The Waiting Room: Accompanying Refugees in Spaces of “New and Dangerous Ideas”

**The text below is a transcript of my keynote address at Roger Williams University’s Student Humanitarian Summit “Quest for Refuge” on 23 October, 2016. Names have been changed on request**


I hope to not bore you this morning. I could happily talk about facts and figures of the refugee crisis, or about neuroscience and mental health. That’s my day job, so to speak, as a consultant for various organizations on how to use neuroscience and behavioral science research to design better programs for refugee integration and violence prevention. I’m more than happy to talk with anyone individually about those topics.

First, I want to ask a question to all of you. And no timid half hand-raises. Help me out. It’s early. It’s a simple question. How many of you enjoy have ever been in a hospital waiting room? Ok. Anyone want to give me a few words about what it was like? I don’t need the reasons why, but I just want to know about your experience of waiting.

How about traffic?

How many of you enjoy waiting in lines? Okay, not many. As I suspected. You’re like most people.

We need to talk about waiting. We need to talk about what waiting feels like. Waiting is an often neglected part of the refugee experience.

We talk about policies, about services, and about countless other aspects of mental and physical health, but we don’t often talk about the blank space of waiting. It’s far from blank. It’s where people make critical decisions about who they are, who they want to be, and how they can get there.

I spoke with a Syrian friend yesterday, who is now in Canada through a wonderful scholarship and permanent residence program for Syrian refugees. We talked about waiting as he updated me on his mother, father, and brothers, all waiting in different places in Syria. “Syria has become a land of skeletons, waiting their turn to die,” he said through tears.

Another friend, Ahmad, was similarly tearful when I spoke with him yesterday. I told him I was coming here, and asked for his approval about what I wanted to say, and for his advice on what he would say, if the world were different and he could be here talking to you. Ahmad is 28 years old, married, and has no family in his country of asylum. He anxiously is awaiting documents to certify his asylum seeker status—living in a position deeply exposed to risk of forced relocation. When we were talking about this notion of waiting, Ahmad started to choke up. He said, “I’d rather know for certain that I’m going to die from this, than live one more month uncertain of anything in my future. In waiting, there is no rest. I can’t move. It’s like my mind is in solitary confinement.”

I go back to my question about waiting. Nothing I have waited for compares to what Syrians, Iraqis, South Sudanese, Afghanis, and others wait for. But, to get us closer towards informed empathy and discomfort—two critical pillars of meaningful action—let’s start with waiting that we’re more familiar with.

Waiting rooms are places of discomfort. We are either plainly impatient or worried about something. No one enjoys waiting. Think of an oncology clinic. The news may be good, or the news may be bad, but for those I know who have been in that awful position, any news is better than the waiting, after a certain point. Knowledge, knowing one way or another, enables you to plan accordingly. An example like this brings be back to what my mother told me that when she was waiting for her father—not knowing his situation was harder than any outcome in either direction.

My brother is a doctor, and has become familiar with the discomfort that is palpable in hospital waiting rooms. As I thought of today’s event, I researched a bit about doctor’s perspectives on waiting. Doctors are the gatekeepers of critical information that can end the waiting for patients. In many ways, refugees see our countries as we see doctors while in the waiting room. They must know more than me. They must be able to fix it one way or another.

UNC Cardiologist, Kevin Campbell, recently wrote a blog about the psychology of waiting. He writes that in the waiting room, “stress, anxiety, uncertainty and fear serve to make even the shortest of waits seem unbearable. Families sit crouched forward in their uncomfortable chairs watching the door in hopes of seeing the smiling face of their surgeon with every turn of the doorknob. Here the wait may be rewarded by preservation of a life or, unfortunately, sometimes by a less desirable outcome.” Dr. Campell delved into some peer reviewed journals, to look for some evidence on what happens to the mind in the waiting room. He drew four key conclusions, that:

  1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time
  2. Anxiety makes waits seem longer
  3. Uncertain waits seem longer than known finite waits
  4. Solo waits seem longer than group waits.

Those four points sum it up quite well, actually. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time. Anxiety makes waits seem longer. Uncertain waits seem longer than known finite waits. Solo waits seem longer than group waits. Imagine those for conclusions, except about the refugee crisis, and waiting their lives are filled with.

Now think of Black Friday—Capitalism’s first completely self-aware holiday—or think of cronuts, of brunch, of iPhone 7s. We’re comfortable waiting for things, things that are worth the wait. The private sector, in terms of customer service, has invested millions in understanding the science of waiting, looking into queue management and anticipation, learning what we will wait for and how we wait for it, and the experience of waiting. I find it deeply disturbing that the humanitarian and social development sectors have neglected the experience of waiting of the disenfranchised. What we offer—not material goods but potentially life-saving services like resettlement, protection, identity documents, education, etc.—have far more selling power and intrinsic value, yet we have not admitted to ourselves or out loud just how much terror we inflict by making people wait as we have, and we have neglected our responsibility to accompany people as they wait, and as we do everything in our power to make that wait shorter. When we feel threatened, when we feel overwhelmed, we find new ways to make people wait. That strategy is tired, ineffective, and dangerous.

My friend Basel, who I mentioned earlier, really propelled my thinking on this issue. When I was in Canada with him a few weeks ago, visiting a group of families I had worked with in Jordan, he said:

“You have no choice, when you flee from somewhere. You don’t know the end, the destination. If and when you get resettled somewhere else, you don’t know what will happen. In Syria, we had land, we had cars, we had houses. Waiting is easier when you have at least some elements you can control. Waiting is impossible with no money, with no more possessions to your name. You forsake all control over your life, leaving what was under your control—even if it was a little—and entering a life where you are always, for every single thing, waiting on others. It’s never your choice, any more. You’re waiting on someone else to make it for you. Before I was a refugee, I was at least somewhat in control. Imagine—yeah I’m safe, but I’m still waiting. And everyone is waiting for something different. Some are waiting to return. Some are waiting to die. Some are still waiting for freedom. Waiting isn’t a homogenous experience, but for all of us, waiting is our ultimate source of weakness. Even when it seems like someone is progressing, in a new place, settling again, there is still something inside of them, something that makes them deeply and profoundly afraid. And that fear solidifies and grows that perpetual feeling of weakness, of helplessness.”

Basel is not alone in that feeling. Personally, I have worked with hundreds of refugees from Jordan, to Lebanon, to Greece, Germany, England, and Canada. Those countries collectively have taken in over three million Syrian refugees. Three million people waiting, waiting in places that we have mistakenly assumed are destinations for them, and not new waiting rooms.

Another Syrian friend, Nadine, isn’t good at waiting. She and her friends are not good at waiting. She has shaken up her own reality, disrupted the barriers placed on her to keep going, and not let Za’atri, or being a refugee, keep her waiting. She, like many others, has decided that she waits for no one. Two weeks ago, through a lot of advocacy by Questscope and the United Nations Population Fund, Nadine was granted a 4-day visa to the US to speak at an event of the opening of the UN General Assembly, on behalf of women and girls displaced by the crisis in Syria. This is part of what she said:

“We became refugees, running from a war that displaced our families, children, and women and took away our dream and rights to live in peace. 
I arrived from Syria holding one bag, my soul, and my childhood memories. And my soul was not any more valuable than the thousands left behind in Syria. My refugee journey started, and I was not alone. 
I was with thousands of displaced and tortured people who lost so much in this war. This is the war; making us start again with a tent, even if it was safe. Despite our harsh tragedy and the harsh weather conditions, from extreme heat to extreme cold, we found some kind of the safety that we were missing in our country. 
After receiving the basics of our new life, from shelter, to food and water, humanitarian organizations started to work with the refugees and to provide them with services, and they also started to ask the refugees to work together to deliver services. 
We couldn’t sit with our hands crossed. We started to sow seeds of hope from inside to outside each tent with the help of the humanitarian organizations. 
These organizations sympathized and trusted our abilities and the power of youth to build our capacities. We were able to stitch the threads to make a strong social bond, tightly interwoven to bring back who we were; and to make the sun rise again.”

To flee your home, knowing that you will labeled a “refugee,” is to risk control over your future. That thing we pride ourselves on as Western society—individualism and the “American dream”, the ability to direct the course of your future—remains unrealistic for millions of Syrian refugees. To flee your home, is to do something so antithetical to our way of thinking—to surrender the controls. We stress waiting for test results—and that stress is real, and I am not belittling it—whereas refugees stress about identity documents, deportation, family reunification, language learning, medical bills, citizenship, and life and death, every day, all day, for more than five years.

Where does this take us, though? Specifically, I think we need to talk about what happens in that space of waiting, where people like Nadine and her brilliant community make decisions to move forward, together, defiantly rebuilding what was lost to make something new.

Perhaps the sentence that has most formed my thinking over the past five years was told to me by a dear friend, whose cousin made a series of decisions that led him to fight with an extremist group in Syria, sort of the opposite decision to the choices people like Nadine have made. This friend said to me, “Heroes and terrorists are formed in the same context. Always marginalized, always passionate, always disempowered, and always finding a way out of that.” I carry his words with me every single day.

Let that sink in. I am not comparing heroes and terrorists, confusing the labels between the two. One is pro-social, and one is anti-social. One is creative, and one is destructive. I am simply suggesting that things that shine and things that burn have both endured tremendous heat. I’ve met a number of people on both sides of that coin—and all of them have, at one point in their lives, borne the tremendous burden of perceived injustice, valid or not. And often, the direction—the hero or the terrorist—depends on who you meet along your way and who supposedly empowers you to do something. You are a part of that story. We all are, and how we engage with the refugees we meet along the way has a direct impact on the decisions they will and the people we will all become, together.

Many doctors, and most of us, assume that the waiting rooms are a benign time, a sort of inevitable down time. Dr. Campbell’s work suggests otherwise. Waiting rooms are places of decisions, not necessarily of what we will face, but of how we will face it. And I think of Nietzsche’s famous line—“he who has a why can bear almost any how.” And I think of Nadine—refusing to wait, refusing defeat, and as she said it, “making the sun rise again,” despite the world’s best efforts to the contrary.

