This post has taken me a few days to finally sit down and finish writing. I came back from three days worth of visiting various refugee communities in Jordan, and I was exhausted. When we finally had a debrief on the whole experience, I wanted to blog even more. But then even more things happened, and I just sat around being tired and overwhelmed.
Today, one of my professors emailed us the Thought Catalog article by Kelsey Parsons in response to increasing criticism against volunteering abroad. I read the article, and I was struck by Kelsey's patience with all the comments and honestly responding to a lot of them to defend and refine her position. Sure, her article was not written to be an excellent piece of literature to be remembered forever more, but what her argument sparked was tons of people spending ridiculous amounts of time to criticize her and others like her while the rest of the world is suffering. Sure, I scoff at short-term projects that may waste money, time, and do more harm than good, and at people who know very little and think they know how to help people. Sure, we SHOULD be critical and careful and passionate in our efforts to help people. But the reality is that in the United States not enough of us give nearly enough funds or time to those in need. There is so much more that still needs to be done that no one can always accurately predict whether or not a project or mission will fail miserably and harm the people it wanted to help, so people do their best to minimize their damage and move forward. If your project is a small one, at least it has less potential to do harm on a large scale. And if it succeeds, it has done so much good on a small scale.
Somewhere along the spectrum between volunteers who do harm and know nothing and people who greatly change the world are students like me who are on an educational program, not a service trip, to learn about human rights and suffering and not volunteering. I can't speak for everyone on my program, but I know I spent hours consumed in guilt and powerlessness and walking on eggshells and critically analyzing my actions, my experience with those in pain and suffering, and the power dynamics involved with all the players that create the opportunity for me to learn.
I had started to write my full experience visiting Zaatari, the refugee camp in Jordan with over 120,000 Syrian refugees, but for this post, I want to highlight the specific experiences over the past few days that made me question what I was doing, how I can help, and how can I not contribute to more harm. For example, when a group of maybe 6 of us accompanied by a translator visited a couple of Syrian refugee women in their prefabricated caravan units, they offered us coffee. Again and again at various refugee families' homes, they generously offered large groups of us such hospitality even despite having very little. Some of us hesitated to accept the tea or coffee, and I feel so honored and guilty that my visit is to learn about their lives but not to immediately help alleviate their situation. Their offering me, a privileged student, tea and coffee just made me feel as though the power imbalance was made even greater - I am privileged and they are contributing to my privilege to enjoy more things in life like coffee. It felt so humbling and terrible. But during the debrief, I learned from my classmates that to respect the people we meet, we should just accept the hospitality, and furthermore, one of my classmates shared a positive way to look at it - to her, it made the power imbalance less great and actually put us more on equal footings when families offered us coffee, just as any other human families casually serving tea to welcome visitors. It's a gesture that chips away at the overwhelming image that refugees are so powerless; it gave them power. Things aren't black and white; I thought by receiving coffee I was being superior and privileged, but maybe it dignified the people to share with me instead of me just taking something from them.
After learning about different families' stories, we often ask them what they want us to say to the world about them and what can we do for them as students. They knew there wasn't much for us to do; they usually just ask us to spread the word and tell the world their stories. Many of them want to eventually go home. Politics never ever really came up in our conversations with them. Politics becomes one big thing that is over our heads when families just want to be safe and together. This goes for Syrian refugees who are newly arriving, for Iraqi refugees who have been here a few years, and for Palestinian refugees who have created new generations of families since they were displaced over 50 years ago. Jordan is a poor country and the reality is that there is not enough being done for refugees and people who need it.
So, it would be silly of me to dwell on whether or not the photo I was asked to pose in with a bunch of Syrian refugee kindergartners holding up toys we gave them is oppressive and contributes to white savior complex. I always acknowledge that it may be super problematic, but I need to move on from what my professor calls "holier than thou-ness," the self-righteousness that wastes so much of my time feeling like I have to and know how to be as ethical as possible in ways that other people don't. It woke me up to the feeling that being so obsessed with my actions is egotistical. It doesn't mean I should be unaware and not think twice about anything I do, but it does mean that I need to be fair to myself and to others and realize that there ARE ethical ways to respond to others' suffering, and I don't need to be paralyzed by the fear that I might do something wrong. That is why I support people like Kelsey and others who try to do whatever they can in ways that contribute no harm, and not people sitting around treating every volunteering or development effort as the same and with disgust and criticism.
My professor reminded us of one ethically responsible way to respond to what we've learned from the families we visited: donate to them, spread the word, and ask others to do the same. It sounds incredibly simple but yet I've forgotten it. Here are three organizations that we have either encountered or worked with that supports Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Please consider the refugees' situation, learn about it, ask me anything you want, and consider donating to these organizations: Save the Children, Caritas Jordan, and Collateral Repair Project.
I'm not saving the world and I don't know how to make a difference yet, but I am learning to walk with people in their suffering, and that is one good place to start.