أصدقاء جدد -- New friends

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
- Mother Teresa

During my time here in Amman, I've had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time tutoring English with Iraqi refugees living here. This essentially means that I go with a small group to someone's apartment in the city, where we meet with Iraqis of all ages and backgrounds, with varying levels of English ability, who come to learn and practice.

So last night, after we arrived and greeted everyone, I was placed with a guy who looked about my age and had one of the biggest smiles I've ever seen. I was initially a little self-conscious about whether or not I'd be able to actually teach him anything, especially since the only Iraqi Arabic I know is "sho ko ma ko?" ("what's up?"). But the second he opened his mouth, I knew we weren't going to have any issues. His name was Hussein and his English was awesome! We small-talked for awhile, about our families, our interests, sports, the weather, etc., and I taught him some American slang. He told me about his job as a tailor in Amman, how he studies English in his apartment for hours after work (it showed), and about another friend of his from Chicago, a Fulbright fellow who had been helping him with the language.

The mood in the room was informal, upbeat and welcoming, which is typical here in Jordan, where hospitality is the national sport. At some point we got on the subject of music - Hussein confessed to me that he is a huge Kelly Clarkson fan, who I also love, so we had a laugh about our mutual fandom and then he took out his phone and started playing some in the background while we continued to chat. As "Just Walk Away" faded out, I noticed his smile fade a bit. He looked down, took a deep breath, looked back up, and simply said, "You know, we are really suffering here." He told me about his parents and his sixteen siblings, all but two of which are still in Baghdad, and how hard he works just to send home money. He told me about the everyday injustices he faces as a refugee. Working 16-hour days in the shop just trying to scrape together enough to live and send something home is something I cannot even wrap my mind around. And not everyone in Jordan is always kind to refugees, even if most of the country is made up of them.

Now smiling again, he said, "I want to change my life." He told me he was applying to a program for relocation in the U.S., and that's why he was working so hard on his English. I smiled back. I mean, how could I not? This guy is amazing. But hell if I knew what I could say that could possibly seem encouraging coming from me. I was born and raised in the very system that did this to him, to his family, to his country. What could I possibly say that would mean anything? I was only 13 when the war started. But I am still acutely aware of my position here as an American. I am aware of the kind of people who run my country, and I feel guilty as hell about it. I'd trade a Bush or a Cheney for a Hussein any day - but even if he does make it to the States, I'm also scared for him. The U.S.A. isn't exactly a land of milk and honey when you're a brown immigrant with a Muslim-sounding name, no matter the size of your smile, or how great your love of Kelly Clarkson.

So what do you say from your own heart in this situation? How do you call back to your own humanity when directly confronted with the human cost of your privilege?

Now I am just angry, because now, it's even more personal. Because in these parts, apathy is a privilege possessed only by the blind or heartless. Because I can't stay quiet, I can't turn the other way and pretend I didn't see or hear. Human beings, my friends, are being treated worse than animals because of foreign governments, outside greed and hateful ignorance. It is every level of injustice that I can even imagine, and then some. It is right there in front of me, and it is not going away. So I am fucking livid. I am so mad that I'm afraid my head might explode. I should be.

And beyond that, I find myself feeling helpless, unable to truly understand and maybe unable to really do something about it. It's not as if I didn't know about any of this beforehand, but it's definitely a testament to the power of relationships that it now affects me so much more intensely than it did before. It's sad how little statistics impact us, how we fail to see the humanity behind them. How comfortable we are, how hard it is for us to know the truth of war, and how quickly we forget (or outright ignore) what "collateral damage" really means.

You probably know too that it's all too easy to despair, and a lot more difficult to actually do something to improve the situation. So I am making a conscious effort to channel it into something better. What exactly? God knows. Hope? I'm not quite there yet. I cannot genuinely feel hope about it right now. There are a lot of roadblocks in the way. But I'm trying, because there is still good left, and you see it in good people. Hussein could teach me a thing or two or ten about hope. Big, beautiful, illogical, indefatigable hope.

What amazes me most is that, in spite of everything, he still insisted on wearing that big smile.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post, Erin. I've had similar moments in Latin America, where statistics finally had a face and a name for me. In my case it was AIDS orphans, street kids, and the many kids who are left behind as parents come to the US looking for jobs and a brighter future for their families.

    I have this strange dichotomy of patriotism for the US, while at the same time being pretty disgusted most of the time with our government, especially in the areas of foreign policy and public aid. Its so hard for me to hear our government make claims to be helping such and such country with aid or policy, while knowing that its probably more a situation of the US giving aid/policy to put on a good show, and that aid/policy will likely actually harm the average person in the other country in the long run, while greatly benefiting the US in the end. Case in point - NAFTA and CAFTA.

    On the other hand, I really do appreciate the freedom and sense of security I have in the US. The US is still my home, still my culture of origin, still the place where I feel most comfortable, where I get the cultural nuances that escape me elsewhere (well, most of the time anyway). :)

    I also agree that its easy to despair and hard to actually DO something. Its easy for me to read and learn and get angry, but what do I do with the things I've learned and the strong emotions? That's something I'm still working out for myself. I'm trying to do what I can to make my voice heard through organizations that are already working on the issues that are close to my heart, by donating funds, time, and signatures to petitions that make sense to me. But I'm longing to DO something tangible, to really get involved. Lots to ponder.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling on. Thanks again for the post. Glad you're connecting and learning, and having such a great time there.

  2. Thanks so much for your beautiful post, Suzanne. I definitely know what you mean about that dichotomy -- I love the U.S. and the blessings I enjoy there. But at the same time, I am constantly trying to recognize the difference between true blessings, and those "blessings" that were taken from the hands of other people. I guess that's just part of the process of striving to live an ethical life.

    And I also completely echo what you said about foreign policy -- hypocrisy seems to be the name of the game in that department -- and about wanting to really get in there. I know I want to do something, but I don't know what, or where, or for whom. There are so many things that need doing, and it's so easy to feel limited and helpless. But I figure I could do my best and be frustrated, or I could do nothing and still be frustrated. I'll take actually doing something! As for what, we'll have to see. Where there is a will, there's a Way. :)


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