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 Corruption

June 13, 2009


Hanna (name changed) sent 100 dollars to Dana (name changed) for her hourly services as a delivery person.  Hanna sent the money to Dana through Abu Ali (name changes), but somehow the money went missing.

Did Hanna never send it?  Did Dana receive it and lie?  Or did Abu Ali steal it in the transition?  Regardless, the missing funds are clearly evidence of corruption.

But corruption lies on a sliding scale, and its meaning is hard to capture.

A group of volunteers are sorting through used clothes to give away to some families.  They find a dress they like very much.  One friend says to another, “You should keep it!  It looks good on you.”  The volunteer tries the dress on and decides to keep it for herself.

None of the families would ever know about it anyway.  The clothes were donated by someone who probably just wanted to be rid of them.  And the dress was so pretty!

But the clothes were allocated for Iraqi refugees, and some young woman probably needed it more than the volunteer did because of her bleak environment.  The argument that she wouldn’t miss it having never seen it is also faulty— without even seeing the pretty dress, she already misses and wants it, because she never had it or anything like it.

Was the volunteer’s choice an act of corruption?

How about this: you are working for a small nonprofit.  People work hard and donate a little money to this nonprofit online.  Some of the money goes to your travel expenses, most to Iraqi refugees.  When you are in the store, you have to choose a brand of body soap, paid for by the nonprofit funds.

If you choose the most expensive soap, something you’d never buy at home, that’s corruption.

What if you choose the second most expensive brand, which you do use at home?
What if you choose the second cheapest brand?

Is anything but the cheapest brand really a moral option, given the slipperiness of the Corruption Slope?

I bring these individual quandaries to your attention because in all three cases, the missing money, the dress, and the soap, the answer is based on individual decision-making.

But what happens when an entire system functions on a norm of one-way gain?

“The workers at Caritas were normal people, even poor.  It’s been two years, and now the same people are driving nice cars and wearing gold watches.  And still, we are hardly receiving services from them.  Why does Caritas exist—for their salaries?”  Um Khalid (name changed) asks a legitimate question.

If a nonprofit has an overhead of say, 95 percent, one might say it merely exists to pay salaries to its employees.
Is that corruption?

It is very disturbing to interview NGO workers and discover that they not only make a very fine salary, but that they also never speak with, visit, or even know much about the Iraqi refugees they supposedly serve.

While some of the smaller NGOs are doing excellent work, I often leave meetings still repeating the same question: “I’m sorry, but what do you actually do?”

And I am not alone in asking this question.  In speaking with my Iraqi neighbors, I am forced to understand corruption as a collective rather than individual act, as a systematic process that has in fact become the acceptable “standard operating procedures”:

“Theses NGOs are all corrupt.  You can just look at Iraq from a helicopter—you’ll see a war zone, and then up at the top where it’s pretty safe, you’ll see NGO fortresses coming in to sweep up the mess for pay.  The longer the mess lasts, the more money they make.  Why would they really solve the problem?  The problem is their livelihood.”  Dr. Heba (name changed) articulated what Naomi Klein would call Disaster Capitalism.

This doesn’t mean that NGO vultures are swarming over the carcass of Iraq…

In my interfaces with NGO workers, they are well intended and as frustrated by the system as are Iraqis.

But this may be the crux of the issue: is it corruption to be paid for having good intentions alone?

Without effect, what weight do one’s good intentions have, and are they worth a yearly salary?

Intent doesn’t really matter to Iraqi refugees (in part because NGO workers rarely spend any time or space with the refugees in order to communicate their personal intentions, in the first place.)

Iraqi refugees whom I have talked to don’t hesitate for a second when asked about the meaning of corruption:
When your good intentions offer no effect, that is corruption.

…In which case the “business of doing good,” is as morally hazardous as any other sector.  The only difference is that in this business, people’s entire lives hang in the balance between one’s good intentions and the salary that comes with them.

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 Future

April 27, 2009
Laying Out My Clothes Takes for Granted a Sense fo Future

Laying out my clothes each night takes for granted a sense of Future

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 motive a person to lay out their 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.