The Meaning of Personalization II

June 24, 2009
Necklace from Nadia

Necklace from Nadia

The other day I got a call on the landline in our flat. Someone had taken great pains to look up the hotel, call the front desk and track us down.

Broken English—it’s Nadia. We need to see you!
Nadia? From the English class or somewhere else—which Nadia?
Confusion.
In Arabic: We must see you immediately!
Is something wrong?
Fast complicated Arabic…
Okay, can you call Dr. Fadhil (name changed?) to speak with him in Arabic?
No no, we want to see you, only you.
Okay. We will come tomorrow, inshalla.
Okay.
I worry all night.

The following day we visited one of our most beloved families: Two beautiful daughters, the father who was brutally tortured for being a gardener for the US military (see previous blog, The Intranslateability of Experience). The mother who makes the best coffee in the world…
They were eating pigeons when we found them, living on almost nothing, but luckily they are now on the proper cash assistance… They are still in a bad way, but there is a lighter mood in the house.
A little turtle I have never met before crept up to me to say hi. The father, Mohammed (name changed), insisted that I take the little turtle with me.
Please take him– I want to give you a gift!
We can’t, my mom says, they’ll think there’s a bomb in his shell…

Oh. Well alright.  –He grins the toothless grin of a man who has been tortured.

Mohammed seems a little disappointed, but I know the girls would also be sad to see their family creature leave.
What is the emergency? We ask.
The emergency is that we must give you something before you leave and we heard you were leaving soon!
Nadia, shy, pretty Nadia, comes creeping out of the back room, just like her pet turtle, with a little pink bag.
She hands it to me and I open it— a beautiful red necklace, I tell her—you know this is my favorite color?
Yes, she says, pointing to my red hijab.
She must have studied my clothing closely in order to so accurately note my sense of style…
She was beaming.
I feel close to you, like a true friend, she said in Arabic.
A gift.

She must have been terrified to go out and buy the necklace—her family has been horribly harassed by the Jordanian police, who threaten them and frighten them. They attacked her father just a few days before our visit.
She must have also saved money for a long time. Even a 2 or 3 dinar gift is a huge expense for this family.
And more moving to me than anything else was her ability and will to track down our hotel, call us up, and brave the English language.
I will always wear this necklace, like a big red beating heart.
What love she gave me.
It’s personal.

So that’s the other side of personalizing a refugee crisis.

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The Meaning of Personalization

June 20, 2009

People have been asking for details about my own personal experience here.  So I will talk about that.

Everything you have read is personal to me.  When I describe refugees’ sense of futurelessness, it’s personal.  When I describe disorientation, restless sleeping, increased mistrust, frustration with the UNHCR, it’s all personal.

How is it here? It sucks.  If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this right.

My goal in coming here was to bare witness to the suffering of Iraqi people, and to bear what I witnessed as part of the reconciliation process between Americans and Iraqis.  Part of the baring and the bearing is sharing the burden of refugeeness.  And it sucks.  It really does.

Sharing in Time Distortion:

Some hours last days, some days last 2 hours.  Time is not linear, and my own disorientation in the space-time continuum is complete.

I forget things.  I walk into the grocery store and forget what I came to buy.  I look up and realize it is 2 am and I can’t remember what I have been doing for the past six hours.  My mind is muddled.

I am always late to meetings with NGO officials, in part because they chronically underestimate the travel time, and in part because I have no personal sense of time.  There are three clocks in our flat; 2 are broken.  I don’t trust the other one, because no matter what time it says, it doesn’t feel like the right time.

(Timelessness can make a person very passive, which certainly benefits agencies and NGOs who need to keep track of the movements and activities of refugees— their institutional success relies on the passiveness of their clients.  It is hard to overcome the urge to sit and watch TV nonstop.)

Sharing in Mis-sleep:

When I close my eyes to sleep, I see faces, and I am constantly bothered by what I can’t do.  The faces always ask for something, or worse, they don’t, but I see what they need anyway. 

