Very grateful to poet extraordinaire Nicole Rollender for proving a platform on her blog for me to talk about my collection Birds of Sicily!
Very grateful to poet extraordinaire Nicole Rollender for proving a platform on her blog for me to talk about my collection Birds of Sicily!
…because up close and personal, THIS is the reality, this is the face, (one of many) of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Still oppose refugees right to cross borders ? If you can ,. you are cold , hard and shiny plastic ,for sure. And I hope your society, and your country never burns under your feet. What a way to come into the world, right? This infant boy and his twin brother , along with their mother braved a 3o hour, arduous journey, some of it in the pitch black of night, for a safe shore. Fifteen rubber boats (unbelievably) and one made of wood were rescued in the Mediterranean. Thousands were rescued.
Compassion is in play here, thankfully, but the naysayers, the bigots and the ill-informed cannot be far behind. The harsh truth is that the 30 hour journey, treacherous as it was, will not be the end of a life full of instability, fear, and an intense longing for a land and a home that, for all intents and purposes no longer exists. The refugee escapes one set of unbearable circumstances for another. But , at the very least, the ground is no longer burning under their feet.
The face of this tiny infant , a mere 5 days old, and others like him will haunt me.
With heartfelt thanks to my friend and amazing artist Cristina Mazzoni (MCM arts), here are her wonderful watercolors of a variety of birds found in Sicily as the backdrop for my reading of Birds of Sicily, the title poem from my collection of the same name.
I love when collaboration takes place like this so effortlessly. Every single day I look forward to Cristina’s amazing artwork, often representations of the natural world, paired with exquisite poetry from all of the poetic giants the world over. When she approached me about the idea for this little “movie” I felt so honored—she is such a huge talent and I am humbled. Her birds are so real in their rendering, so soulful and free.
My collection of poems, Birds of Sicily uses the metaphor of migratory and birds of flight to tell, in poems, the story of a man, my grandfather who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life.
If I juxtapose this with the refugees of today, I can see even in flight one is not free. It is hard to shake the chains of hatred, resentment and displacement, often what they find in most of the places in which they land.
Birds , to a certain extent can be free, because they have wings that can lift, propel and keep them in flight. But they are also caged, hunted and susceptible to many things that can harm them when they are out of their habitat.
In that way, humans — refugees, are like birds, too. Under great duress they flee for better , higher ground, but can never really know, ahead of time, what they will find
“I guai della pigniata sabe sol’ o cucchiao”
(The troubles deep in the pot are known only by the spoon—Sicilian proverb)
This collection explicates the cycle of immigration of a man who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life. The rough terrain of Sicily, both literally and figuratively figures prominently. The vagaries of displacement, adjustment, abandonment and the politics of place , juxtaposed with the migratory patterns of birds can be found in these poems. It is a timeless issue in a world that is ever on the move.
Bird the island with the naked eye and you come upon the rare, the accidental, the vulnerable, the extirpated. The island didn’t give them anything then. Beaks, sharp as the points of knives, strike before being struck. It is our way, they might say. By mountain, by sea.
O mare, O mare!
Nature has a passion for erasure, subjugation, for keeping the powerful unbowed. For survival, while feeding yourself with one hand, you deny your mother’s love, look askance at your father’s sad smile, with a fierce, but quiet disdain. There now, do not worry. Walk the sun baked estate with impunity.
Thank you for your support!
The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others
If one pays close attention, the traveller or more specifically the tourist in Sicily will see “need” at every turn. The evidence of poverty , homelessness and the displacement of refugees to those enjoying a vacation is an “inconvenient truth” , with most people choosing , whether consciously or subconsciously , to ignore what, in reality, cannot and should not be denied.
I am not much of a tourist. In fact, I never have been. The place where I love to dwell, literally and figuratively, is in everyday life. I have a friend that used to joke that I was a true member of the often-castigated “hoi polloi”. I am proud of that. In general, I am not interested in seeing whatever is in a guidebook and I am quite certain that no matter where I have found myself in the world, I have missed things that are deemed by the venerable guide books (that people clutch like the Bible) a “must see.” Honestly, I have never really cared about such things.
