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My Hidden Misconceptions About Refugees

As the U.S.-raised daughter of Syrian immigrants, Dunya Habash thought she knew about refugees. But a trip to Jordan’s Zaatari camp challenged the false impressions she had prior to arrival, and reinforced the importance of context in order to tell complete stories.

Written by Dunya Habash Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian border with Syria is among the largest refugee camps in the world. Alvaro Fuente/NurPhoto

Everyone told me I was crazy for planning a visit to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. No one thought I would actually go to a place where rape and crime were daily occurrences.

Fathers in the camp were selling their daughters, some as young as 11, into marriages with strangers from Saudi Arabia to make a few bucks. Others married off their daughters to neighbors in the camp to protect them from the shame of potential rape. Sometimes these marriages created teenage mothers. Any option was better than rape, which apparently was a real problem in Zaatari at the time.

This was the narrative – in its crudest form – that I received about Zaatari before arriving in the summer of 2014.

As the daughter of Syrian immigrants to the United States, I grew up with a close connection to Syria. When the conflict erupted there in the spring of 2011, I was a teenager in high school, removed both physically and emotionally from the trauma in the place I had come to know as my second home.

By the time I got to college, after years of stories and images about the escalation of violence and death in Syria and the drive to escape from them, I felt I needed to do something to connect myself to the struggle of my fellow Syrians. Therefore I decided to visit Zaatari and film a short documentary about the camp.

As soon as I made this decision, I began to learn more of the widely held and ugly narrative about Zaatari. There were other problems besides rape and crime. The Zaatari refugees were also wild and unruly. They rejected food handouts and rarely followed orders. They – like most refugees – were lazy and had only cultivated one skill in exile: complaining.

By the time I boarded my flight to Jordan, I felt like I was making my way to a human jungle in the middle of the desert.

News and social media did not help calm my fears. Every article I found about Zaatari discussed crime and rape. Some were stories of young girls being forced into marriage. One video I came across featured an older woman in Zaatari discussing the difficulty for women and girls in the camp; she admitted, as tears rolled down her face, that marrying young was the only option left for Syrian girls in the camp.

I also found a short documentary in which a filmmaker makes his way through Zaatari, stopping to speak with families along the way. The film highlights the camp’s dismal conditions, as well as the fatigue and weariness experienced by the refugees, which unfortunately reinforced the image of the lazy and idle refugee.

I wanted to see it for myself, to verify my sources, to speak face-to-face with the refugees in their own language. I confess that what I witnessed in Zaatari did not completely negate the crude narrative I had internalized upon arrival. On my first day in the camp, I met a 14-year-old mother who had given birth to her first child just a few days earlier. But hearing Amira’s story provided humanizing context that was crucial: Fathers were not selling their daughters to strangers for money, but instead were opening the way for their daughters’ freedom and comfort. They wanted their daughters to have options, to live a life outside the confines of a refugee camp in the middle of the desert, if possible.

In Amira’s case, she chose to marry her neighbor’s teenage son rather than live with her grandmother, considering both of her parents had been killed in the war. She was alone and destitute. She thought about her future and made the decision on her own. Regardless of how right or wrong the decision was, it was still her decision because it was her story. Rather than blame the elders for forcing their daughters into marriage, let’s remember and understand the conditions that facilitated such a response in the first place. What would you do if you had watched your parents die before your eyes and suddenly found yourself alone in a refugee camp?

My second day in Zaatari was a bit more uplifting. I met Oum Rasheed, a refugee volunteer who told me stories about her final years in Syria. She described to me how a barrel bomb fell from the sky, crashed into the top floor of her building and exploded while she was running with her neighbors down into the basement. After losing her son to a separate barrel bomb, she swore to herself that she would do what she could to help victims survive by organizing local transportation to hospitals and housing patients in her home while their wounds healed.

After moving to Zaatari, she became one of the organizers for the protests against handouts, explaining to me that “we were tired of chicken and rice; we just wanted to cook our own vegetables again, to make our traditional Syrian meals.” Given this context, of course Zaatari refugees would protest against food handouts. After enduring so much, they would do anything that delivered some normalcy.

The more people I spoke with and stories I heard, the more I began to feel ashamed of the misconceptions I had carried with me about Zaatari. When I got there, I realized that I held deep but concealed ideas about what refugees should look like, how they should dress, how they should eat and how they should behave. These hidden misconceptions, I later came to understand, had developed because there was always a missing element in the articles and videos I consumed about the refugees before visiting the camp: the individual stories of the refugees themselves, the background, the context.

In Zaatari, I realized that each refugee carries with her a personal narrative, along with fears, traumas, desires and dreams. But these personal stories almost never make it into the news we consume about refugees, at least not in their entirety. It is hard to connect with another human being when you only receive snippets of her life.

At the same time, not having access to these narratives makes it difficult for readers to see things from the other side. Without the narratives, we forget about the conditions that have led to the outcomes we’re reading about. Without the complete narrative, Amira’s marriage casts her as a victim of human corruption rather than a teenager responding to a gruesome experience of war and loss – an experience no child should ever have to endure. Oum Rasheed’s struggle to regain a sense of normalcy while living in a refugee camp becomes a protest against law and order, a complaint rather than achievement.

In retrospect, it seems amusing that I had to travel all the way to Zaatari to learn such a simple lesson about how and why we stereotype refugees. But the journey made the lesson all the more powerful and visceral. Maybe we are the lazy ones if we are not willing to get up and walk to the other side of things to gain a new perspective.

Maybe we are the unreasonable ones for drawing quick conclusions rather than seeking to understand. Maybe we are the troublemakers for perpetuating incriminating assumptions rather than investigating causes. Maybe we just need to be there on the ground. Maybe we just need to listen more deeply.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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