What I’m getting at here is that while refugees wait, we do a lot of talking. Three years into the conflict, many grew restlessly tired of their waiting, and so they moved. While it would be incorrect to say something like it had never happened before, it is true that it didn’t happen like this. This big, this poorly-timed with a deeply divided European Union and troubled middle class. More than 1,000,000 refugees—and I use that term inclusive of very legalese and complex sub-categorizations—have come to Europe over the past 24 months. That is the entire state of Rhode Island literally hopping into Narragansett Bay and moving elsewhere in 18-24 months.

From various conflict zones, and climate displacement zones, refugees have clearly expressed that they’re done waiting. In this part of the world, and for many in Europe, their decision—their agentic, desperate decision to wait a little less harshly, elsewhere—has set off a domino effect of polarization and fear-mongering like we’ve never seen. And we make them wait more. We cling to control by inventing new reasons to wait.

I was in Berlin, Germany, recently, and met a young Syrian named Fouad. Fouad studied engineering in Syria, and, to his credit, had remarkably learned to speak German very well in the 14 months since he arrived in Berlin. Admitting his engineering studies were a “past life, before all of this happened,” he is now committed to working with younger Syrians, those less fortunate than him and those earlier on in their personal, spiritual, and emotional formation. Over a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, he said:

“Can you believe I went to a German organization here, and offered to volunteer with refugees. I wanted to volunteer full time. They looked at my CV, said ‘but you studied engineering, not social work.’ And told me I wasn’t qualified. I’m sorry, does being Syrian, being a refugee, having felt the pain of isolation and the burden of displacement not count a bit more than my engineering degree? In the end, they wouldn’t let me volunteer.”

Fouad found another way. He has started feeding and building relationships with homeless Germans around Tiergarten on his own. No one can tell Fouad he’s not qualified to work with the oppressed and the marginalized. He won’t take it, and he shouldn’t have to. To crudely quote Jurassic Park—“life finds a way,” and it’s a shame we don’t do more to facilitate it in the way people deserve. Instead, we engineer new reasons to wait.

Our world has waited—after all, it wasn’t our problem, or our pain, what was going on in Syria. We waited, imposing torturous conditions on more than 13 million Syrians in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. And when they got tired of waiting, many people that look and talk like us cried foul because they—“those people”, refugees—left the waiting rooms that we had designated for them. They found another way.

The Nadines, Basels, Ahmads, and Fouads of the world need us to do better. They aren’t going to wait, and they are heroes, for making innovative decisions against the waiting. But, countless others will take our forced waiting, take our silence, and our regulations as a sign that we are against them. Even if we can’t change the systems around us, if we can’t change policy as fast as we want, we must enter the waiting room with refugees, so that the otherwise solo, unoccupied waiting is at least accompanied.

Last week, when I was talking with a friend, Ayham, a young father of two in Za’atri Refugee Camp, I told him about Roger Williams University. He laughed and said “ma’aqool? Nice to know that universities can be started by a refugee! They don’t even let me decide where I can buy rice and lentils, imagine if I told them I wanted to start a university.” He’s right, you here have a unique precedent that you are embracing deeply in these events, and are in a unique position to accompany refugees as they wait for certainty to be restored. We have a role to play in restoring that certainty—through advocacy, direct service, and countless other avenues—but the least we can do is wait together, in meaningful relationship with displaced communities and understand the depth of agony that is waiting.

Actually, the story of Roger Williams deserves to be told in a discussion of Syria’s refugee crisis. His story is quite prototypical, actually. You all know it. I didn’t. This is what I found online “At an early age, Williams had a spiritual conversion which his father James frowned upon. As a teenager he apprenticed under a famous jurist Sir Edward Coke. He became a separatist and considered the Church of England totally corrupt. He believed that freedom of a religion was a natural right and that the Church and State should be separated. In December 1632 Williams wrote a letter which condemned the King’s charter and questioned how the colonists could claim the land without first purchasing it from the Native Americans. In October 1635, Williams was tried and convicted of sedition and heresy. The court declared that he was spreading ‘diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.’ He was allowed to stay as long as he ceased his agitation. However, he failed to do so, and so in January 1636 they came to remove him, only to discover that he was already gone.”

Honestly, what I read in that brief SparkNotes version of Williams’ story is not too different from some of the case files I used to read or type up in Za’atri Refugee Camp. Political discontent. Personal conviction. Conversion, or more like intensification of beliefs. Cries of institutional corruption. Threats. Persecution. Arrest. Fleeing for safety, claiming asylum. It’s a deeply relatable story for Syrians.

Indeed, Roger Williams was a refugee. Roger Williams was threatened, scared for his life and wellbeing, and fled for protection among unlikely allies, borderline enemies of his “tribe” of White Colonizers. And Williams is a hero. His legacy and notoriety were obvious even in his lifetime. Will Syrians—whose stories are oddly similar, of discontent, a desire for decentralization of power, persecution, and feeling for protection to unlikely and hopeful allies—get the same treatment as Williams?

When we examine ourselves, sitting in relative positions of privilege compared to Syrians in Za’atri Camp, in Turkey, in Europe, and even here, we can’t ignore the other half of Williams’ story, the Native tribes who hosted him. While we can rightfully marvel at Williams’ bravery and vision we must give the same credit to Massasoit and his embrace, even if a strategic one at the time, of a person who represented the sum of many of his fears—fears which, to a large extent, materialized.

Massasoit, who offered Williams protection in Raynham, Massachusetts, first, is not the one more often remembered. That is not to say that Williams is in anyway undeserving of his renown, but it leads us to a critical introspective question. Are we willing to aid refugees in their quest for refuge without expecting or getting any praise?

Accompaniment—literally meaning to go somewhere with someone—is a physical and psychological process, and is one of the most important things we can do today for the refugee crisis, apart from direct service and humanitarian aid. In one way, accompaniment is the basis of social integration, because it requires us to go somewhere, either physically, emotionally, or cognitively, with someone else from somewhere else, in order to learn how to live together or in order to get something done in a particular setting. Accompaniment is about respecting that a refugee is the expert in his or her own reality, even if they are living in your same neighborhood, and growing comfortable with the fact that multiple realities exist where you can only see one.

So often, our policies for refugee resettlement or protection—and this applies to Jordan and Turkey as much as Rhode Island—reduce integration and belonging to a set of activities, of learning language, of sitting in public schools, of getting documents, and finding a job. Belonging is not a set of activities, it is a deeply embodied experience that requires a commitment of accompaniment on our part. And that commitment requires risk and vulnerability from the accompanied and the accompanier, until those lines are blurred.

When we accompany, we begin to make decisions with those around us, instead of in isolation, in a waiting room, alone. When we accompany, we bond, which is a critical part of healing from trauma and violence. When we willingly walk with people who are waiting, we will, as Nadine said, begin to stitch a tight fabric that will break down countless barriers and change countless perspectives.


Finding Sisyphus in Germany

Pity for Sisyphus, or anger at his rock, are equally as useless. Unfortunately, the Greeks didn’t chronicle what it felt like, what it meant, for Sisyphus to push his rock up the hill. Sisyphus’s story ranks as one of the most popular Greek myths, indicative of its imminent applicability to many struggles of modern man. For those new to the myth, Sisyphus, King of Ephyra, was punished by the gods for his deceitfulness and his hubris, condemned for eternity to roll a large rock up a hill, only to have it overpower his strength and roll back down the hill every single time. Such was his fate—a sadistic torture for a manipulative man. Many suffer his same punishment without the luxury of merit.

In eighth grade, I read what was likely a scrubbed and sanitized version of the myth, nodding my head as the teacher said in conclusion, “Many things in life feel this way, but we keep going, we persevere.” Fatalism would not have been the way to end a middle school lesson in ancient history, so I understand the positive spin, but the unredeemed quality of the story has stuck with me since and has remained a backdrop to my understanding of privilege, injustice, and suffering.

Last week I spent a night north of Bremen, Germany, with more than a dozen young refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, each carrying burdens, memories, and loss, not yet fully uttered since they arrived on European shores. Tying to stay afloat, now only metaphorically, each person I met exuded a comingled gratefulness and pain, and spoke of hope and defeat engaged in a desperately tired boxing match.

After a dinner lovingly prepared by a family I had met years earlier in Jordan, when boats, drowning, and Germany were not yet items on the cognitive buffet of a Syrian refugee, I stepped outside with a young Afghan man named Afsar, 17 years old, who donned a too-small blazer for the occasion of visitors to this tiny village. He lit a cigarette, looking up to the third floor window to make sure his older brother wouldn’t catch him in the act.

I went Turkey first. I wait three month, checking before my older brother come,” he said.

Earlier, Afsar’s brother Afshin told us that he has epilepsy, adding that his younger brother has been, in many ways, the older one. “He takes care of me more than I can for him,” Afshin told me. “I try to help him as much as I can,” he added, asking me if I have a younger brother, if I could understand. I showed him a photo of my brother, who looks younger in photos, and Afshin nodded “yes, yes, you have younger brother.” I told him no, that my brother is, in fact older. I told Afshin that older and younger is a matter of perspective. I suggested that scales will balance over time, and he need not worry.

Back at the cigarette, Afsar continued.“I looked at the sky,” he said, actually looking up as he said it. A raindrop fell into his eye, brining a small smile to his face. “I looked up, and thought many things. Many family, friends. House.” His eyes stared into an unspecific distance—not the first time he had done this—staring, I imagine, into the recent past, which is quite far from Bremen. “I think, please God, will I die?” He took a few drags of the cigarette, taking time to figure out how to construct his sentence in English. Surely his inner thoughts in Dari were at full volume, having deconstructed and reconstructed this story dozens of time, day and night.