For the past 4 years I have been lucky enough to lead my students to Sicily each March, which is the travel component of my class, “This Sea is Not My Home: Immigration, Migration and Social Justice in the Sicilian Context.” As you can glean from the title, what started out as class that on the vagaries of immigration, migration and refugees, has slowly morphed into examining the realities of not only migration as a worldwide movement and phenomenon, but, perhaps more importantly, the lives’ of refugees themselves. The people, not just the geopolitical situation.
I have staunchly defended (and still do) the rights of people to migrate from one place to another, most particularly for reasons that people seek asylum. I could also reason the cruel irony of how protected merchandise is and how easy it is to cross borders ($$$$$) though masses of people are seen as a scourge. I have had to listen to Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans, often with fingers in my face trying to tell me how bad the situation is for Sicilians in their own country. I sympathized—how could I not— but my particular focus was on refugees into the country, not those suffering from a decimated economy resulting in an unemployment rate so high , the first time I was told what it was, I though I had misheard. But, in fact, I would have to be cold, hard, shiny plastic not to care. ,
Last week my students and I helped out at a Catholic Relief Agency one evening. The students were tasked to shop during the day for the food in the open market. On the menu was fruit salad, green salad and chicken stew. We washed and chopped and the wonderful men and women at the agency did the actual cooking. But my students and I portioned the food out. And we served. We served a hungry, possibly homeless (at least some of them) and grateful bunch of people. Among a group of perhaps 45 there was a family with two young boys. There were approximately 4 refugees that I could easily identify. The others were Sicilian.
To think of them now ties my heart up in knots. I have listened to, read and discussed the situation in Sicily with people I deeply trust there: friends, advocates, cultural mediators and educators, all on the front lines , involved and passionate. I have come to the conclusion that at least one of the reasons that many are opposed to the influx and presence of the refugees is that many themselves are also suffering—and they perceive (not accurately) that their jobs, or at least the possibility of employment will be taken from them. How can you possibly convince those with that mindset otherwise? It is hard to be compassionate in the face of your own fear and suffering.
What I know is that in that room when the bell was struck for the Our Father before the eating of the meal, everyone in the room stood and there was utter silence. There was respect, too, that everyone in the room had for one another: young, old, black, white, immigrant and refugee. In that moment, everyone was connected somehow, and our differences did not matter.
With each plate I set before someone who was waiting to eat, I said “buon appetito”. Every single person responded, warmly, with a smile and a “grazie.” This is not to fetishize those in need—far from it, but I see poverty of every kind as a sort of equalizer—it reduces us to the essence of our humanity—and it elevates us too, when we lend a hand, in any way, to help alleviate it.
When we passed out the fruit cups, the two young boys very carefully enunciated “thank you” to me in English. I replied in kind. The mother looked up at me and asked, in a bit of an embarrassed way, if I could maybe find a cup of fruit with more oranges. “The boys really love oranges,” she said
The reality of having to bring your children to a social service agency in order to feed them, hit me in a very vulnerable place. While intellectually, I know this a sad, but common occurrence, I’d never faced it so up close. It felt personal Most people who will read this blog post will be very far from such an experience. I looked at those kids and I felt my face flush. Time seemed to stop for just a moment.
I will continue to seek and narrate the voices of refugees in Sicily—I am committed to this work. Sicily is , a complicated but wonderful place, and my eyes are now more open to the need everywhere. It is not like taking sides: refugees need very particular help, being such a vulnerable and at risk population. The homeless , poverty stricken , the addicted, the forgotten, need help and compassion, too. Compassion for everyone can go a long way.
At the end of the evening, one man came up to my students and jovially observed , “You can’t understand me and I can’t understand you, but yet, here we are together!”
After all, hunger in the belly hurts us all in exactly the same way.
Last week I received a comment on one of my blog posts. The writer, “Johanna” from Finland responded this way: Problem is that we know too MUCH about them to ever accept them. There you have it.
