Take in the Good with the Bad: Syrian Refugees and Their Stories
A friend recently said to me: “It is possible to take in all the bad news that you hear and feel empathy. You will not become numb. But you must also take in the good with the bad - otherwise you risk losing yourself.”
At a time when the international platform is overwhelmed with negative media surrounding Syrian Refugees it is important that we consider all the narratives - ‘the bad’ and ‘the good.’ We must consider, and sometimes even seek out, alternative narratives about lived experiences instead of simply settling for narratives which reinforce our perpetuated ‘victim’ stereotypes of Syrian Refugees.
An article published in The New York Times in December 2016, “‘We Are Dead Either Way’ : Agonizing Choices for Syrians in Aleppo,” highlights the current narrative that most of us at UVa prescribe to when it comes to the plight of Syrian Refugees. Therein, authors Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad describe how “soldiers seized neighborhoods” and “rebels lost more than three-quarters of their territory, throwing thousands of civilians and fighters into chaos.” The negative narratives we expect, when reading about displaced refugees, is reinforced as Barnard and Saad describe “local rebels [who] guided groups to avoid snipers,” and bomb shells that “erupted.” The authors quote a civilian who confessed his fears to a nurse: “we are dead either way.” I draw your attention to the fact that the article confirms our current knowledge. In other words, the article reinforces the information we have on Syrian Refugees regarding the seriousness of their daily challenges, the plight of their separation and isolation, and the physical dangers amidst which they function. There is little (often no) new information in the media that constructs unique narratives for a global audience. How many times have you read that the current global refugee crisis is the worst since WWII? We rarely stumble upn narratives that shed light on the real experiences of Syrian Refugees. Even in a time when paralyzing terror threatens the livelihood of 13.5 million refugees, surely there are ‘good’ experiences and ‘honest’ hopes clutched by victims of Syria’s circumstances?
Admittedly, it is problematic to pursue ‘the good.’ It becomes increasingly difficult to search for ‘the good’ and ‘the honest’ without projecting our own notions of these ideals onto others. To this end, there exist a plethora of articles announcing ‘good’ success experiences as told by Syrian Refugees who are aspiring to, for lack of a more culturally appropriate term, the American Dream. We need not look further than Tejal Rao’s “Two Bakers Thrive in Brooklyn, far from Syria’s Turmoil” to recognize such a story. Rao writes about Marhaf Homsi and his wife who both fled Syria and are currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. The pair owned “a bakery in the city of Hama for more than 30 years” before they fled Syria. After arriving in the US last March on permanent resident visas, the couple have started a life in their own small way. Homsi has taken to making traditional baklava in his small kitchen the only way, the best way, he knows how.
The problem with such ‘success’ stories is that these often conform to our notion of success, as socialized beings in an American society. The tale of Homsi and his wife could fill us with hope, certainly. Yet, when we think critically, we realize the information we glean from reading the article serves only to reinforce our prior knowledge. After all, we know that America is the country where you can ‘make your dreams come true’ and ‘be anything you want to be.’ Knowing, and believing in, this American Dream does not discredit our society that supports hard labor and honest diligence. Oh no: I am suggesting that there is a different kind of tension that exists when such ‘good’ stories are shared. Such a tension arises when we read about Homsi and thereafter believe that enough is being done for Syrian Refugees like him. Because we read about one elderly couple who fled Syria and sought refuge in the heart of Brooklyn in order to sell baklava, there is chance that we will begin to feel comfortable with the global refugee crisis. There is a possibility that we will begin to feel that the plight of Syrian Refugees is being dissolved. There is a probability that we will begin to calculate that the end of terror and pain is a reality.
But the truth is that the end of terror and pain is not a reality - it is our reality. It is our perceived, privileged reality.
Because success stories often conform to our notion of success, perhaps we should seek out stories that are created with an alternative notion of success. Perhaps we should listen to as many Syrian Refugees as we can to learn what they believe to be ‘good’ and ‘honest’ experiences.
Last week I attended a film screening at the University of Virginia. “Another Kind of Girl Collective” the film screened is a media arts collective that seeks to “equip girls in the midst of displacement with the creative and technical means to explore and articulate their inner worlds and daily lives through film and photography” (2015). The collective is a conglomeration of short films (ranging from five to fifteen minutes each) directed and produced by Syrian girls living as refugees in Jordan.
The Collective was started in 2014 with teenage girls living in Jordan. The girls attended workshops, in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp and in the city of Irbid, where they learned about camera angles, directing techniques, and expression through film. Through film and media, the girls are empowered to transform “the foreign landscape of the refugee camp and urban communities into new terrain for exploration, self-discovery and self-expression” (2015). The workshops are developed and facilitated by documentary filmmaker/educator and UVa Visiting Artist in Residence, Ms. Laura Doggett.
After the Collective had been screened, at UVa, the sixty member student-faculty audience stared at a black screen, collecting our thoughts after viewing the impactful and unique narratives. The Collective, screened by Ms. Doggett alongside a team of dedicated UVa students (Kara Anderson, Susan Xie, Raiya Al-Nsour), was incredibly enlightening not only because new information about Syrian Refugees was presented on an attractive platform, but also because the Collective awarded agency to a group of Syrian girls thus allowing them to share their lived experiences ‘honestly’ with a greater audience.
A friend recently said to me: “It is possible to take in all the bad news that you hear and feel empathy. You will not become numb. But you must also take in the good with the bad - otherwise you risk losing yourself.” It seems to me that the best way to take in the good with the bad is to advocate for new narratives and lived experiences that surpass our circulated knowledge about Syrian Refugees. It seems to me that the danger of reinforcing prior knowledge and circulating known information is that we risk becoming comfortable in our current situation. In our ignorance, we dance around the lived experiences of individuals outside American borders. We latch onto ‘good’ narratives that fit our paradigm of success and ‘good’ living. Sometimes, we skirt past ‘the good’ experiences as well as the bad ones. We have to push ourselves to learn about new paradigms of ‘good’ and ‘honest’ - perhaps paradigms that a group of Syrian girls have dared to share through film. If we do not challenge our stereotypes then we risk stagnation, which is particularly dangerous given that ‘to be human’ is ‘to grow.’
“About the Workshops - Another Kind of Girl Collective.” 2017. Accessed February 10. http://anotherkindofgirl.com/about-the-workshops.
Barnard, Anne, and Hwaida Saad. 2016. “‘We Are Dead Either Way’: Agonizing Choices for Syrians in Aleppo.” The New York Times, Accessed February 10. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/10/world/middleeast/we-are-dead-either-way-agonizing-choices-for-syrians-in-aleppo.html.
Kishore, Joseph. 2017. “Global Refugee Crisis Worst since World War II - World Socialist Web Site.” Accessed February 11. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/06/16/refu-j16.html.
Rao, Tejal. 2017. “Two Bakers Thrive in Brooklyn, Far From Syria’s Turmoil.” The New York Times, Accessed February 7. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/dining/bakery-brooklyn-syrian-refugees.html.
“Syrian Refugees.” 2017. Accessed February 11. http://syrianrefugees.eu/.