Meeting People Who Don’t Have the Luxury of Choice

Read this reflective narrative about refugees in Jordan.

Eric traveled to Jordan to report on the refugees who land there from nearby troubled countries, and to tell stories about how the Jesuits are helping those refugees adjust to life in between the unstable home they’ve left and the new home they want to establish. Meeting these refugees helped him see that these young men and women are just as talented and hopeful as he is. Here, he wrestles with the questions that these encounters surfaced.

My mom slipped the comment in at the tail end of a phone call, seemingly an afterthought: “Well, it’s too bad you’ll have to cancel your trip to Jordan.”

“What?” I asked. A cocktail of stubbornness, anxiety, and determination sloshed in my stomach. “I’m still going.”

“Oh.” There was that parental concern in her voice. I could almost hear the raised eyebrow. To be honest, though, the concern was well-founded, and I shared her worry.

At the time, the United States and Iran were in the middle of a steep escalation in rhetoric and violence. And though I was planning a trip to Jordan — a peaceful, hospitable country — it does border Syria, Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

The geopolitics of the moment screamed at me to stay home. And, as I boarded the plane, it hit me — up to that moment, I could have done just that. It was a poignant moment of privilege to realize that I had the power to say “no” — I could cancel my trip. I could stay where I was, arguably, safe. I could avoid even the hint of potential risk to self and take comfort in my home, my family and my employment.

It was not lost on me that the prevailing purpose of my trip to Jordan was to hear the stories of refugees — people who do not have the luxury of choice.

“In Somalia, there is war,” Hassan said, sitting on the business-end of my camera, his eyes darting between mine and the camera lens. “When I realized that I no longer felt safe in my country, I decided to leave.”

He listed reasons he left — oppression, insecurity, violence. Though he was calm as he spoke, I know his memory attaches painful and terrifying experiences to each of those words. He sat upright, determined to share with me his story. Like the 20 other refugees I interviewed, Hassan knew his story was important for me to hear — and important for me to share.

Atop one of the many hills in Amman, Jordan sits the Jesuit Center, a community managed by the North American Jesuits, my hosts. The Jesuits here serve, among others, a growing number of refugees like Hassan. These are people — many of them young adults — who have fled violence in their home countries: Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Iraq, to name a few.

And while the many initiatives of the Jesuit Center — affordable housing, English and French language courses, dance classes — rightly stir hope in a visitor like me, I couldn’t help also feeling a constant sense of gnawing frustration.

Because while it is good and important and praiseworthy that these people have homes and an opportunity to advance their education, at best these are band-aids, stopgaps, bridges to a city across a river that has yet to be built. No amount of education can peel away the label refugee.

“Since I graduated from university, I’ve tried hundreds of times to get access to some kind of employment,” Hassan explained. He knows he’s talented: “I have language skills and a degree,” he said. “But I can’t find work. It’s not because of my talent. It’s because of my status as a refugee.”

I learned that many things come with such a label, even in a country as welcoming as Jordan. You cannot work — at least not legally — unless you are a citizen. That means you can’t provide for your family; you can’t save for your future. You can continue your education, but what for? What opportunities does that education provide, if meaningful employment is just out of reach? You are looked down upon in the streets, particularly if you are a refugee from an African country, where the color of your skin may betray your status.

And of course, most of all, you are stuck. You are stuck quite literally in a country that is not your own, that in many ways makes you feel unwanted. And you are unable to travel to a country where you might ultimately put down some roots, build up a future.

That means you are stuck in ways that go beyond geography. Your life is unable to move forward. Everything is on hold, waiting. Will you get resettled? When? Where?

Hassan’s story frustrates me. Because he really is a talented, motivated young person with dreams for the future. “Since I couldn’t find work, I decided to give all of my time to my community,” he told me. That means helping other Somali refugees navigate Jordanian life, teaching English, and helping at the Jesuit Center.

But it’s not enough; nothing ever seems to be enough. And that constant rejection eats away at a person’s confidence and resilience. “Sometimes I ask myself if I am a normal human. All of these years learning and doing, my English skills, my degree, my community service — and my status as a refugee still blocks me from achieving my dreams.”

It is heartbreaking to hear his story because I have no answer. And Hassan’s story is not unique. There is such talent going to waste when we take from people even their opportunities to hope.

And while I am able to debate whether or not to travel — be it due to geopolitical crises or devastating global pandemics — there are many people without my privilege who do not have the choice, who are forced to flee or forced to stay with no other options left for them.

Read, watch, and listen to more of the stories Eric encountered here.

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