The way in which I responded was a chance for her to explain what she meant by that, but of course, I know exactly what she meant. “What” exactly, does she, or anyone else for that matter, know about “them?” If she were to tell the truth, she might reply: actually, nothing. And yet, one gets the impression that she was not only speaking for herself, but perhaps for her country. Finland. Well, as infuriating as that comment was, she is far from the only one expressing it. And “Johanna”, of course, never responded
In the intervening years in which I have dedicated myself, as so many others have, to the cause of refugees, most specifically those coming to Sicily, I , too, have been the target of some very nasty racist comments and attitudes, many from Sicilian-Americans. I have quit many online Sicilian culture forums where I have previously enjoyed the camaraderie of the culture, until someone would start discussions about Sicily’s burden of receiving refugees. It became to much for me. What began, ostensibly as discussion about a worldwide phenomenon quickly became ad hominem attacks on me, personally. Why wasn’t’ I helping Sicilians who were also suffering? How dare I call myself Sicilian/American while daring to “out” Sicilian racism. Why was I such a n****r lover? I felt soul sick. As in the United States, it is a difficult and frustrating enterprise to attempt to explain deep seated , inveterate, structural and institutionalize racism to those who simply will themselves not to understand. Who, instead, will turn their financial and/or societal woes into be the fault of a vulnerable population seeking refugee from unspeakable horrors. I became the hated and the reviled. A traitor to my own “people.”
Racism and fear of the “intruder” is by no means exclusive to Sicily. In face, it must be stated here, how many amazing people I know in Sicily who have wholly dedicated their lives to the plight of the refugees, offering shelter, education, food, jobs and support. These people do this because it is right. They were tirelessly. This is not the cause du jour. This is a way of LIFE. We know, by the many countries that have refused entry to refugees, that the resistance toward them is strong and seemingly not, in any way, abating. Why is that? In fact, many immigrants have found there way into any number of European countries—they travel far from home to make Italy, France, England or any other number of European countries in which they were not born, to make their homes there. But where, is the resistance to those situations? Rarely, if ever, is there any. Usually, because those who do that are difficult to identify as “not belonging.” But the African refugee is instantly recognizable. There is nowhere to hide. Simply finding safe and affordable housing is often a feat of gargantuan proportions, because no one wants them to live among them. This is how ghettoes are formed. This is how people are relegated to the margins. And then many can assuage any feelings of guilt that are, frankly, unlikely to happen by saying: “well, what are they complaining about? They have a place to live!
To combat racism against these refugees means raising your voice. It means being dedicated to the cause of those who flee when no other choice is viable. Who would leave their home in the way in which they do, if not to save their own lives’? Grand sweeping gestures are good (everyone is ready to go to Sicily to “help the refugees”) but there are so many ways that you can help from where you are. How do you speak about racism, how do you challenge and witness to those who are victims, daily, of a bias that at its base is so evil as to almost be unspeakable? How do you help where you already are? How are you lifting your voices? So many I have spoken to are interesting: they want to help refugees, but would not dream of living next door to one. We have to be suspect of that. We are not perfect, but we have to begin somewhere.
Right now, the refugee crisis is the cause du jour for many who have not been paying attention for a lot of years. To those, I say: Commitment is what you do, what you have, what you enact when the emotion of the current event is gone, when it exists even though it has receded from the headlines.
Lately, the language with which many of us use to communicate with one another feels and sounds fraught. Maybe we feel irritable, sad, angry. Maybe we blame it on overwork, lack of sleep, too much caffeine, not enough caffeine, lack of love or world-weariness in general.
Our language when we speak with one another is fraught, because we, ourselves are fraught. We communicate in the language of crisis and fatigue. Fatigue of crisis. We look to one another for a moment of reprieve , but these days lately are tough ones and in one way or another, we are feeling it.
I am writing this while watching “breaking news” on CNN who is reporting that a peaceful, but large gathering of people in Philadelphia , protesting the unexplained and tragic death of Freddie Gray , an African-American man who died while in police custody, have begun to “clash” with police. Or, perhaps, police have begun to clash with protesters. (note: protesters are citizens, not criminals, and they deserve protection!) I suspect, but hope and pray otherwise, that the situation may get more out of hand as the evening wears on and darkness descends on the City of Brotherly Love.