Five hours I stay water, above water, not knowing…die…or live? Greek boat come and rescue me…but many die.” Afsar grimaced, reassuring me, and himself, with “Alhamdulillah.” Praise God.

Three months earlier, Afsar and Afshin crossed the Aegean on a rickety boat. Afshin had said “forty people in boat for ten” caused it to capsize in a nighttime crossing from Turkey to Lesvos.

There was a deep irony in my meeting these Afghan brothers that day. Part of their language learning at the local German school includes physical education, and today included swimming lessons. The irony was not lost on them, either, as Afshin said “I start to go under, so I left.” He laughed. “Not first time” he added with both grief and humor, staring to the same unspecific distance known only to him and his brother.

Hours later I got a message from Afsar, saying “I’m happy to talk with you, I don’t share stories with anyone.

The German system has more than one million Afsar stories stuck in files, and their mental health system has no way of catching up, let alone in the native languages of all the new arrivals. Of course, counseling services in German may help, once Afsar, Afshin, and others can speak German well enough, but trauma’s monologues playback in the language of the heart.

house 1
Living Room of a house for migrant youth in northern Germany ©2016, Mike Niconchuk

A few miles from Afsar lives Karim, a Syrian of Palestinian origin, born and raised in the now-starving, now-decimated Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus. This is not Karim’s first hill, nor his first rock. He was born into this, in many ways, as his father and mother fled to Damascus in 1967 from the West Bank.

A German social worker brought me to Karim’s house, where he lives with eight other men 20-30 years old, most of whom came to Germany alone to pave the way for wives and children. Others came alone as a result of losing the rest of their families. Each of the eight faces in the IKEA-appointed dining room bore evidence of a long journey.

Karim, the most fidgety of the group, kept eye contact longer than usual, as if trying to tell me something, but without words. After mere minutes he couldn’t deal with the smalltalk, bursting into his story as his eyes welled with tears and his leg shook uncontrollably. “My wife and baby daughter are stuck in Idomeni. The border is closed. They’ve been there almost two months.” He spoke quickly and loudly.

Do you have a child?” he continued. “Can you imagine listening to her cry because her lungs are filled with tear gas?” He stopped. He composed himself, breathing deeply, “I would give my life if it would mean they can get out of there. I’m sorry, but I cry every day. Seriously, all of us here do. We all have family stuck somewhere. I feel in a complete hysteria when I talk to them.” Hysteria is an English cognate in Arabic; the Germans in the room also understood, all of them slowly blinking and nodding their heads in acknowledgement, and with desperation, agreeing with Karim about the problems of family reunification in Europe.

Why does everything feel like a punishment?” Karim added to me after. As soon as the words left his mouth, he expressed his immense gratitude for all that the village council has given them. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “It’s not the town’s fault. It’s not their fault. They’re kind.”

Across every conversation I had with young refugees in Germany, gratitude was a common theme. In Bremen in particular, each conversation was full of pain and gratitude simultaneously. Where there was safety, there was also anger. Where there was peace, there was risk. My goal here is neither to highlight Germany as exemplary nor to say she is terrible in her management of the migrant crisis, but only to say that each refugee brings a dense rock of pain–the resolution of which may be uncomfortable for the Europe that receives it.

Slavoj Žižek recently explored this issue, suggesting that dwelling on fear or idealizing the suffering refugee are both irrational and immature options. Specifically, he says “humanitarian self-culpabilization is thoroughly narcissistic, closed to a true encounter with the immigrant neighbor.  The task is to talk openly about all the unpleasant issues without a compromise with racism.

In a world of binaries, so much about the refugee situation in Germany is gray. Surely, listening to the anger and frustration of a young refugee, who sits in an IKEA-furnished apartment in which he lives rent-free, will deeply upset many. If only those people could hear the gratefulness that sits simultaneously alongside the anger. Those whose ears seek only sycophantic gratitude clash with another set that I’ve come across, those whose chants of “Refugees Welcome”—while obviously the overarching narrative I agree with—are equally as unable to recognize accurate levels risk posed by thousands of youth whose successful integration hangs in the balance, and among whom surely sit a few bad eggs. Recognition of the realities of colonialism and imperialism do little to change its immediate consequences or its current manifestation internally within Europe. Indeed, Europeans are positioning themselves within two camps—both potentially failing the complex Sisyphean reality of being a young refugee in 21st century Europe.

Koln cathedral
Cologne Cathedral, overlooking the train station where the New Year’s Eve incidents took place, ©2016, Mike Niconchuk

Few incidents highlight the tension of the situation more than New Years Eve in Cologne. Two hundred miles before Bremen, I sat with Mahmoud, whose talent for languages has given him a head-start in making a home, and in integrating into German society. Thankfully, the village he was allocated to, unlike many others, does not isolate unaccompanied men, instead offering them regular meetings with the village council and high schoolers.

I asked Mahmoud about the New Years Eve incident. “Dhabhoona.” He said. They slaughtered us.

Who?” I asked. “Dhabhoona dhabeh” he reiterated. They made a sacrifice out of us. He was referring to his fellow Algerians, who were overrepresented in the arrested attackers, along with Moroccans and Tunisians. Mahmoud held his head in shame, repeatedly tsk-ing the way he learned from his Algerian mother. In that moment, his voice dropped to a tone fear and shame. “It will be more difficult for the rest of us,” for the thousands of North Africans who—whether or not you find it legitimate—have made the journey across the Mediterranean to Germany. He has to start again, his tender, growing reputation as a young man who “understands German ways” damaged by compatriots. Ironically, Mahmoud was no apologist, and didn’t pretend the solution was as simple as “culture classes” or mass deportation. For Mahmoud, legitimate relationships are the only way forward. “Those boys probably hadn’t met even one German since they came here,” he added, “Integration is what matters. It is not easy, for them or for us.”

housing plans
Construction plans for refugee housing, Cologne, ©2016, Mike Niconchuk

Over those few days in Germany, I sat with some families who I first met in Jordan, who used to serve me dinner to the sound of shelling right across the border in Dara’a, Syria. Encountering them again, all with slightly lighter hearts now, was surreal. Over a bowl full of rice pudding, Haneen sighed. “The journey is far from over,” she told me. She looked tenderly at her two boys, one born the very week his father was lost in the Mediterranean on a boat full of Syrians, Libryans, Malians, and Sudanese somewhere between Tripoli and Naples. The last time we saw each other, Haneen was eight months pregnant, wondering when her husband was going to find a way out of Libya, asking for any possible way I could get her name to the top of UNHCR’s “resettlement list,” which remains enshrined in myth and legend for those of us working in the humanitarian space in the Middle East.

The notions of #SafePassage” and #RefugeesWelcome are crucial but incomplete. The passage is long—for most, it has been years, each new destination requiring a force of will unlike anything I know. Among the human species, it is counterintuitive to willingly choose confusion, risk, and chaos over home. Few have to make that choice, and ever fewer have to make it more than once. For Karim, he and his parents have had to make that choice on multiple occasions, each time throwing themselves towards the verges of hysteria. The countless tears of migrants in Germany, the thousands of bodies in the Aegean, are testament to the accumulating difficulty and pain of each appearance of that dreadful decision—one that should be familiar to no man. Warshan Shire’s now widely-circulated poem captures it in way I have seen, but could not express myself,

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.”

Surely, #RefugeesWelcome is the only legitimate option, but what a bittersweet welcome it is, and I only hope Europe, Canada, or whoever receives refugees, is capable of extending and holding embrace to those who are under no obligation to be happy about their latest, familiar, journey with their rock up their hill.

house 2
Syrian Revolution flag in the rented room of a Syrian refugee, Berlin, ©2016, Mike Niconchuk

In fact, all refugees I met in Germany were expressly grateful—a natural response to the tireless and selfless work put forth by brave German social workers. Some refugees bordered on joy, smiles lighting their faces as they envisioned, just as they had in Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, of Turkey, what they could be, if this time—just this time—they reach the peak of the hill. As Othman, a Syrian of just 19 years old who made it to Germany in spite of multiple detentions and police beatings in the Balkans, said, “It just takes a while. We thought it would be paradise, compared to Syria, or to the camps, so we just need to recalibrate. We didn’t envision all the paperwork in paradise.” He laughed, ordering another Pepsi in near-perfect German from a waiter whose face implied a similar origin to Othman, but whose German implied that he was born already embattled in Europe’s decades-old issue of integration.

Othman understood the key to perseverance. He understood that only the most self-effacing man can find redemption in the Sisyphean life. Here, Albert Camus offers the tiniest hope, even if that is just my biased reading of what is otherwise a dark reflection on unredeemed suffering. In his brief The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes: “He goes back down to the plain. It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

Surely, Germany will benefit from one million people who are stronger than the rocks they push, stronger than the rocks of the earth itself. For them, “home” creeps ever closer towards the gates of mythology. Of course, in all of this there is a risk, as mass migration has never been blissful for anyone involved, nor has it ever been free from manipulation, exploitation, and ill-intent.

In a paradise hidden under paperwork, refugees in Germany long for redemption, just as they have since they packed their bags for the first time. The complete decentralization of the integration process will definitely complicate this goal, but ultimately, hopefully more hands, of all sizes and colors, will lighten the burden of the one million rocks being pushed up the hills of Europe.

Lifejacket graveyard, Molyvos, Lesvos, Greece

Le Petit Prince

I was about 8 years old the first time my Mom and Dad took me to Colorado. I remember one day of the trip in particular, as I had been looking forward to it for months. I remember the car ride, staring out at the craggy browns of the Colorado mountains and the mesmerizing contrast of the crisp blue sky. I remember the entrance to the “search for your own gold” mine. To an eight year old, the world had never seemed more full of potential. Determination, if infused with a little bit of luck, seemed a superpower.

