Refugee Lives: Trauma, Celebrations, and Limbo

Photo by Alex Gunn showing graffiti art by refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp.
By Michael Murphy
Staff Writer

In 2011, the Syrian Civil War placed refugees on the global stage. Amid al-Assad’s barrel bombs, The Syrian Refugee Crisis was born. Videos depicting thousands of people fleeing their homes filled the airwaves. It wasn’t the first case of forced displacement, but European countries reeled from the sudden surge of humanitarian need all the same, with each country giving a kneejerk reaction on how to handle the hundreds of thousands of newcomers fleeing violence. Meanwhile, millions fled to neighboring countries–Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan—each already struggling with the refugees of the wars in the previous century. Before long, attention turned to North Africa. Images of rubber boats filled to the brim with desperate souls being tossed on the waves of the Mediterranean became unavoidable. Finally, in 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi, a young boy whose body lay on the beach after having drowned on the journey from Turkey to Europe, drew virulent international outrage.


Five years later, we only hear about refugees at campaign rallies. What is their situation today? With the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Somalia, and others still raging, what happens when people on the other side of the world get tired of watching and the cameras move on? Most importantly, who are the people who have been so grievously affected? In the fever to gain headlines by news media, their individual stories too often get lost, and their identities congeal into an objectifiable mass. A person might be a doctor or a mother but gets branded as just one more body in the surge of “refugees.”

Photo by Alex Gunn showing art made by refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp
Photo by Alex Gunn showing art made by refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp

Below is an attempt to detangle the “people” from the “crisis”, and to give voice to their individual stories. However, to get there, first we need to understand the current situation. We need to bridge the conceptual divide between the lifestyle of a developed nation and refugee settlements around the world.

To do this, I turned to Alex Gunn. Alex founded No Lost Generation – UCSD in 2016, a chapter of a global network working to get aid to refugee children under the umbrella of UNICEF. She also interned at the International Rescue Committee, one of the largest global refugee resettlement organizations. After graduating, Alex continued humanitarian work in Kenya, South Africa, and finally Jordan, where she resides now as an intern with UNICEF. She was kind enough to share some of her insights with me over Skype.

It was getting late in Jordan; its time zone is ten hours ahead of California. She was in a café in the center of the Somali refugee area. If it was earlier in the day, members of the Somali community would have been playing cards and bingo next door.

“There’s such a sense of community,” she said, looking out the window. “Some still wear their traditional clothing at events. They stuck to their culture even though their situation is completely different here. I’ve noticed that with the Somali population. The conflict has been going on for decades and they have been able to preserve their language, their culture, music, dance, community.”

She trailed off. I could see the oscillation of her own limitless excitability battling with the endless exhaustion of the day and of work yet to be done.

We started by talking about her work with UNICEF. She mainly coordinates with other NGOs and UN agencies, occasionally donors, where her main focus is on education, child protection, and youth engagement. If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you’ve probably heard of a project that she supported from an Early Childhood Development donor briefing; the International Rescue Committee’s ‘Ahlan Simsim Project’. 

“It is a Sesame Workshop where they brought Elmo and Big Bird to Jordan and they wrote a series to create mental health and psycho-social support — they call it MHPSS in children, but within a refugee setting.”

She also burns the midnight oil, at two organizations: Sawiyan and the Jesuit Center, where she teaches English and volunteers at community centers. I asked her to describe the education system for refugees in Jordan.

“Here in Jordan, they have double-shift schools and students usually only go to school from 9-12 in the morning or 1-3 in the afternoon. People receive half of the amount of time for education that they would in other countries. So, within the Sawiyan English teaching program, if they’re younger, it provides them an opportunity to continue their study and if they’re older, it provides — mothers for example — an opportunity to come and work on their English. Sawiyan allows the kids to come too, so the kids are learning with their parents.” Then she adds, smiling, “Sawiyan means ‘come together’ in Arabic.”

It didn’t take long, however, for our conversation to drift into her frustrations with bureaucracy, with international relations, and with a lack of opportunities for refugees to do much of anything with their time in limbo.

“Even here, there’s a donor fatigue and just fatigue in general with the Syria Crisis. It has almost been nine years and the conflict is still ongoing, and people aren’t talking about it as much.”

Alex was an International Studies – Political Science major in college and focused on African and refugee studies. In addition to her volunteer work, much of her research engaged refugee populations. She made multiple trips to Jordan, teaching English through various groups. She said that many of these students ended up becoming her friends, and that the majority of her friends are refugees themselves. Through them, she became familiar with the struggles that often get overlooked. There are inconsistencies over countries of origin, and over who can afford a work permit and who cannot. Syrians have to pay less for the permit, for instance, but they still have to pay.

 “A lot of people are just tired because it has been three years, four years, five years, six years, even nine years that they have been here and haven’t been resettled,” She paused. It was clearly a sore spot for her. “Technically they’re not supposed to work, they don’t have that permit, and usually people don’t. There’s barely any scholarship opportunities to go to university, so a lot of people are in their twenties and they can’t get vocational skills for them to get a job, they can’t get permission to get a job. Some people have been arrested or deported for doing informal work, but what do you expect? What are they supposed to do when they’re just living here?”