Last week, when over 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean attempting to escape death and chaos, I was approached by more than just a few people on the “situation” “over there”. I was feeling raw from the news, sad in a deep place that I could not adequately articulate to anyone. I have spent time with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, have witnessed to and for them with what I hope is care and responsibility and have never, ever, not even once , taken that responsibility lightly. The ethical pitfalls of working with such a vulnerable population are many and I am all too aware of them. It is not anyone’s responsibility to know how emotionally fragile I felt over the situation—-I have not even an iota of the vulnerability these brave men and women have to cross an ocean with nothing but the shirts on their backs, but I was amazed and dismayed by the lack of compassion for these people by those who did not have an understanding of the situation. And so, I began with great patience in discussing the situation .
I have been keeping this blog for almost 4 years, documenting the trials of the migrant, refugee and asylum seeker in the Sicilian context, but I suppose it is not a sexy enough subject for people to care about in their day to day lives. I have attempted to methodically chronicle my thoughts , experiences and encounters from my ethnography in this blog and was (and still am!) grateful to anyone to whom it provides any enlightenment. But to those who simply do not want to understand, who have already prejudged these people, who say that Europe has no responsibility for the troubles the migrants are fleeing and therefore have no right to protection have left me feeling…well, here I am at a loss for words And then I realized that people were baiting me in an attempt to clobber me on the head with their own opinions which, to be generous in a situation where I probably shouldn’t, were disturbing at best, sickening at worst.
One person asked me, in an imperious and razor-edge tone ,’ if the migrants can afford to “pay” human traffickers so much money, why don’t they just buy a plane ticket and go to Europe like normal, civilized people?’ This person is highly educated. And, in fact, born and raised in Europe, but a naturalized American citizen. I had no words. I put my hand up to stop the conversation and willed deafness to be able to block out the senselessness that was coming out of her mouth.
In essence, in her opinion and the opinion of many others who I have spoken to, the underlying problem, really, is that the migrants are simply the wrong color. This should not shock or surprise anyone. This is not new. In the United States right now, Baltimore is burning, protests are spreading once again across the country against police brutality and against racism that is firmly embedded and institutionalized.
What does this have to do with the refugees? If you cannot see the parallels, I probably would not be able to explain it to you. And , unfortunately, my patience is wearing thin. Because I thought that I could educate people, I thought I could “bear witness”. But people will see, hear and believe what they want to believe. And it seems as though tragedy is polarizing us now, more than ever.
While Europe dallies, and those who have been ignoring a situation that has been going on for years act as if this terribly tragic situation just came out of absolutely nowhere, the migrants will continue to come. They will not ever stop coming. They have the right to protection, which is not only a humanitarian imperative, but is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I had posted a tag one day on Facebook , in response to migrant deaths, proclaiming “refugee lives matter” and was asked by a friend I respect profoundly “when will we say all lives matter?” I gently called him out on this. I responded thus: when the lives of the most vulnerable matter. Plain and simply. He sent me a message that meant a lot to me. He acknowledged my feelings. As a thinking and feeling person, he felt the strain of tragedy himself and was looking for a universal answer–an all-inclusive message that we all matter. And in fact, we do. The point is not to value one life over another. But one must, in the final estimation, look at how uneven the playing field is. It seems almost criminal to even describe it that way.
I stand in solidarity with the refugees and will continue to act as writer/activist , with care and witness. And hopefully, a multi-pronged solution can be implemented, but I fear it may be too late. So many lives, undocumented in life and undocumented in death.
Indeed, refugees lives matter. So let’s start acting like they do.
Those who work in the human rights arena are quite good at statistical information. Right now, all eyes are on the Mediterranean as authorities are claiming that the latest deaths of refugees on packed boats is the worst disaster to hit this body of water, ever. This is a humanitarian tragedy, a massacre, disaster being too tame a word for the way I and so many others feel about these senseless deaths.
