Sometimes, I try to think about what it would take for me to flee, to leave everything behind.
On Wednesday, the President issued a series of executive orders on immigration. From expanding detention and deportation to denying visas for refugees and asylum-seekers, to moving funds to build a wall on the border with Mexico, these orders represent only part of a turn to isolationism and xenophobia that I don’t think we’ve seen since before WWII.
And we all know how that turned out.
In 2016 and 2015, I had the immense opportunity to spend time in refugee and displaced person camps in Iraq and Tanzania. With researchers and staff at the IRC–a humanitarian organization–I designed and implemented a two-phase study of social norms of violence in schools. I hope that soon I can tell you about what we found, but now I think it’s time to tell you a little bit about what I saw. Unlike many visitors to these camps, I had a lot of time. Those who come in to give technical assistance or to drop off supplies rarely spend much time with refugees themselves. Once I had trained my staff, I just waited for the data to come in. I had hours to spend wandering around the camps, to sit at the community services center and schools, to listen to stories, to visit classrooms, to be a guest of families and principals and community lending organizations, to watch people work and not work, to play with children and learn numbers and animals in Kiswahili and Kirundi and Arabic and Kurdish, to observe.
Sometimes I think about what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been able to leave Venezuela when I decided it was time. If, when I felt unsafe and that I could be mugged or raped or just hooted at any moment of the day, I didn’t have any choice but to stay there. If I didn’t have anywhere to go.
These trips to refugee camps and to schools with significant refugee and IDP populations took their toll on me emotionally. Up to now, I have been unable to write much about it. The structure of most refugee camps means that when someone sees a white person, it’s assumed they are there to help. I visited classrooms where they asked for shoes and desks. As I walked the rows of tents, elderly people held their hands out asking for change, pointing at their empty bellies or ailing hips. Children called me mzungu and asked for money and sweets. It was difficult to explain that I was there to do research, to think about the long-term consequences of their stay. It was true that I had more money than each of them, but also true that I couldn’t feed them all, and I couldn’t choose either.
Sometimes, I wonder how little could I eat before I had to leave, how much of the little sustenance I had could I turn over to those who needed it most? How do you choose between getting enough to keep yourself working and enough to keep those you love alive?
I heard so many stories of pain, of loss, of of helplessness. I also became very close with a number of refugees, particularly in Nyarugusu. I met their families, was welcomed into their homes; they were and still are my friends.
Sometimes, I think about what I would take. Where is my passport? And a little cash? Do you take the pictures? The computer? Or the guns?
Paterne* speaks perfect English. He’s abrupt, formal, and even a little cold, but has one of the most beautiful, welcoming smiles I’ve ever seen, if you can get him to open up and laugh a little. He wants to teach children in the camp English. He sees that the French schooling they receive is inadequate, that going back to Burundi might never be an option for him and his family. In Tanzania they speak English. In the US they speak English. The future he sees is in English, but they have no pencils, no chalkboards, no ledger books.
Sometimes, I have to not think about them. I have to pretend that they are not cold, or not hungry, or not tired of eating only one food, or not plagued by infection and disease.
I saw astonishing feats of ingenuity and self-preservation. Burundians who had carried foot-pedal sewing machines on their backs across the border. Solar panels with far too many wires to be safe protruding from every side. I sat with Peter,* a young Burundian man who sang love songs in Kirundi and Kiswahili while he strummed a guitar made from an oil can. His friend made it while they were in the camp as children; he took it back to Burundi when he was forcibly removed in the early 2000s, and back to Tanzania when the border opened again to refugees.
When I arrived in Iraq in November, I was shown a map of the north, with little red bombs for where ISIS was active. We are here, I was told. Don’t worry, it would take ISIS a week to get to us; we’ll know they are coming.
Many of the children were afraid to use the little English they had with me, but Justin* wanted to be my friend. He wanted me to visit his family, his grandmother, to meet his uncle who had taught him English. His smile was enough to break my heart; he had only just arrived in camp and didn’t want anything from me but to practice his English, didn’t know yet that white ladies were mostly there to give him food and clothes.
If they come, someone else told me, we’ll just run into the mountains. We have done it before. The local people will give us food and somewhere to sleep. We will not leave you behind.
Arnold* went back to Burundi. Unmarried, no children, he feared for his life as his stepmother and siblings had threatened to kill him for his father’s land, but in Burundi, he could continue his studies. So many of my friends had left their studies behind. Doctors and nurses and linguists. In Iraq, many universities are closed. In Tanzania, the government won’t let Burundians study, so they work as teachers, as sanitation educators, hoping someone will hear them. Arnold sends me whatsapp messages occasionally, telling me he is studying hard or that he is running out of money. He has no family, nowhere to go; there is no work and he only wants to finish school.
Sometimes I wonder how bad it would have had to be for me to leave school, to not finish university; my education and my honor were all I was told mattered. Would I have left if my life were threatened? My bodily safety? How threatened? Would they have to rape me or murder my friends first, or would I go knowing it was a possibility?
At the beginning of January, I received a message from one of my refugee staff. He told me that he had been resettled, per the US government’s commitment to help UNHCR to relocate 50,000 Congolese, many of them to the US. Having spent 20 years in camps in Tanzania, Frederic* and his six children and his wife made it out, just under the gun, I said.
I had no idea just how close it would be. I wonder if the others will ever make it now.
Elaine* has had two miscarriages since she arrived at Nyarugusu less than two years ago. The first time kept her from working on our research as she fought infection, unable to get the proper nourishment she needed to heal. She desperately wants a baby, wants to show her family that the wedding they couldn’t afford, the bride price her husband couldn’t pay because there is no work in the camp, that running for their freedom was all worth it.
What could you grab in five minutes? In five hours? In five days?
Ahmed* worked for the US military at a base in Anbar province in Iraq. As a translator for the invaders, he was labeled a collaborator and when ISIS came, he feared for his life, and the lives of his family. We put him in that situation. He sacrificed for our war effort, for the ostensible “safety and freedom of the American people,” but with this executive order, he has no chance of getting out. He now lives in a tent in Arbat refugee camp with his children and extended family all around, the ones that are still alive at least, hoping that he can one day go home.
Sometimes, I try to think about how I would feel, having finally reached someplace safe, someplace I was told people would help me, that I spent years dreaming about and working towards, that it would be wonderful and free from fear, and then be told to leave.
*I have changed all names to protect the identities of people who spoke with me.