In the mine’s entrance, everything was made of wood, and sliced oil drums lined the walls, each filled with some variety of glittery stones. In retrospect I can’t believe my father spent all that money for us to hack away at ordinary granite with rusty, cheap, pick axes. Our collective findings perhaps added up to a few gold flakes, not enough to break even on the price of admission. My father would surely spend the price of admission again, though, if it would bring a smile to his sons’ faces.

That day, I squinted like I’ve never squinted before, scouring every inch of rock for that glimmer or gold, bobbing my head from angle to angle hoping to catch a reflection of light. I searched with energy, with fervor, and with excitement, and sure enough—more than once—I spotted that orange-yellow flicker. I had struck gold.

Eighteen years later I found myself squinting the same way, this time from the window of a plane far above the Aegean Sea. Again I was searching for a glimmer of a bright orange light—this time representing something more valuable than gold. Human life.

As our plane approached the rocky shores of Lesvos, I squinted with an admittedly voyeuristic fervor, wondering if the sunlight would reflect off the orange life jackets that infamously dot the beaches of the island. Indeed, as the plane descended, the cold morning sun highlighted the deep orange of hundreds of left vests, each one belonging to a human being who had washed ashore—one way or another—on the little island sometime over the past months. Squinting, I did not strike gold. I struck something far worse, something my eight year old self did not yet know, and that is the complex cocktail of embarrassment and horror.

Deflated raft from Turkey

One of those vests belonged to a boy named Prince. Our feet—Prince and I—first touched the soil of Lesvos at roughly the same time. My well-rested feet stepped onto tarmac. His shriveled feet stepped into a shallow sea. I was taken in a mini van to my 19th century mansion hotel. He was taken in a mini van to a tent filled with cots and new socks. Our arrivals were disgustingly dissimilar.

Prince is from Afghanistan, a Dari-speaker from a village West of Kabul. He was holding a baby girl when we met at the MSF reception center near Molyvos. “Sister?” I asked, aware that my presence was deeply problematic, but needing to do something better than standing in a corner. “No. Daughter my uncle,” he replied, signaling to a man I imagine was his uncle a few cots down. He handed off the baby to a young girl, his niece, then drew his thumb up to his neck, making a throat-slitting motion. “Sisters. Brother. Mama. Daddy.” He made the motion again, reinforcing the answer to a question I really did not mean to ask. I sat, blank in the head, as I learned to do by accident over three years in Za’atri Camp.

Prince got up for a moment. He returned quickly with dry socks to replace the plastic shopping bags that currently lined his feet. “Cold?” he asked me. “No” I said. He pointed towards the sun, “after ship, no cold,” he said. Ninety minutes earlier he had been on a boat carrying 150 Afghanis and Syrians. The boat had filled with water slowly as it crossed the eternal 5km from Turkey until a Greek ship came and transferred the passengers, bringing them to the north shore of the island. Syrian Christians from Hasakeh, standing next to Prince, said that they had paid over 2,000 Euro per person to make the journey. I began to ask the Syrians another question, but as I did an Orthodox priest on our team walked by, and the two ran over to him, reaching out their hands to his. They quickly turned to tears, as they recounted their journey to the priest.

“Play football?” Prince asked me. I nodded the same lie I’ve lied 1,000 times. “Barcelona?” I asked. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head, putting his hand to his heart. “Madrid. Real Madrid.”

He began to speak to me in Dari, and I listened. I understood alhamdullilehs and Germany, inshallahs. Germany, inshallah. Surely secular Europe has little idea how many times her name has been spoken in beseeching prayer over the past two years.  Prince eagerly called over Siddiq—25, also from Afghanistan—a pharmacy student with impeccable English. Prince introduced me. “Ah, Mike. Michael. Michael Jackson,” Siddiq chuckled at me. I have resigned to this trope, because working in various languages, a universal name with an unsavory comparison is better than a complicated name with no comparison at all. “You know, I would have died an hour ago if the volunteers did not come” he added with the disconcerting nonchalance that you often hear in the aftermath of overwhelming trauma.

We continued to chat, waiting until someone was told to go somewhere else. After a few minutes, Prince and Siddiq were whisked away to prepare for their journey to the registration camps of Moria. As they were handed a bag of dry clothes, I wondered just how many people they have met along their way, how many nights they have slept unsure where their next night would be. I wondered about their determined vulnerability—having left a home to be subject to unknowable comments and directions, scores of people telling them when to stand, when to sit, where to find food, and where to sleep—all in pursuit of something worth dying for, some motivation almost no one I know can fathom. I thought of my childhood, of the Colorado mines, and of Le Petit Prince, though the power of its metaphor did not sink in until days later.

Ruins of a wooden smuggling boat

In the harbor of Mytilene, an assortment of orange life jackets bob up and down in the wake of passing fishing boats. Like litter, the lifejackets are the result of ignorance, negligence, and arrogance. They represent both consequence and risk for all who choose to acknowledge and for those who choose to look away. Decades of conflict and inequality have birthed a risky game which tests the very notion of what it means to be human, which forces us to reconsider what it means to be moral agents, and which illuminates the fragility of our supposedly evolved, inclusive, rights-based systems.

In the story of The Little Prince, the boy encounters a host of men as he journeys from planet to planet—a King, an arrogant man, a geographer, a drunkard, a lamplighter. Reading the story on my way back from Lesvos I came across this passage, with the dampened smile of Prince vivid in my mind:

“Ah! Here is a subject,” exclaimed the king, when he saw the little prince coming. 

And the little prince asked himself:  “How could he recognize me when he had never seen me before?” 

He did not know how the world is simplified for kings. To them, all men are subjects. 

“Approach, so that I may see you better,” said the king, who felt consumingly proud of being at last a king over somebody. 

The little prince looked everywhere to find a place to sit down; but the entire planet was crammed and obstructed by the king’s magnificent ermine robe. So he remained standing upright, and, since he was tired, he yawned. 

“It is contrary to etiquette to yawn in the presence of a king,” the monarch said to him. “I forbid you to do so.”

“I can’t help it. I can’t stop myself,” replied the little prince, thoroughly embarrassed. “I have come on a long journey, and I have had no sleep . . .” 

“Ah, then,” the king said. “I order you to yawn. It is years since I have seen anyone yawning. Yawns, to me, are objects of curiosity. Come, now! Yawn again! It is an order.” 

The little Prince I met in Molyvos may be in Idomeni by now. He may be in Moria, waiting in line for soup lovingly prepared by selfless island residents. He may be in Turkey, bruised and confused, searching for another road into a world that, for kings, is so simple, but for him, is anything but.

A story written by a refugee from Damascus, Syria. Titled "This Life is a Strange Story."

If I could speak into the ears of American power

In light of the recent escalation of Syria talk, war talk, and war violence, I can’t help but cry out from the middle of the places that men in far away desks ceaselessly write about and talk about.

If I could speak into the ears of American power…

3 September, 2013

Amman, Jordan


Last night I sat on my rooftop with a friend from Damascus—my “brother by trauma” you could call him. The temporary calm in the air sufficed to make it a great evening.

Two days before, I was sitting in Zahlé, Lebanon, the Christian-majority gateway to the Beka’a Valley. Posters of Hassan Nasrallah lined the streets of villages that lead to the city. I remember clutching my passport as I passed the first sign, unsure if it would be wiser to keep it close, or to keep it far.

I was meeting two Syrians in Zahlé, both of whom I work with through NGO partnerships. Their lives, work, and families are in Damascus, but Lebanon is the closet we can get to them, and the farthest they can leave from Syria. Very few places want a Syrian these days. It is far easier to throw money at someone than to accept them into your home.

You shouldn’t be scared. I’m the one who has to go back into the fire” one of them told me, as she showed me the latest pictures of her children. It was 15 minutes before President Obama was going to be making an announcement. All of us were trying to eat dinner as the TV flashed images of Bashar al-Assad and dead children. Some of us were over-eating, tapping our legs compulsively, and others weren’t eating, just taking small bites but breathing loudly in that distinct way that precedes tears. “Turn it off,” one said. “There is no need for this.”

I was terrified. And that wasn’t even one percentage of what the Syrians around me felt. The Syrian woman next to me noticed our shared emotions. She comforted me—and ironic role for her of all people to play—when I was scared what my President was going to decree. Was he going to strike? I would surely hear the jets overhead as we were sitting just 90 minutes by car from Damascus. It wasn’t the strike that worried me, it was the implications. The “and then…?”

Back on my balcony two days later, with the son of that same Syrian woman I was with in Zahlé, we talked about President Obama, about fear, and about death. “This too shall pass” we both said at nearly the same time. “Kolo Maashi” in Arabic. But, the important question was how, and if, we will pass through it.

My friend said: “I know what you felt,” referring to the night in Zahlé. Tremendous uncertainty. Absolute lack of control. Anger. Sadness. “That feeling is constant for me in Damascus. Every day I think of who I would like to die next to. Death becomes a potential part of every single day. It sinks deep into your mind.“

As we were talking, I got a phone call from another friend, a young man of 22 years old whose nephews, aunt, uncle were killed in Ghouta on August 21st. “It’s complicated” he told me. “So many more will die,” he said, referring to President Obama’s speech. His hatred of Bashar—of the Alawites and the Shias—will not end with the end of the Al-Assad reign. It will seep into his children, his grandchildren. The stripping-bare sense of death will not leave him. Survival will remain paramount, whether here in Jordan or back in his beleaguered home.

Some say 1,400 died on the 21st of August. Some say 350. Some day 3,000. It wasn’t the number that died; it was the way they died that mattered. We raged, we speculated, we brought out the harshest rhetoric that we would find, trying to appeal to the morality that we Americans keep tucked in our pockets for when we need to use it.

I don’t recall such speech about Congo. Or Rwanda. Or Myanmar. Or Darfur. Or Guatemala (where I have seen pain that has lasted for generations since 1954’s coup). Was it because the people in those countries died in acceptable, conventional ways? Was it because they were not from a region that we are scared of? Was it because their countries were too close of allies? Was it because the numbers weren’t enough? I assure you, Sir, the numbers were more than enough and continue to be great. Death has not slowed on our watch.

