Dr. Marc Gopin
CONF 695: Approaches to Conflict Management & Resolution: Field Work with Syrian Refugees
27 March 2016
Journal Response One
While in Jordan, I kept a journal where I reflected on our daily activities, our readings, and ideas and experiences I was gaining through lecture and our interactions with Syrian refugees. This was a very introspective class, because we also had time to process in debriefs each day, as well as long bus rides. I found myself pondering and grasping the human impact of the civil war in Syria: the hardship, incredible resilience, and the need for reassurance that they are not abandoned.
In our readings, I read about some families’ response to the uncertainty brought on by civil war was to marry their teenage girls to older men. This practice creates more stability or certainty for the family because their daughter becomes the responsibility of someone else, and she is also slightly more protected culturally as a married woman than as a single woman. While at Amal ou Salam on our second trip, I had a long conversation with one of the eight year old girls, Tabarek, about her life now. She said her sister had her second baby. I was curious and asked how old her sister was. “Seventeen,” was her reply. Her sister was married three years previously when she was just fourteen years of age and had already had her second child. I asked if she lived near her family and was happy the answer was yes.
I thought about the realities this practice creates. These children are growing up with so much instability and uncertainty. They need legal status, citizenship, their families need to be able to provide for them, and they need a viable future or belief in a viable future. Our speaker from the Jordanian legal office tries very hard to ensure all children receive a birth certificate when they are born rather than having to track down documentation later. These new children need not only the family support they are born into, but also citizenship. Their older cohorts are growing up, many in and out of school, and some in school. Luckily, in Jordan, Tabarek’s niece and nephew will be able to enter the state school system. However, most refugees are not allowed to work and the strain on them financially and on the economies they are living in seems very great.
Despite all these difficulties and challenges, the children we visited were bright, happy, and resilient. It was heartening to realize that the human toll is staggering, but there is still hope and these kids believe in it. They experience sadness and longing for home and for a better life, as we saw in the play and songs presented to us in Irbid. However, these children also represent the best qualities in handling this conflict with hope and engagement.
Handling this conflict with hope and engagement also hit home for me when we visited the women’s center in the refugee camp near Amman. Hind was so energetic and felt it was so important to be with these women and to let them know they were not alone. She conducted a group meditation where the women were physically, verbally, and emotionally surrounded and supported by each other and we, the students, and all whom we represent to them. I asked her about this afterwards, not quite understanding why she was so intent on the importance of this exercise. She made it clear that it is just as important to deal with how these women feel as it is to deal with their physical needs and safety. They could easily feel abandoned, alone, depressed, and defeated. Their will to move forward, to act with resilience, would be weakened or compromised if that were the case. These are human beings, not numbers in a camp. It is just as important to care for their emotions as it is for their physical requirements. It is not easy to explain in words what those simple, uplifting acts did, but it was not hard to feel how connected, how grateful, empowered, and strengthened the women felt. That strength helps them get through these difficult times. It is a worthwhile piece of this community center’s intervention in this conflict.
This experience reminded me of To Make the Earth Whole and a piece written for the Huffington Post by Dr. Marc Gopin called, “Crowds and Revolutions vs the Bonds that Endure.” Both emphasize empathy. In the latter, Dr. Gopin summarized key elements in lasting social change are legal bonds that protect human rights and emotional bonds. Equality and empathy: these two are the principles that help bridge divides and can strengthen or mend societies. My purpose in signing up for this class was to gain a more experiential learning experience that would better help me understand the people in this conflict and what they face. In To Make the Earth Whole, a principle idea for creating lasting peace in our global community is citizen diplomacy and friendship. Though holding hands with Hind and the women of the community center was a small act, it was a significant act for these women and for us. It helped us become more unified and have an opportunity to build greater empathy and friendship. We were able to support and feel why it is so important these women feel that support. Having those experiences and learning the importance of continuing to create those experiences is at the heart of social change and lasting peace building. That is a valuable lesson to carry into all relationships and interactions, equality and empathy.
I was happy to be with the women in this center, in part because I was curious how the conflict looks for different people. I know the experience of the conflict is different for every person depending on their perspective. The kids felt the most resilient in general, but I was curious how their parents coped with the challenges of poverty, uncertainty, death, and destruction of country. While I thought about this, I realized what impact your perception or narrative has on your personal experience with conflict. The kids have a different set of meanings attached to the conflict and so also different problems. It’s the same with the women, men and other groups of people. It intrigued me that the meaning you take from something, your perception, can create a problem and if you change what something means to you, the problem changes too. That’s a big part of resilience. Your narrative, perception, meaning, how you look at things, influences how you interact with your world. You may have the same stimulus as another, but if the meaning you draw from that is different, you really have a different experience and are maybe more resilient. These kids had bright outlooks and their situation was better for it. However, they could also have a more dismal outlook on the exact same situation and their life would contain more suffering. So building resilience is building and strengthening human beings and that’s what the psycho social approach invests in.
Hand in hand with narrative and building more resilient outlooks is the idea of positive psychology. Emphasizing the success stories, studying those, focusing on the positive, sounds cliché and maybe unfeeling, but it is a powerful practice. The play we saw was labeled a comedy, but I’m sure the events described were far from it in most people’s perceptions. Sousou said it cut her to the core, because she personally knew someone in each of those characters’ situations. However, these actors were spinning their stories in a humorous light, possibly in an effort to better cope with their situation. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised in the readings by a news article that reported the positive aspects of a refugee camp. The New York Times article, “How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp,” detailed a smoothly running camp in southern Turkey. Crime is low, people have adequate housing, running water in each dwelling, and good administration. Though refugees can’t hold jobs and boredom is rampant throughout the camp, there are some volunteer jobs refugees can work in the laundry or other facilities, to help the camp run more smoothly. Focusing on the positive and learning from it is not only important for refugees, but for everyone. If we as third parties in the conflict become fatigued or de-sensitized to the conditions of the conflict in Syria, we are less prone to engage, act, and think. This conflict would turn into one of the many conflicts in Africa or other places where terrible civil wars persist or the effects of them are still sharp, but there is no international attention because the world is too fatigued by caring or have simply come to just expect it in that part of the world. Positive psychology and perception are important for refugees and third parties alike.
Finally, in our last debrief with Hind Kabawat, I asked her, “Hind, you choose to spend a lot of time with us. What would you hope we would do as a result?” She is one of several dozen leaders representing parties inside of Syria and represents Civil Society specifically in Geneva at the High Negotiation Committee trying to broker a political solution to the civil war in Syria. What I appreciated most about how she worked was that her first priority was people and making sure they felt loved. Everything else came after that and I observed that things went better because people genuinely felt she cared. She is also an expert at working with different people in order to meet an end goal. She responded that she first of all spends the time with use because she enjoys it and enjoys us (expressing care and love) and then she also would want to see us in 10-20 years in leadership positions, political positions where we’re making a positive difference in the world. She wants to see us in those positions and see us humble in those high offices. She said, “don’t lose heart and don’t lose feeling for the people, but be humble and be a leader.” I hope we all contribute courageously and humbly in ways that will benefit people like these Syrians we got to meet.