There is Mohammed with his spine curved up the wrong way because of the Depleted Uranium that also poisoned the Tigris river Jamila loves so much.  His spine is bent grotesquely, and there are his big eyes smiling smartly.
Oh, and then there is the Jordanian hag who finds food in the trash—I leave things for her behind the dumpster.  No NGO is serving her—she’s not Iraqi.

The General who I tried to bake a cake for?  He’s gone.  When I brought my cake to his house, he had left, probably couldn’t afford it, or he got sick or returned to Iraq.  You never know.

I haven’t had a “normal” dream in months.  Instead I toss around like a fish in the sheets, between dreaming and thinking, that restlessness you have when you had an unpleasant conversation or did badly on a test for no good reason; you should have done something differently…

Sharing the -isms:

The most painful experience we’ve had here is a repeated one.  We meet a family.  They have the wrong cash assistance or their file has the wrong last name… something simple.  They’ve been calling UNHCR for the past 2 years to fix the error.  They have written letters, dropped by, scheduled appointments…  all to no avail.

My mom accompanies them on day to a visit with UNHCR.  The family is asked to wait in line.  My mom is offered a comfortable air-conditioned room for waiting.  The family she came with is offered a hot, sweaty tent just outside the white building.  (Of course my mom chooses to wait with the family).  My mom never sees the UNHCR officer who finally meets with the family, but the family mentions that their American friend, Debra, is waiting downstairs.

The next day their file is fixed and they are visited by two NGOs who promise to meet their medical needs.  Instant gratification.

Two years they waited, and it took my mom’s general American aura (no one even saw her) and a few hours of sitting in a tent to get things fixed for this family.

When you become family with people, when they call themselves your brother or mother, and you have to leave them on the other side of a wall because someone you’ve never met sees some apparent difference between you…  it is the most alarming feeling in the world.

This is not a one-time thing.  It is institutionalized racism and institutionalized classism:

You’re a refugee?  Go wait in the tent.

You’re an American?  Please come in.

You’re black?  You drink out of this fountain…

I am reminded that my own mother was in the 9th grade (1974) when her high school was finally integrated.  Even then, her black friends sat in the back of the room.  (A different kind of time distortion…) 

What’s this nonsense about “restoring human dignity” that sits at the top of UNHCR’s statement of purpose?

I’m so angry.

Sharing in Diaspora:

First, I am Diaspora, the very meaning of it.  I am the single spore that was blown off the pod—dia-spor-a.  The American with Iraqi blood, the loophole in identity.  One who is, but really isn’t.  And so I am accepted and not accepted, I am the future and the past of Iraq in the eyes of my neighbors. 

Am I proof that you can raise a well-mannered girl even in the Wild West?  Or proof that blood is meaningless and that ‘place’ takes over? 

Whatever people think of me here, we share Diaspora together.  I am the end of it and they are the beginning.  If they see the second and third generation in me, I hope they see a Future.

“Flats change faster than the season,” my mom says.  People move.  The General left, who knows where.  Two families have switched flats in the city in just 2 months.  People get resettled, addresses change, phones expire, there are rarely email addresses.  I am anxious about how I will keep track of the families I know.  They can’t tell me their plans, since they can’t make any:

Ahmed was packing up and ready to fly on the 15th of this month.  But he learned two weeks before leaving that his sponsor is on vacation.  He’ll have to wait until September now.  Cancelled his lease and everything.  Said goodbye to friends.  Had all his last suppers.  And then, like always, things change.

“Inshalla” takes on a new meaning here.  I never use the future tense without qualifying it with an emphatic “Inshalla” —God willing. 

I love the people I love.  Inshalla I will sustain some form of communication with them, whether they are stuck here for 10 more years or are resettled tomorrow morning. 

Where will you be in relation to me?  Far away or close?  Inshalla I will see you again before I die.

Goodbye, goodbye.  Maybe…

The unknown is killing me.  It drives me crazy.

So, there is something about personalizing a refugee crisis.


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.