We must intervene” you say. “We can’t let other leaders think they can get away with these things.” To be frank, it is not fear of the USA, fear of punishment, that prevent evil-doers from doing evil. With respect to my country, I must say that such an argument is dangerously shallow. Would you be proud if your child’s good behavior was only the result of his or her tremendous fear of you as a parent? Is that not the same backwards incentive-structure that dictators themselves use? Moreover, the world has seen America sit idly as hundreds of brutal civil conflicts raged—our inaction in moral crises is well documented.

Perhaps all this noise of a strike is because we don’t like watching people die slowly, because we can accept gunshots and bombs but have not culturally reconciled with the memories of mustard gas that we took a hit of in WWI. As is common, we have also dished out the same terror we received—napalm, depleted uranium bullets—in the name of preventing evil from spreading. Chemical weapons in particular hold a sensitive spot in our political consciousness. The images of their use make us cringe. But. I would like to say with every ounce of seriousness I have that it should never be discomfort that stirs conviction. It should be conviction that awakens and stirs discomfort.

When death is far from you, you deal it lightly. And when it is close, you deal it even more lightly. So to have America slap Bashar on the wrist—what will happen then? As if Al-Assad has any problem killing more people. Slap him and then what? He uses chemical weapons again, and you slap him again? All the while, you spend money, and Syrians keep dying. And, if this strike accomplishes its proclaimed goal of dissuading further use of chemical weapons, will you be proud? Will it be “worth it” when he simply returns to killing the conventional way? What an odd goal. With that I am not advocating regime change, because to do so would require sticking Americans into a quagmire that we once again don’t understand. We can create a vacuum that we again will not be able to control.

If you are  convinced that Al-Assad committed this heinous crime, and if you sincerely think that a military response is required, then at least work tirelessly to build a coalition of support. You cannot drive out darkness with darkness. You cannot win a fight in the shadows. And even if you win, you will not come up with a head held high. Darkness can only be driven out with light. Bring light—bring as much evidence as possible. Our past errors as a nation have broken the trust that people have in America’s claims of morality. We cannot trust a 4-page document that assures us that “credible sources” have given “hard evidence.” The very fact that I began taking Arabic classes was the result of a desire to fix so many of the wrongs my country has committed.

Both parties, America and Syria’s regime, are ready to deal death—one has already done that to 100,000 of his people, and the other sits at desks very powerful and very far away.

I live day by day in the midst of this crisis that you would like to end. I, too, would love it to end. Coming from a life in suburban Massachusetts into counseling and education work with the most broken (yet capable) people I could imagine—I want the pain to end. Their story is not my story, but I cry with them. I live with and love Syrians rich and poor, with Sunni, Christian, and Shi’a, with FSA and pro-regime families who fall all across the spectrum of support for your intervention. Position aside, all agree—“this path will create more death.”

America has created fear, for she herself has been raised on it, and malnourished by it. Those who create fear often operate with impunity. Fear destroys logic. Fear is self-centered. Fear wears many masks, but none of them humble. None of them truth. None of them light.

You do not stop evil with a slap on the wrist. You do not stop a runner by cutting off his legs—he will run on blades. You do not destroy a car by slashing its tires—they will be replaced.

Moreover, it—Syria—is not yours to destroy. She may be tormented by a twisted power, a dangerous leader, but so are many places. The urge to act in this case is not grounded in a consistent application of professed principles. It is grounded in a deep-rooted and dangerous cultural predilection to reduce complexity for the sake of calm. This conflict is complex, and has serious implications for every man, woman, and child in the West. To reduce that complexity with aggression is the response of a scared animal. You must know—by now—that evil does not bow to aggression.

The world is complex. It is nasty and brutish. I feel the nasty, the brutish, every day, as I traverse sad deserts from Amman to the second largest refugee camp in the world, where thousands of beautiful people are trapped in another odd system we’ve created—the humanitarian aid system—where they are fed and clothed, and still alive, but barely so. Barely with agency. Barely recognized beyond their basic needs. With all the money spent, we hardly make things better. We hardly ever get to know who we are helping before proposing a bigger solution for them. One that results in death, at times

I cried with my friends whose families were gassed in Ghouta. I sobbed, Sir. I cried with my friends whose friends have been killed by the FSA. I cried with a young man as he mulled the option of martyring himself for the sake of finding “a purpose.” Do you understand that? Do you understand the level of human engagement and support it takes to end the tiniest bit of suffering? This pain will be generational. The damage is no longer carried only in the bombs and the gasses. It is carried within the individuals that have suffered to-date. To address that danger—the danger that is caused by trauma and prolonged pain—that is a much harder, yet much nobler, intervention to pursue.

Open your doors, open your wallets, prepare Syria’s neighbors in case her physical dangers and evils spread, but, for the sake of my brothers and sisters—for the sake of [names removed]—do not strike. Prepare and empower from the outside to ensure that those eventually returning  will be less broken than they otherwise will be. Invest so much where we can bring redemption in the face of suffering.

I leave you with Tolkien, with a sentence to reflect on as you pursue a short-term solution to end America’s discomfort: “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Respectfully yours,

Mike Niconchuk


Aid Worker, Amman, Jordan

Geysir Park

Where the World Lets Off Her Steam

When you were little, did you ever mix together all of the ingredients in the fridge, just for fun? Did you ever swirl two incompatible colors of finger-paint on the pallet, just to see if you could make something new, something previously unseen? I did both. Frequently. I turned out a decent chef and artist as a result. For the others out there who experimented similarly, Iceland is a dream. It’s the hyperactive child of the Great North, where nature has experimented and left streaks of invented colors and disproportionate animals.  It’s where the sun always shines, to desensitize you and lure you into the fantasy. At the end of the year, it’s where the sun never shines and instead lets particles in the sky dance for you with a fury and energy that breathes life into even the coldest of souls.

The land of ice and fire, reminiscent of Rohan and the area Beyond the Wall, Iceland has not surprisingly been prime location for the filming of many fantasy classics. For those who aim to create the unreal, the fantastic, it makes sense to go to Iceland as it will take you well beyond the limit of your imagination and show youwhat this earth, and not even the people that inhabit it, is truly capable of.

Reykjavik, the most pronounceable of Iceland’s windy cities, has the drab of any Atlantic port, with a significant dose of Ikea and brawn. Padded with corrugated metal, most of Reykjavik’s buildings are entirely unimpressive, but step inside and you all of a sudden feel like you’re about to have your retinas scanned and a robot give you a cold-handed pat down. Everything is clean. Everything is sterile, which stands quite in contrast to the image of the filthy, Grendel-slaying, mead-hall Vikings that inhabit(ed) the island.

The classic Scando sterility is no denial of the, as I said, brawny history of Iceland. It’s buildings may be from Mars (as epitomized by the Harpa—a boxy opera house that looks like what you see through a kaleidoscope), but its heart is made of meat and rocks. The sheep, and people, are well-fed, bred for resilience and extreme contrasts of ice and fire, day and night, land and sea. Everything in Reykjavik indicates a deep sense of pride and even of independence, with an ironic twist of uniformity.

I can’t help but go back to the idea of Iceland as a hyperactive kid, spewing steam in one place, frozen solid just a minute later, and then bursting with fluorescent green and yellow alien plants. Each landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, even if the gasp if followed by a raised eyebrow and a check of your pulse to make sure you didn’t die and are actually driving an SUV through purgatory.

In a land of contrasts, confusion, and truly enigmatic landscapes, it is not surprising that instead of ghosts and gods, Icelanders speak of elves, trolls, and hidden peoples. Had I seen a unicorn or a Pegasus strutting on the side of the road I probably would not have been to bothered. The horses that do exist look a bit like a failed experiment, with their miniature legs and weave-like hair dos blowing in the cold wind.

When you get bored of ruins, of deserts, of “just mountains,” there is a place you can go, a place where you can swim in waters colored like your dreams, a place where the earth lets off its beautiful steam and shows you just what a beautiful thing she is.

What I’m saying is, go to Iceland. It’s a dream, a paradise on ice.

Za'atri Camp, Jordan

The Hostess with the Mostest: Refugees and Host Communities in Jordan

For Khalid, the beaches of Tartus are unrivaled. “The sand is white, no rocks to trip on, no urchins to sting you.” He told me this as he brushed off the pebbles that had stuck to his feet. “I don’t like it here.” Khalid, 16 years old, fled his native city of Homs just over one year ago. “I would go back tomorrow if my Dad would let me,” he added, then returning to the subject of Tartus and its clear superiority to the gravely beaches of Aqaba, Jordan. Khalid and his brother live in Mafraq, a small, mainly Bedouin, town near the border with Syria and now home to thousands of refugee families who have set up temporary lives alongside extended family, friends, or strangers who have offered their homes, spare land, or an unfinished building to those fleeing violence in Syria.

Khalid and his younger brother Omar both work full time, earning less than $20 per week between the two of them. Both parents are out of work, and the family relies on relatives and aid donations to supplement the boys’ minimal income. Omar makes coffee at a truck stop all day, and Khalid works at a stationery store taking photographs for passports, government IDs, and other documents. Omar, the younger of the two, joked “Don’t drink the Nescafe, I can make it much better…” He doesn’t mind work, he added, but also has no desire to stay here any longer than he has to.

Their need to subsist in Jordan compelled the boys to work and therefore abandon their studies once they arrived in Jordan.  In the Kingdom, there are well upwards of 200,000 Syrian refugees, with only half or slightly less registered with UNHCR. One group of young men, seven living in a small flat in Ramtha, told our staff “We are wanted by the Syrian Army. We can’t register. We don’t want our information anywhere.” This is the fear of thousands of families, who for this, and scores of other fear-driven reasons, avoid registering with the primary aid agencies. As a result, mapping needs is hard. In the face of such need, and so little documentation, effectiveness rests on deep community knowledge and tendrils that reach to even the most off-grid areas hosting refugees.

