Sunday, October 26, 2008

What are you doing here?

The night before last i was introduced to the regional director of a large international NGO in the region tasked to assist Iraqi refugees. She was dedicated, smart, to the point, and just cynical enough (forgive me, i assume) to protect her heart from breaking.

She challenged what i was doing here in Amman. Not in a negative way, but as an opportunity for discussion. Her approach in her work is a pragmatic one. She removes emotion and explains the benefits and positive outcomes that can be obtained by a specific course of action and she gets results. She felt what i was doing was the opposite of this. She felt that somehow i was sentimentalizing people's stories to make my audience feel guilty. She didn’t think positive change results from guilt, and I readily agreed.

She asked me how hearing people's stories would help. She was concerned with the Iraqis themselves. She wanted the Iraqi people she was working with to find the strength to move forward and felt that repeating their stories inhibited this. She felt that people repeating their stories would ingrain a sense of victimhood not only individually but collectively on the Iraqi psyche. Of course, as i continue to question the value of the work i am doing, this gave me pause. I explained i wanted the numbers and percentages we read about in the United States transformed into human beings. I think that statistics and pragmatism will not connect with everyday people who have had little contact with the refugee situation. If people don’t feel a connection, they don’t care.

As i slept on this it occurred to me that this is really an aside to what i am doing here. What i am experiencing here is really about one thing, relationship. I can sit at home and my relationship with the occupation of Iraq and Iraqi refugees is one thing. When i come here and actually sit with refugees and share tea with them and listen to their stories i am in a completely different relationship. As people tell their stories, they reveal themselves. i listen, a conduit for their expression. Whether they are expressing sadness, joy, guilt or hatred, it is pure. You can count on it. We don't always agree, but i can drop my opinion altogether, something usually very difficult for me. Being together in this way means something. Rather than seeing enemies or divisions, rifts and misunderstandings can be clarified. We see each other differently. We recognize our humanity. As i write, i try to convey this to a wider population. If i am lucky, people connect. Hopefully, rather than indulging victimhood in some small way these meetings encourage reconciliation.