Statistics on refugees are ubiquitous. The agencies that attempt to give this population aid and other services count their heads like herds of sheep, attempt to track their impact on the places in which they find themselves, small towns on mainland Italy and Sicily in which the unemployment rates are higher than one can even imagine they could be, and they live, these vulnerable people, in fear of being scapegoats for just about anything that ails a society. I am tired of hearing how only 10% of refugees who arrive in Italy arrive by boat. What is this statistic supposed to mean? My humanitarian standards, that 10% matters a hell of a lot.
I, and so many others, who have seen this terrible refugee phenomenon up close and personal in the Mediterranean, can’t help but feel that this latest tragedy goes beyond the pale. The anger that I feel at a system that has failed, in any concerted and systematic attempt to alleviate these deaths in the cold waters of the Mediterranean,( what I have called a “liquid coffin” in this blog before), simply boggles the mind.
It has been re ported that Italy’s coastguard, coordinating the search for survivors, found only 28 who managed to keep breathing. They believe that 700 people were on one of the boats and that refugees caused the boat to capsize as they panicked and all ran to one end of the boat, helping to sink it.
The water, thick and slick with oil is preventing divers from the recovery of bodies.
All of those bodies.
All of those young lives.
“It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean, “ UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.
Understatment. And sadly, almost certainly, not the last incident we will be witness to.
Have we not learned anything from the horrific Lampedusan tragedy of October 3 , 2013 where the deaths of Eritrean nationals, was said to be upwards of 363? The sorrowful platitudes echoed for months afterwards, heads sadly and slowly shook from side to side, eyes downcast, fists beat against breasts.
For years the refugees have been coming, heading for port cities, anyplace to to build their new lives. . Does this seem an obvious point to make? I make it people begin need to begin to pay attention(in case they have been living under a rock somewhere) when something incredibly awful happens, when the news media flood our eyes with terrible images. But the thing is, this is not new—-and—do you see what I am getting at? Anyone?
When does the breast-beating end and real solutions begin?
European Union??? The world is waiting.
As the political analysts weigh in, doing what they do, prognosticating with furrowed brows from a distance, the refugees will continue to flee desperate situations despite they danger and arrive in places in which their lives’ will be far from what they had hoped that they would be. A place where their very lives’ are very, very big business, for those who know how to make a living off of the most vulnerable. And there are many who are doing just that.
I have been in refugee camps and refugee centers and have witnessed the deep sadness, nearly pathological in the eyes of those whose future is uncertain at best. How does one even begin to think of a future when one’s most immediate past are memories of a journey full of fear, deprivation and exploitation?
Until then, the world will keep count.
But no one will be able to pretend, any longer, that this hasn’t been a tragedy all along, that each new massacre isn’t the first of its kind.
We tend to see refugees as the unfortunate refuse of the (mostly) African countries that they come from, because, well, so many also assume that most countries in Africa are wretched—that normal life cannot exist anywhere on the continent, so teeming humanity pile into boats in search of a better way to live.
Fact: most do not want to leave their countries—they simply have no choice. This is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee: choice. I have had this discussion so many times with my students and I have asked them: what could make you leave the only home you have known at a moment’s notice? Most cannot begin to conceive the kind of situations that be so dire that they would need (not want) to flee with only the clothes on their back. I ask them to think it through, step by step. The emotional and physical obstacles to simply leave one’s country is beyond my own comprehension, let alone, the enormity of making a new home in a culture so different in so many fundamental ways, that one must reorient every single aspect of their lives. Resettlement is an often brutal process, often taking years before a refugee can feel a semblance of balance and normalcy.