Jordan’s infrastructure, especially in the already-poorer North, is trying to adapt to the quarter of a million people that have come over the past eighteen months, but resources are scarce. Schools have had to add shifts, as class sizes grew to 50 or more in some places. In the Za’atari Camp, a sealed-off tent city home to 30,000+ of the poorest and most recent refugees, hospitals are overwhelmed, and the only school is plagued with miserably low attendance, violence, and inexperienced staff unready to deal with the challenges of working with both Syrian students and refugee youth.

Syrian boys at Aqaba Camp, 2012
Syrian boys at Aqaba Camp, 2012

In order for interventions outside the camp in urban areas to work, it is absolutely critical that the Jordanian host communities, including Syrians therein, be engaged in a creative and meaningful way in the design, execution, and expansion of aid programs to Syrians. And inside the camp, the residents’ vast resources need to be better understood and utilized. It is a city, essentially, and its governors and residents need to be speaking the same language, both figuratively and literally.

At Questscope we have worked primarily outside the camp until now. To be frank, though, helping vulnerable Jordanians is not sexy anymore for much of the international community, in light of the “sadder” stories of refugees fleeing under the cover of night and threat of bullets. This makes work in the communities quite a challenge, as effective aid must not widen the gap between Jordanians and Syrians in the same cities, but rather, constructively engage both.

Thankfully, there is an excess of emotional inclination and human resources among the Jordanian community to really revolutionize the way aid is delivered. Like any resource, aid money and goods are not immune to corruption, competition, and positioning that can and has jeopardized the effectiveness of the crisis response. Collaboration between aid providers and target communities, and not just on paper, is a way to ensure more accurate and honest aid delivery. It’s not risk-free, but it provides roles, which in and of itself does more for restoring psychological stability than much of the direct aid itself.

We have worked for four months to train Jordanian and Syrian volunteers working at Jordanian community organizations in informal education (IFE) delivery. Questscope provides IFE through the modality of community organizations, using Syrians who used to be teachers or university students, along with Jordanian staff, to engage youth, now in Jordan, who remain out of school by force, by circumstance, or simply because there is no room for them in the classroom. Questscope IFE, rooted in a Participatory Learning Methodology that wa evaluated by Oxford University in 2010, aims to restore youth-adult partnerships and bring Syrian and Jordanian out-of-school youth into the same space to engage in sessions that boost critical thinking skills and that have been proven to reduce anti-social and violent behavior.

Last week, I was part of the team that took the boys from the IFE program to the coastal city of Aqaba, for a four-day educational camp. Over the four days I witnessed by team of twelve boys transform. The first days were suffocated by infighting between Jordanians and Syrians, between Syrians from one city and those from another. After a day of targeted sessions, conversations, and challenging questions, I awoke to a surprise. And that was the complicated thing known as musalahah in Arabic; it is a form of reconciliation that is far deeper than the American or European understanding of the word. The boys had met at night, fleshed out the issues between them, and came as a group in the morning assuring that all voices and complaints had been addressed. For the last 48 hours of the camp, the group was all smiles, no trace of the lines that had been drawn upon arrival, nor any lingering fistfights. Complete and total musalahah.

In the Za’atri Camp, we have begun planning to implement a similar IFE program and revive its mentoring program, which was first piloted across the Kingdom of Jordan in the country’s juvenile detention centers. In the detention centers, Questscope worked with over 3,000 youth and 4,000 mentor volunteers to restore the educational and personal aspirations of youth who had been completely removed from the system, who had become essentially invisible to their society.

Since 2000, Questscope has restored more than 7,000 youth dropouts, street kids, gang members, and otherwise marginalized youth to formal education, vocational training, and better livelihood options. In the current situation, working to provide alternative paths for Syrian youth requires the same commitment to community engagement, trust in the depth of capabilities inherent in host communities, and a constant application of Questscope’s mission of “putting the last, first.”

Za'atri Camp, Jordan
Za’atri Camp, Jordan

On the last day of our Aqaba camping trip, Khalid told me: “You know, I understand what you’re trying to do.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. He went on: “I’m not saying I think the situation is perfect. It’s not, it’s not fair, but you are trying to provide some sense of equality in a situation where there is no justice.”

Absolutely. How can a young man even fathom justice when every role, every friend, every goal has been stripped from him? When his voice is unheard, lost in a desert hundreds of miles from home? When he works for a foreigner who shamelessly pays him little, but still is enabling him to bring food to his family? The best I could do was to listen. Khalid is bright, opinionated, and relentless in his desire to inform you of what he thinks should be done. Aid agencies should be the first to give time, attention, and support to young people like Khalid. When all is stripped away, the least we can do is to walk next to someone as we mobilize what resources we can to then provide a way forward in a system that has roadblocks at every step.

Street Art, Amman

Less Room in Homeroom

So many backpacks bobbed by my building this morning. It is a sight I haven’t seen since my first weeks here. Despite the noise and tremors to the North in Syria, to the West in Palestine, to the South in Egypt,  for Jordan’s children, school is still school. It’s still drudgery. It’s still that unwelcome familiar friend who takes a while to get used to, no matter how many times you meet. Today’s “first day” might be a little different, though, and the number of unfamiliar faces may overwhelm even the most popular of Amman’s schoolkids.

The Jordanian education system is facing a crisis today–September 2nd, the first day of classes of the Fall 2012 school year. More than 15,000 students will be transitioning from private schools into public schools this semester due to increased tuition prices and general economic hardship among a broad segment of Jordan’s society. This is the largest private-to-public exodus in recent memory, and it was quite unexpected by the Ministry of Education. Nearly 10,000 Syrians are expected to be in classrooms today, as well. Everyone knew the influx of Syrians would strain the system, but no one expected these numbers. The Government of Jordan estimates that more than 150,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. There are likely far more. Those 10,000 Syrian kids that will start classes tomorrow represent just a fraction of those who need proper schooling and who face that beast known as “the dropout life.” In Amman alone 5,000 Syrian refugee youth are at risk of child labor. These numbers are big. And as Syria more and more mimics the path of Lebanon’s protracted conflict, few think Jordan will see relief from the flow of refugees any time soon.

AFP photo / Khalil Mazraawi

As I slept Sunday night in Aqaba–after spending a day with teachers from around the country, all of whom are trying to provide medicine and education for Syrians–between midnight and 3:00am, more than 2,000 crossed the border into Jordan. 2,000 people in three hours. More than 11 people every single minute. One every five seconds. Most were pursued by bullets intended to stop them from leaving. Many likely did not make it to the border, a border now closed on both sides.

Jordan is used to “guests” from neighboring countries. Palestine, Iraq, and now Syria. Each conflict follows a similar plot in which Jordan welcomes far more than intended (more than gently nudged by the Big Sticks to the West and the North) and host communities struggle to adapt to the flood of new neighbors–all of whom need food, jobs, education, and homes. The government does its best to dance around the social tensions for as long as possible until the sound of gunshots echoes from within Jordan, and not just from across the borders. Here we are now, with schools beyond healthy capacity, Jordanians infuriated by the increase in delinquency, prostitution, and unemployment in border towns, and local citizens clashing with Syrians in and out of the official camps. Syrians, desperate for some sense of stability–and scrambling to pay the exploitative rent prices of empty flats in border towns–are willing to work for little money and for longer hours than Jordanians. Restaurant and shop owners follow the example we have all set, the road of profit from war.
In July I spent time in Ramtha, a smuggling haven whose shadier industries have now grown as a result of the problems in Syria. There I met a group of seven men, all huddled on to a few mattresses watching whatever TV show was on at 1pm. In our meeting, no one looked happy to be there. No one except the flies, that is. The flies were quite content, feasting on what bits of dried sugar they could find in the empty teacups, searching for edible bits and stains in the worn-out carpet.

Zaatari Camp, Mafraq, Jordan

I’m not the type to glamorize war, or to elicit pity from readers for the victims of a given conflict. Anyone who has interacted with war victims understands both the impulse to romanticize (for the sake of rallying support and counteracting the dehumanizing effects of violence) as well as the importance of keeping victimization in its proper place (due to the risk of setting off a decades-long politicization of victimhood). It would be easy to go overboard here, to write about the blankness in those soldiers’  eyes, blah blah. It’s important, but here it helps no one. It would be sort of contrived, because in all honesty, I was not paying enough attention to their postures, expressions or mannerisms. I was looking at the flies for most of the time. No one wants to watch grown men cry. This is why I noticed the flies in the first place. When someone begins to cry, our default response, as men, is to look down, to find something on which to fix our gaze until all parties involved have collected themselves without being seen, without anyone else’s eyes able to confirm or deny their tears. The man who was crying was a former member of the Syrian army, shot by his comrades as he ran defecting from his battalion. He needed to get out of what was quickly becoming an unbearable brother-on-brother bloodbath in his hometown of Dara’a. Now he is matloob–wanted–and spends most of the day sitting beside his crutches, waiting for money from his family and passing the time engrossed in the numbing stories of Gulfi soap operas. He collected himself quickly after tearing up, and finished by patting the wound in his leg. We then moved to round two of the tea, moving to the next man’s story.

Most of my interactions with Syrians have been far more removed from the armed conflict than was this one in Ramtha. No gunshot wounds, no starving children–just ordinary families who left early enough to escape many of the more gruesome impacts. While “lucky” by comparison, these Syrians are no less angry, no less “victims,” no less legitimate in their needs or opinions. We too often ascribe moral infallibility to those we call “victims,” but to do so runs a risk of losing your own agency as an observer. Ironically, if we leave traditional “victim” and “observer” roles unquestioned, both the observer and the victim lose their agency, sequestered in the realm of passivity and confined to being a recipient of conflict, and of life broadly, as opposed to the active subject in it.

