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.


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

  1. Thank you, Mike! That was very inspiring and helpful. Thanks for your great work! Jody

    On Sat, Oct 29, 2016 at 4:23 PM, Mike Niconchuk wrote:

    > Mike posted: “**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** > Transcript: I hope to not bore you this morning. I could happi” >

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