Recently, with my students in a Sicily we encountered refugees daily, on the streets, and in a refugee center where they lived a life that seemed tenuous, at best. In the center, I asked my students to look beyond what the situation seemed to be:
young men and one young women were extremely friendly, well-dressed, joked easily and attempted (and succeeded!) in making some wonderful bonds with my students. They seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors their own age, to be able to relax and tell things about themselves to people who were interested—and who cared
We ate lunch with them. Afterwards, we all played various games and sang popular songs and posed for group and individual photos. Not until later, when two of the refugees led us on a short tour of their temporary home, did some of my students begin to feel uncomfortable. A few expressed it to me, but , as one claimed, he “could not put his finger on it.” Because some things must be felt and processed in the privacy of one’s own thoughts, I nodded knowingly and advised them to write in their journals and attempt to think things through. I encouraged them to think about the reality of their lives’—not just what was presented to us, or what we wanted to see—to console ourselves that all is well—after all, they had food in their stomachs and a place to lay their heads at night.
So what was it?
Upon our return back to the small , suburban Liberal Arts college , I met with three of the students who shared their uneasiness with me. This pleased me because not all will see or feel this immediately.
My students identified so many of the factors contributing to the difficulties the refugees would experience. They included the fact that they are non-Europeans now living and tryng to fit in a European culture. That they are far, far, far from their homes of origin and therefore separated from any influence of their own culture, the culture that has formed them as the people they are today. That they seemed conscious of being the grateful all the time—in fact, the benevolence bestowed upon them fairly demands that they be in a constant state of thanking someone (or many) —which can be exhausting. That the refugee did not necessarily choose the country in which s/he would land. And in the case of Italy, few want to stay. They lack a great level of agency in the center, a place they are grateful to be in , but can in no way be called “home”. In some ways they are infantisized: they are told when and what they will eat, etc. They can become anxious, hopeless, depressed, nostalgic. And they may cycle through these emotions many different times. Because , really, who can forget their home?
Often, the treacherous journey is just the beginning. What can be seen as the real struggle begins when their feet touch solid ground. And soon, that ground does not feel so solid. What will their lives’ become?
Much has been made of the news media’s coverage of the sea voyages of refugees. The rickety , unseaworthy boats, the drawn and mournful faces of the survivors. And some will, haughtily, declare the statistics: that less than 10 percent of these refugees arrive by boat, so why does the media insist on portraying these refugees?
Because , from a humanitarian point of view, this population matters. And they matter a lot. And no sooner has the refugee survived perhaps the most perilous journey of his or her life, reality sets in. This is a hard and brutal road. Many I have spoken to wish they had never left home.
My students met the only girl currently living at the center—the rest are young African men. She is young. Her parents are dead. She has no relatives in Italy. She is a beautiful girl with a warm and welcoming smile. Yes, she welcomed us. She was eager to make a connection, especially with my female students.
And my students listened to her and , I am proud to say, really, really heard her. And what was amazing to me is that they each sought commonalities , not differences. And they bonded over things that girls everywhere bond over. What impressed me was their was no objectifying of her—she was just Blessing, a teenage Nigerian girl who simply wanted to make friends. What she shared of her life occurred after she felt comfortable and she shared details of her own free will.
One day , sitting at an outdoor cafe despite the chilly weather, I and my students encountered a Sengalese street vendor. Very tall and handsome, the many approached our table and smiled immediately at one of my students and said: “You are from America—you are black, like me, but not as dark!” We all laughed and marveled at his perception. This man had dignity. He was well-spoken. He engaged us on any number of topics, including all of the languages he can speak. He was not pressuring us to buy anything, which surprised me. Maybe he knew one of us would buy something anyway. I had my eye on a trio of bracelets. He caught my eye. “Ahhhh, he said. You like these, don’t you?” He smiled widely. He placed them on the table and I bought them.
He said he needed to move on , but shook all of our hands, and then touched his palm to his heart. Nodded and said that he hoped he would see us again before we left. Before he walked away, he told us that he lived in Catania. That he did not always look the way we were viewing him that day—with all of his various wears hanging about his body for sale. ” You should see me when I am at home and not working! I live in the city, I am different, not always working. I have a life!”
Indeed. And it gave my students, who will be trying to figure all of this out for a long time, something to think about. A refugee who is making his way in his new life. Who no longer thinks of himself as a refugee , (nor should we), but instead, just a man, like any other working and living his life.
An individual who deserves to be happy.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.