunni and Shiit neighbors.)

This phenomena has come as a surprise to some experts, who feared a spillover of sectarian violence into countries surrounding Iraq.  How can people, who would be killing each other three hours away in Baghdad, be living peacefully together in Amman?  It has something to do with the fact that social space is also shaped by physical space…

But there is more to safety than physical and social space.  While refugees may have shed their physical and social dangers at the border, they have not shed their emotional terror.

Once hot water invades the lobster shell, the safety of inside is damaged for good.  Iraqis, traumatized by the death threats and destruction they experienced at home, are now unsafe inside their own minds.

“I am afraid to go out and buy groceries, or when I arrive I am disoriented and can’t remember what I came to buy.  I can’t concentrate on anything,” said Ghada (name changed), a 24-year-old Mandean now living in Amman.

Ghada was threatened in Iraq when she refused to wear hijab, her best friend was killed for the same reason, and her neighbor was murdered by the same militia that mistakenly murdered her uncle instead of her father…  So Ghada has every reason to be afraid of violence, even here in Amman where she is physically “safe.”

For Ghada, and many like her, safety is on the inside of a partition, and until she feels safe inside her own mind, the war isn’t really over.  I am seeing firsthand that the invasion of Iraq is still taking place: minds have been invaded by trauma, families invaded by violence, and the safety of inside invaded by the outside.

If a grenade is ticking in a room full of people, the room is unsafe.
Once the grenade goes off, and all the people are dead, the room is finally “safe.”

It is our failure to understand the real meaning of safety that has us counting dead bodies instead of damaged minds.

Children's Graffiti on the Inside Wall of a Courtyard

Children's Graffiti on the Inside Wall of a Courtyard