According to the UNHCR, over 750,000 refugees currently reside in Jordan, hailing from Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, as well as long term camps from Palestine. Still, only 138,000 work permits have been issued. In 2019, only 5,576 refugees were permanently resettled to their final country of refuge.

Later on, we got to talking about how the Syrian refugee camp compared to the urban resettled areas. “[People in the camp] have similar issues. They have been there for seven years. Again, they don’t see a future, they don’t know what the next steps are. They have a clinic and they have a main street where they have a falafel place, or a shawarma place, and some people were able to create businesses. Their market isn’t connected to the Jordanian market though, so it is not like they can expand what they’re working on.”

Photo by Alex Gunn showing a small vendor in the Zaatari Refugee Camp.

Protection is a concern as well. She reported frequent instances of human traffickers promising visas and kidnapping individuals. Organizations that provide lawyers struggle to keep up. Gender issues, such as child marriages, are an ongoing struggle. On top of all of that, new retina biometric scans have raised ethical concerns and commoditized refugees. Which finally, we get to the crux of our conversation.

“I think that is something that I was disappointed in myself for while working at UCSD. I didn’t prioritize that refugees are people first, before being a refugee. I think I was so obsessed with ‘the refugee problem’ and a need to solve it!”

She spoke of struggling to keep up with the news, trying to help in any way she could, and the danger in seeing refugees as a mass, a problem to solve, and not as humans.  

”I don’t feel like I ever suggested learning about refugees’ culture and what they’re coming from. I never considered that a way for them to heal is to celebrate their culture and the positive sides of that, or to create a community within San Diego with the different refugee populations there. Something as easy as sharing a meal with a refugee within City Heights,” she pauses again. Even though she’s only talking about her time at UCSD one year ago, the sharp contrast of San Diego and camps in Jordan has us both trying to find our footing. “I wish we had,” she finally says, “just so people can learn about culture or … have a friend.”

“For people being resettled, a major struggle is the issue of identity. Many people in the society identify them as refugees first, followed by the country that they come from. They say, ‘a Sudanese refugee’ or ‘a Syrian refugee’ or ‘a Somali refugee’, rather than ‘this is a Syrian person, this is a Sudanese person, this is a Somali person’. Being labeled as a refugee is a big toll in itself. It is a constant reminder that they’re stuck in this state of limbo.”

This got us to the topic of trauma. There’s a tendency to think of trauma as a single condition with generic treatment. Of course, refugees suffer from a myriad of traumas, all as peculiar as their own histories. “For example, Syrian refugees might have experienced bomb blasts and, when they hear a balloon pop, they are reminded of gunshots. Or if they’re a refugee from Darfur in Sudan, they experienced constant trauma of having a militia in the community nearby and they always had to be aware that they could have to evacuate their community because they were neighbors with this dangerous militia.”

Psychosocial health is a massive concern among organizations, but one which receives inadequate attention. Every individual experiences different ailments, but therapies, where available, are standardized and generic. Worse, many of the processes meant to study the issues and provide assistance only reaffirm those traumas.

“A lot of refugees are tired of being interviewed and talking about their experience when people just come and receive feedback for the programs. Too often, they leave and don’t create a program that helps all of the issues that refugees are having. It is continuous trauma if people aren’t interviewing refugees correctly, making false promises through the implications of their interactions.”

“Different communities heal in different ways. If you want to make sure a community is resilient, you have to learn about their traditions and cultures. These traditions are what made them happy at home. This is their new home and they want to continue those types of cultural practices. Of course, it is going to change, so understanding how they can preserve it or how they can protect their own culture and themselves is important. That’s how you get to know people and where they’re from. You can understand what types of struggles they have had, because of what they had to leave behind and by what they could keep in their new life.”

With all of that being said, it seemed reasonable to ask Alex, what gives her hope?

“I have hope in younger children, or communities that celebrate life, and how those people can support other individuals and communities. I have hope that they can create the world that they want to live in. It is really hard. There are always going to be issues.”

We were about to wrap up our interview, but then she stopped and told me a story about a man that she taught English to, and who inspired her. He now runs an English program for Sawiyan, the same group that Alex teaches for, and some of his students are now teachers themselves.

“You always have a skill that you can share with someone else. I have a degree; I went to university. If I apply to jobs and I don’t get them, it makes me feel like I don’t have any skills because society is telling me that. That’s not the case. I can speak English, I can write papers, I can type on a computer, I can connect with people on Facebook… there are so many skills that I felt like I didn’t know, that individuals don’t know that they can teach someone who never had the opportunity to learn. I feel like here I’ve learned that it is almost your duty as a human to share everything that you have learned with someone else. That just creates a better community of everyone being equal, everyone sharing what they have learned in life, and everyone growing together, which almost makes the bigger refugee crisis smaller. It helps you create a community. It helps you create a home in these terrible situations.”

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