The Unknowable Reality of the Refugee


“While every refugees story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage: the courage not only to survive , but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”

Antonio Guterres

The lives’ of refugees are often unknowable, unfathomable, though they are often portrayed in one of two ways: either as the noble and unfortunate sufferer or the unwelcome undesirables who should go back to wherever they came from. I understand and recognize the dichotomous thinking, how easy it is to be tempted to put a person or a situation that we do not know or understand, in a box, a category. In my encounters with refugees, I attempt to speak as honestly with them as possible . It is I that usually seeks them out , either in refugee camps, reception centers or on the streets of the Sicilian town in which they attempt to live and work and begin their lives’ anew. It is rare for them to initiate contact with me, but it happens.

One day in the open market, I stood with a few of my bright, curious students, under a large umbrella, tasting cheese and otherwise enjoying our day, when a man approached me, by tapping me on the shoulder. I turned around and he stood in front of me , smiling. My students assumed that I knew him, but in fact, I do not ever remember seeing him before, but he insisted that I had.

He handed me a photo and a piece of paper in which he scrawled his name , some Arabic writing and a few other things. He asked me to help him find a job. And then, just to help him, period.

Refugee I met in the open market.

Refugee I met in the open market.

He engaged my students in some conversation, but , kept his eyes on me the entire time. He kept asking me to call him, to help him. Again, he referenced that he’d seen me in the camp and assumed I was an aid worker, in a position to offer, well, aid.

These are the times when I question the responsibility of my encounters with such a vulnerable population. There are severe limits to what I can do. There are limits to so much of what any of us can do for the refugee in any given situation. I saw the desperation in this man’s eyes. When I relayed the story to a friend upon my return home, she felt he probably wanted to exploit me, in some way, perhaps taking advantage of what he perceived to be my kindness. Another friend shook his head slowly, wondered if I knew what I was doing at all.

 

Notes, written.

Notes, written.

I saved his photo and the piece of paper. It serves to remind me of the limits of my work. It also reminds me of the importance of doing what I can in fact do.

I never saw this man again.

A week later, my mentor called me back home in the states.

Hey,” he said. “Remember that refugee who gave you his photo in the open market?”

I told him that of course I remembered him. I could not get him out of my mind.

I saw him surrounded by police the other day, on the street. They arrested him.”

For what?” I asked.

A soft,  chuckle on the other end of the phone, one of frustration, not of mirth.

That,” he said, “I do not know. It could be anything.”

In fact, my mentor was right. It could be anything at all. And no one will ever know.

The unknowable life of the refugee is the reason why I do what I do. Their stories matter. But in fact, it takes patience in the telling , in the understanding.

Their lives’ are often ones of desperation. They are not perfect people—in that way, they are just like the rest of us: imperfect in our humanity, just trying, trying every day.

But the playing field, as they say , is not a level one.

I do not know where this man is, what he wanted from me that day, or what might have happened to him.

But I think about him nearly every day and I still, I wonder. And of course, I hope for the very best.

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