Fellows' Reflections: Timothy Loh

The following is a reflection written by our current fellow, Timothy Loh, who is working with the Collateral Repair Project (CRP) in Amman, Jordan for the 2016-2017 fellowship year. 

These stories are not just FYI

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
-- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

I am an aspiring anthropologist and I love stories. Narrative holds such power to dislodge and remake our assumptions, to give us another perspective on life, and to open a window, even for just a second, into the rich inner worlds of other people. In graduate school, some of the best books I read were chock full of stories that challenged hegemonic thinking about a range of different issues. Diana Allan’s Refugees of the Revolution, about Palestinian refugees in Shatila camp in Lebanon, forced me to rethink what I understood about the right of return. Farha Ghannam’s nuanced ethnography of manhood and masculinity in Egypt, Live and Die Like a Man, rejected dangerous stereotypes of the violent, backward, misogynistic Arab man. Salim Tamari’s work on the life of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, a Christian musician who lived in Jerusalem at the turn of the 20th century with Muslim and Jewish neighbours, deconstructed the prevalent but mistaken notion that Islam and Christianity have been in a state of enmity since time immemorial. I also saw the power of stories firsthand outside the classroom in a retreat program I was involved in called ESCAPE, which aimed to help first-year and transfer students transition to Georgetown. Student leaders gave talks about their experiences before college, during their first year of college, and as a senior in college, and participants would break into small groups after and share openly with each other about how college has been for them. Giving my talk as a senior about how difficult adjusting to college had been was a cathartic, even therapeutic, experience, and the talks of my fellow leaders revealed surprising things about their lives that I would never have guessed had I met them anywhere else.

Here at the Collateral Repair Project, I’ve been given the immense privilege of listening to the stories of the refugees whom I serve and with whom I work. Every Wednesday, I sit in on the diwaniyyeh, the hour-long men’s support group session (that often stretches to an hour and a half) during which men from our community come together to talk about their struggles, which make my problems seem tiny by comparison. The regular feedback we have had is that the men truly appreciate the diwaniyyeh and that they leave feeling better than they had when they arrived—the very act of sharing their stories brings them some measure of peace. Twice I’ve had to hold back tears as I hear my coworker present to visitors to our center his story of escaping Syria with his family after his daughter was injured in a bomb attack by the government. Recently, an American couple came to Amman to volunteer with CRP and to document refugee stories for a local television station they were affiliated with in their home state, and I heard yet more stories of escape and pain from Iraq and Syria from our beneficiaries. One of them had his entire immediate family resettled in another country but had been waiting for years to be reunited with them due to administrative and political delays. Tell our stories, they told the couple. Tell your government that this is what we are going through. Tell them what we want because they’re not listening to us.

I hear these stories almost every day. Then, at 5 pm, when work ends, I hop into a taxi and go back to my apartment in West Amman where my life after work and on the weekends is far removed from the refugee issue. This is also a privilege. The disjuncture between these two “lives” can be shocking at times and, to be honest, I am still trying to figure out how to reconcile them. Of this, though, I am sure: refugees are not there just to tell their stories. They tell their stories because they want something to change. In a sensitive 1997 article entitled “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times,” Arthur and Joan Kleinman critique the commodification of suffering, through which experiences of suffering are “remade, thinned out, and distorted.” I’ve seen a version of this process play out in the way that journalists and academics often reach out to CRP to interview our beneficiaries so they can better understand and depict “the refugee experience”—important work, of course—but those we serve are many times frustrated by that they have told their stories multiple times to various audiences but nothing seems to change. I am the last person to claim I have an answer to this dilemma, but as I continue on in the MENAR Fellowship, I hope to gain a deeper sense of how I can become a better steward of these stories that I’ve had the privilege—and responsibility—of hearing.