I think of a twenty year old friend from Homs, whose hatred for Bashar Al-Asad–and making Al-Asad memes for Facebook–occupies enough of his time to keep him out of a serious depression. Our friendship started in Ramtha when we were both volunteering to document interviews with Syrian refugee families. Most consider him blessed, fortunate to be from a family with enough savings to live comfortably in Irbid. But, just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you’re not a refugee. Indeed so many things are easier when you have enough money, and there are cushions to soften the fall–social and psychological–of displacement. Regardless of wealth, though, displacement sprouts similar roots of helplessness, uncertainty, and anger in the heart and mind.

There are also a few stories of reverse migration, of people moving back into Damascus to be with those they love, and, if fate has it, die with those they love. The prospect of suffering from separation and solitude both is far more terrifying, for some, than living in the middle of a war zone. A friend  just moved back to Damascus after a long separation from her children. Her smile shines amid the gray landscape the rest of the world has painted for her city, and she, for me, is a constant reminder of just how much of life continues as before during war. Love does not stop, cooking dinner does not stop, cleaning the house and watching TV do not stop (of course there are many cases in which these things are interrupted–in areas where fighting is more intense). The nature of urban warfare is locality-based, allowing normalcy one day, and explosion the next.
Much of my work is focused on non-formal education models rooted in the work of Paulo Freire,  a Brazilian teacher who penned the widely-red Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Freire’s work has a particular relevance in working in education with displaced populations, as armed violence, like occupation and oppression–reduces the individual to an “object” of life. This role is internalized, particularly by youth, whose entire lives have the potential to go on under the shadow of this self-perception. So many youth I have met live lives in which they simply adapt to what happens around them. For Freire, the idea of adaptation without integration (defined as the ability to adapt and subsequently alter reality through reflection and action) is symptomatic of dehumanization. In this context education takes on a restorative role if accompanied by the right methods of teaching and dialogue.
So, this is what we try to do.
School starts today. What we do with and for the thousands of vulnerable Syrians and Jordanians living in this tense and risky time has long-term consequences. Not all will fit in classrooms. Not all will have the option of choosing between school and work. Not all will be able to sleep soundly at night without terrorizing nightmares. If we can help 200, we will help 200, and do our very best to bring a bit of safety, of restoration, and of normalcy to a life they did not choose, but in which they by very virtue of being people, deserve to succeed.
Steps down (I never walk back up them) from Weibdeh

Ray Charles in Jordan

When I say “neighborhood,” what do you think? Is it a real memory that pops into your mind? Is it a picture you’ve painted over the years, brushstrokes stolen from decades of primetime family shows? Who has defined it for you?

When I think of neighborhood, I hear Ray Charles, soulful and sort of rusty, and remember fondly an image not my own, but from the movie The Sandlot. Checkerboard table cloths,

“The Sandlot”

mounds of burgers and hot dogs lit up by the booming fireworks of the Fourth of July—all set, at least in my head and on screen, to Mr. Charles’ unforgettable “America the Beautiful.”

Today we have relics and a few lone sentinels of the checkerboard tablecloth-era, people who carry fading community narratives, and people who themselves were unforgettable characters in the neighborhood. We hear stories in those foggy-eyed moments that Dads have, when they giggle to themselves about adventures that only they remember, about the time when “that building over there” was just a field where he used to play with his friends. For my Dad, the decrepit auto repair shop on the corner by his office is a wellspring of childhood memories. The second generation of wrinkle-faced owners mean nothing to me; to him, they are neighborhood. They are characters, souls with stories and with power of the past.

At the risk of sounding like an old man waxing philosophical, or a Luddite—the idea of neighborhood has degenerated. Even TV neighborhoods, which have the privilege of fantasy and idealism, are sort of weird and dysfunctional today, full of murder or Botox or over-sexed vampires. Or all of those things. We still strive for the trophy Sandlot neighborhood though. Alas, we fall short, with once-frozen appetizers piled high and plentiful small talk in which all parties involved try fruitlessly to remember their neighbors’ kids’ names. “How is…your oldest doing? Where is he now?”

Is the full depth of my cynicism towards the suburban neighborhood warranted? Debatable. But you can’t argue the fact that that my generation will not have the stories that our fathers and mothers have. They had the luxury of growing up in the days before stranger-danger, before children were put on leashes, before everything caused cancer, and before we were suspicious of anything requiring human interaction.

I, like most, have romanticized the seemingly unknowable concept of neighborhood. I didn’t think I would find it in Jordan, especially as a foreigner, functionally mute in local dialect. Moreover, having been told by sources both local and foreign to not trust anybody unless they do something so aberrant and shocking as to prove their incorruptible trustworthiness, I was skeptical that I would find true tight-knit communities in urban Amman. Rural Jordan, like pretty much rural anywhere in the developing world, is an entirely legitimate and different sense of community, but urbanity very often brings with it a perversion of sincerity and community.

View from Jabal al-Weibdeh

In Amman, which over the years has become a hot pot of all kinds of Arabs, urbanization has come with conflict. Every morning when I leave my house, I brush by the neighbors’ wall, pock-marked with bullet holes from the 1970s when arguments between Jordanian and Palestinian inhabitants escalated into all-out gun battles.

When I first researched my neighborhood, Jabal Al-Weibdeh, I was presented with neat paragraphs about the quintessential Palestinian grandmas that shuffle to and fro buying melons and making minty lemonade for their dozens of grandkids. I read about the friendliness of neighbors and the sense of permanence that many families feel when in the hilltop neighborhood. I can name four people who have indeed said “Oh! My grandma lives there” when I mention my neighborhood.

When I arrived, I expected all those quiet grandmas, and then my apartment in a location convenient to downtown and fancier West Amman. The location was the primary selling point for me. I envisioned tender, if toothless, smiles from those ancient aunties who swept their front steps even when all that remained was dust. Yes, I had fallen into the romantic trap of my home-to-be.

As it turns out, Weibdeh is so far from what I had read. But, to my and likely your surprise, it is still as close as I have ever come to the genuineness and familiarity I thought only existed in the echo of that Ray Charles song. Just remove the white ladies in aprons and change the melanin and facial hair levels of everyone in the picture.

There is a palpable history to Weibdeh. There are the bullet holes, of course, and the families who have lived here for so long that they have immunity from the encroaching commercialization. Their houses were once built on quiet alleys, their gardens idyllically removed from the honking of the few busy streets towards the downtown. Forty years later, the tendrils of their decades-old jasmine plants now jut out into much busier streets. Pedestrians have to brush the plants out of the way as they walk by with shopping bags. The neighborhood has grown up. Downtown is now shockingly close. But Weibdeh has not given in quite yet.

Darat al-Funun

Cafes and galleries flank all sides of some old houses, yet the old couples inside carry on as if the world has not changed. Their tenure on this mountain is fully respected by the new settlers and new businesses, none of whom would dare do anything to fall afoul of these foundational families. They still rule, and they are the bearers of memory.

As I’ve written this over the course of a week, the characters of my neighborhood keep revealing new idiosyncrasies. The blossoms of trust are faintly appearing, and where there was once suspicion or benign curiosity—”who is this [possible] Arab who speaks like a feral six year old?”—there is now emerging relationship. More than any other place I have lived, Amman is full of people who hold their cards close. What they hold in their hands is often so grand though, so colorful, so steeped in stories and history that you could spend years listening to each one of them, and still not know who they fully are. Then again, individual identities here are so intertwined with family and historical identities, that the idea of “self” is quite different from what I know.

Trust is scarce in the Arab world. Family and personal reputation are held is highest regard, and therefore, personal or emotional information is hard to come by. Genuine hospitality is given like candy on Halloween, but legitimate trust is rare. It takes years, if it is ever achievable, I’ve been told. Whether the characters of my neighborhood are trustworthy is irrelevant, though, because irrespective of that they exude a sense of comfort and confidence, even if unintentionally so. Even if by the end of my time here I only read a meager few pages of their stories, I will leave amused, enthralled, and enriched nonetheless.

Take the owner of the pizza shop next to my house. Born and raised in Jordan, he left his home for Brooklyn for two years to train as a pizza apprentice. His accent today is part Arab, part Brooklyn-Jewish-grandpa, part vulgar cab driver. He likes hot peppers and vodka, and he makes really good pizza.

Or take, for another example, the owners of Volks Burger—one a die-hard Arab nationalist longing for the days of Nasser as he hums the Amelie soundtrack behind his cashier, and the other a fair-skinned filmmaker slash entrepreneur who insists on buying all local products. Like Volkswagen, Volks Burger is “for the people,” cheaper than West Amman’s attempts at 1950s soda fountains. One of the owners told me once “give me a beer, a cigarette, and Al-Weibdeh. I am happy.” One of scores of young artists that are shacking up close with the Palestinian grandmas of this mountain, this guy is an emblem of Weibdeh’s desire for quiet reform and cultural vibrancy.

Street art in al-Weibdeh

There are only two ways up to this mountaintop, and three ways down. Weibdeh’s inaccessibility, especially in light of its proximity to the bustling downtown, enables its sense of community and keeps many of the mountain’s treasures hidden. Nowhere else have cab drivers asked me “do you know how to get back from here?” While other mountains fill up with odors of cafés and cars, Weibdeh, in the evening, often smells of jasmine flower and overripe melon, sometimes mixed with the sweet smell of sheesha smoke coming from the landmark Rakwet Araby on Paris Circle.

Between the circle and Volks Burger is Graffiti Cafe, the only place in the world, as far as I know, where you can paint the walls of the shop while your coffee is prepared. Bottles of spray paint intermingle with donated Kurt Vonnegut books and random bad novels, and the interior walls change almost daily as people reach for the paint—not really the books—and leave their mark. Some witty, some poetic, some simple—the tags on the walls all contribute to the story of this space. Over the past months, the only thing better than Graffiti’s coffee has been the endless friendliness of the staff, all of whom are also deeply embedded in Amman’s independent art movement. People often pass from Graffiti to the famed Jo Bedu store across the street; its shelves are full of shirts with cheeky slang humor, about half of which is lost on any non-Jordanian student of Arabic. A personal favorite is their shirt which asks “Did you get hired?!” which, in Arabic, sounds like this: “Waddhafuk?!”

Back towards my house, you may hear Celine Dion or Justin Bieber, both icons in their own right in Amman, and both played strangely-often in brand name stores in the city. Why do I bring up Celine Dion? Because the juice-head gorilla barber who wears shirts four sizes too small, and refuses to breathe unless his breath is filled with cigarette smoke, has the Titanic theme song as his ringtone. And his phone rings way too often. And I’ve seen JBiebs’ “Boyfriend” video on their TV probably four times.

My ode to this little hilltop could go on for pages. The scents and smiles of the streets here are among the most pleasurable daily experiences. It may not be home permanently, and there may never be a true block party, but I would not be shocked if one of these warm Ramadan nights, the sky lights up with fireworks, shopkeepers come out to see, and someone cranks up the volume of their Fairuz greatest hits CD—a contextually adequate sub for Mr. Charles.

racks of men's shoes in the Abdali market

A Flower that Blooms by Night

The thickening layer of brown on the horizon is a signal of summer. The unsettled dust from the endless desert east of Amman seems to float higher and higher, not content until reaching the sun itself. Today’s breezes don’t hold the same force as those of mid-May. The lungs of the atmosphere are slowly tiring, it seems, slowing running out of their reserves of cooling breath. We have passed 100 degrees nearly every day for five days, and in the evening the tick-tick-tick of a rusted fan is the only thing that helps me sleep comfortably.

Drive down from Amman and the breezes fade into a hot silence. By the Dead Sea and in the Jordan Valley, temperatures are beginning to climb so high that intrepid goats and camels are the only things that dare move around during the early afternoon. Sleeping in Wadi Rum a few weekends ago, I remember waking up to what felt like a hairdryer blowing on my face, only to realize it was just the 7am heat squeezing through the cracks of the flapping tent walls.

In the desert one gets used to the sound of a tarp flapping in the wind, to the surge of light and hot air that rushes in behind any breeze that lifts tent walls. Nearly every outdoor café, every home, every hotel has a canopy, a fabric roof of some kind that keeps out the sun’s rays and those extra fifteen degrees they bring. Still full of light, and still too hot, the world under the desert tarps is a world I’ve come to know, a world with its own vicissitudes and attitudes.

From above, most of Amman is a monochromatic maze, dotted with green trees, some purple springtime flowers, and the bright yellow and white of thousands of taxicabs. In this aerial view, there are a few noticeable aberrations, a few mold-breakers that interrupt the sandstone mass. The Amman Gate towers stand tall and unfinished, their bright blue glass reflecting the sun at all times of day. Another spot on the map is the King Abdullah mosque, with its bight teal dome. And then there is Abdali, a grungy diamond-shaped slab of pavement, littered with bags, cars, and busses bound for the north. It in some way reminds me of Geneva’s massive litter box in Plainpalais, just without the gypsies. Abdali is nothing special from above. Most of the time it is entirely empty, until, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, slowly, slowly, slowly, orange tarps engulf the pavement below for just 36 hours per week, transforming what was desolate into one of the city’s most colorful and boisterous sensory displays. This is the Abdali market, a dense hot mess with a short life span.

As you enter the Abdali market, this fabricated world beneath an orange sky, it seems as if the hazy tarp roof stretches for eternity in all directions.  In this weekly market, Goodwill excretes all that the West left undigested. Kitchen appliances find new adoptive parents, and even dismembered baby dolls and fantastical Chinese toys have a second chance at love. You can find anything in Abdali, in what must be among the world’s largest hand-me-down centers.

Under the orange sky, voices and smells are trapped. As women shop for pants, for scarves, for shoes, and as scores of shabab loiter, rummaging through used Nikes and knock-off Lacoste, they walk through the scents of mint, of corn, of coffee, of rubber, of body odor, of diesel–each scent trapped and fighting for a way out from under the tarp, from under the canopy that opens oh-so rarely and only when a big enough wind blows to open up a sliver to the real sky above.

I have observed Abdali market at different times—when it first opens, when it is winding down, right after Friday prayers, and even at 2am when the artificial lights cast a nauseating orange color throughout the hot and stuffy aisles. I wouldn’t go to Abdali to brush up on my Arabic; it is an auction floor full of machine-gun slang. I wouldn’t go to enjoy a Thursday night of shopping; it is totally overwhelming. Another world, another sky, Abdali abounds with things that you forgot you needed and the clothes that others needed to forget.

The Abdali market is a must-see for travelers to Amman. It is a flower that blooms by night, an artificial world where the wind and the sun cannot enter. I continue to get lost in it every time I visit, and I now have more kitchen appliances than I actually need. Such is its hypnotic effect.

While I could go on endlessly about Abdalis’ piles of faded Little League shirts from Ohio, the rack of pit-stained soccer jerseys, and the tank-tops from First Church Bible Camp, what most impresses me about Abdali is the human effort that goes into creating such a short-lived phenomenon. Dozens of men work all night on Wednesday to set up the metal scaffolding that holds up the orange tarps and that protects the truckloads of shoes from the dusty streets. Less than forty-eight hours later, they take it down, leaving behind nothing except the diamond-shaped slab of cracked pavement that has to wait another week for the foot traffic it craves, and for the orange sky that blocks out the sun.

Bedouins eating mansaf, cerca 1934. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Off with His Head!

“He is from Karak. Ask him about Mansaf.”

“Have you had Mansaf? You know the best one is in Karak.”

“Have you heard of Karak? It is like the capital of Mansaf.”

Never have I been asked the same food-related question three times on a first day in any country. Since I arrived here almost a month ago, I have been asked “Have you had mansaf?” more frequently than I have been asked “How do you like Jordan?” That in itself is a clear sign of just how important this dish is to Jordanian society and conversation.  My health, wellbeing, impressions, etc. always rank below mansaf on the list of “first questions.” It seems that for most, nothing else matters until I eat mansaf, until I have known what it is like to have my hands dripping with fermented goat yogurt.

Of the many food pilgrimages that one can undertake as a traveler, the mansaf pilgrimage is one of the most serious. A centuries-old dish served only in Jordan (and some parts of the West Bank), mansaf is far more than the national meal; it is a source of pride, the emblem and pinnacle of Jordanian hospitality. For families from the city of al-Karak in particular, mansaf runs in their blood….literally. The stuff hugs the walls of your arteries.

Just as I swore to complete the durian pilgrimage in Southeast Asia, I, purely by virtue of being in Jordan, signed up for the mansaf pilgrimage. As any of you who have traveled through the Middle East know, everything has a story here in Arabia. Everything has a reason, a history, and a purpose. Mansaf is no exception.

Karak is the historical capital of the Biblical Kingdom of Moab, a hilly empire sliced in two by the precipitous Mujib Valley. The area is verdant in spring, hot in summer, and wet in winter; sheep and goats thrive in Karak. As the inhabitants of this area centuries ago retained a semi-nomadic lifestyle, and as Karak frequently played host to sojourners who sought a pit stop on their long treks through the desert, residents needed a way to keep yogurt from spoiling.

Necessity breeds invention. Invention has bred jameed—the unique and almost indescribable ingredient that has enabled mansaf to thrive and has long allowed Karakis to preserve their abundant yogurt. To make jameed, you must let ordinary yogurt sit and ferment. When ready, the yogurt is slathered between two cheese cloths and pressed pressed pressed between two flat stones. Liquid gone, the yogurt is formed into what looks exactly like a brick of cocaine, and it then sits in the sun for a few days just to get extra hard, extra fermented, and extra pungent.

In its brick form, jameed can be transported long distances without spoiling. You could even build houses with the stuff.  When needed, the bricks are cracked into smaller pieces, the little pebbles then ready for boiling with fresh water. Many Jordanians eat these pebbles straight up, tossing in a handful of the super salty bits—that smell like something dead—in their mouths before each big sip from the teacup. I can confirm that the tea does not wash away the taste.

Once the bits are boiled and dissolved, the now-liquid jameed is ready to be ladled onto the tray of mansaf, which requires a freshly-slaughtered lamb, rice, shrak bread, and a hefty handful of pine nuts. Just as ice cream sundaes are not complete without a cherry on top, the mansaf tray (the word mansaf actually means ‘large tray’) is not complete without the boiled lamb’s head—eyes cooked and glossy, tongue gray and flopped firmly out the side of the mouth.

The taste is salty. It is cheesy. It is fermented. It is heavy. I actually enjoy the taste, though the most challenging part, without doubt, is the delivery from plate to mouth. As I was invited into a Karaki home, I felt obliged to complete the mansaf pilgrimage in proper form—left hand behind the back, right hand lubed up with jameed, ready to scoop up bits of rice and meat and form somewhat intact balls for easy transport into my mouth. The rest of the family made it look easy, juggling the rice into perfect spheres, not spilling a grain on the table.

In this, I failed. Thirty minutes into the mansaf and my arms—both of them—were covered in rice and yogurt. I likely had bits of lamb in my beard, and the tablecloth in my general area was, well, all but ready to be burned. My brother fared no better, as when I first looked over to him he was trying to lick stray rice from his elbow.

We were told of the importance of the head of household removing and eating the lamb brain and tongue. As I finally put my hand down onto the plate (it was about three pounds heavier now, covered in all sorts of mansaf bits), I breathed a deep sigh, preparing myself for the skull-cracking. To my….relief….we were all too tired to eat the brain. And so ended my mansaf pilgrimage, with a serious scrubbing under the faucet and a slight worry that my poor hand-to-mouth form is beyond repair.