To begin with, could you explain the aims of your project?
Sure, though because the aims of the project are not specific, the answer to this question is more a spiritual or philosophical one. I simply heard about the crisis in Syria and the huge numbers of refugees and thought, "Somebody needs to go be with them."
First of all, presence-with isn't necessarily something that's valued in Western culture, so that right there is a thought that's pretty cutting-edge in the development conversation. The lack of a clear plan and spreadsheet is difficult for bureaucracies in international aid and development to work with. But whatever arises from that "presence with" is something I'm unwilling to try to predict, and this commitment of mine to uncertainty and the "roll-with-it" approach in development work ended up garnering the attention of USAID (who put my essay about uncertainty in development work into 2012's "Frontiers in Development" book) and Hillary Clinton (who supports my project in the book's introduction). I'd like to keep testing the theory because I'd like to offer the development sector more tools to engage respectfully and positively with populations in developing countries and post-conflict zones, and be able to explain not just the principle itself of "we'll see what happens" but tell stories of how that methodology has done in action. I'd like to apply that methodology with Syrian refugees because they're suffering a great deal, and I'd like to raise awareness of their plight as well as perhaps help to alleviate it with the few I may be able to meet in person.
Depending on how things unfold, I'll react to the realities of the environment in Turkey, the factors of which include how much access I'm granted to refugee communities, in ways that align my skill set (writing and the arts, mainly) to the situation. I may write a series of Huffington Post articles about what I see on the ground out there, or I may have the opportunity to connect with refugees and create an arts project with them. At the very least, I can create that much more awareness with my ability to write articles and blog posts; at the most, I can directly impact the lives of these humans who are suffering in positive ways.
Like I said, I simply believe someone should go be with them, and because I've done refugee work beginning with that simple maxim before and met with success in Africa and Asia, I thought that person might as well be me. I don't believe in moral imperatives for anyone else, necessarily, and I wasn't raised with religion. I am agnostic, but I do believe in the sacred nature of bearing witness to the lives and suffering of others. And before the advoacy, before the writing and the going to UN compounds in Ulaanbaatar and Nairobi, there was simply presence with these people. Humans who had lost their homes and undergone unspeakable trauma on an extended basis.
You say you have a five-year track record of successful refugee advocacy in collaboration with the UNHCR in Asia and in Africa, how do you think those experiences with inform your work in Syria?
My experiences of success with refugee advocacy give me confidence in the "roll-with-it" approach that I'd like to offer in Turkey. My informed guess is that I'll be able to do something useful for refugees there, but that I don't know exactly what yet. When I went to Mongolia for a year as a Henry Luce Scholar to serve the Mongolian Writers Union as their International Relations Advisor in 2007, I didn't foresee I would be accompanying an exiled writer from China to the UNHCR to ask why he hadn't received refugee status. It was there to be done, and I could do it, so I did it. Five years later, the writer is safe in Brooklyn, living with his wife and daughter for the first time in almost a decade. Over the course of those years I had successfully nominated him for a Human Rights Watch Grant, told his story at the 2010 Writers and Literary Translators International Congress in Istanbul, given interviews about him for Global Shift, and wrote about him for the Huffington Post. I did what I could do, given my skill set. It went well--and also wasn't something I could have planned beforehand. But I showed up in Mongolia, the way I'll show up in Turkey, and that was the first step.
I also showed up in Kenya in 2011, with the idea that I'd work with refugee girls to do an arts performance for World Refugee Day, but I had no other specifics in mind. I didn't know there would be six of them, that they would be Congolese, that they'd want to do theater, that they'd want me to direct their play, and that they'd want to create an original piece of theater about the gender-based violence they had suffered. The girls taught me a great deal of important things, not the least of which is that human beings tend to know what they need--and Syrian refugees, I imagine, will be no exception. The remedy was within the girls: they knew what they wanted to talk about to recover a bit from their trauma. What I did was facilitate a "safe space" for them in workshop where they could begin to share and address their feelings of shame and fear, then create original art out of that process.
The basis of my work with refugees is not the assumption that I know what they'll need, but that they know what they need. When they let me know, I do what I can to facilitate that happening. The girls in Nairobi have kept the project going, a self-sustaining theater group called the Survival Girls that's two years old now, with triple the original membership and contracts to perform all over the city.
It's extraordinary to me, as a non-international-relations major, a non-political scientist, that this is as unusual as it is in those conversations--but the presumption that we know what people will need remains a strong undercurrent to a lot of "old-school" development sector conversations. I feel it to be very important, as an American, to demonstrate my American-ness as an aid worker by facilitating, rather than leading--by listening, rather than telling people what they need to know or need to do. I'm not going to Turkey to boss refugees around, I'm going to be there with them because I feel that someone should. I've written this elsewhere, but I believe I express the best of the country I love that I call home, America, when I treat silenced and marginalized world citizens like they have a birthright to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Syrians have been denied all three.
It seems like the Syrian conflict will go on for a long time, with refugee numbers in countries bordering Syria continuing to increase. In your experience what challenges do you think these refugee communities will face?
Honestly, I unfortunately think the crush of people in need--severely traumatized people who don't even have consistent food and water--is going to outgrow whatever space alloted to them by host countries. And it's generally true the world over that citizens of host countries often practice negatively prejudiced treatment of immigrants and refugees. The strain on host countries' resources is considerable, and that strain as a root cause of frustration residents feel is therefore understandable, but the fallout is almost always racial and social profiling wherein refugees experience life as second-class citizens. I think most people at this point are of the opinion that this war is going to be a long haul, which means refugee settlements will become de facto residential communities without the sanitation and other amenities "developed" areas offer.
Many of these factors are at work in refugee camps such as Dadaab in Kenya, which, while safer than its surrounding environs, still functions as an open-air prison where some people have spent twenty years. There are hundreds of thousands more residents of Dadaab than were meant to live there when the place was designed. Refugee women who flee Somalia and Congo are almost always the victims of sexual assault in and outside of these camps, and the same kind of certainty is looking to be true among women in Syrian refugee communities. It is on the whole not a sustainable situation and will lead to a great amount of discord within host societies and trauma for the refugees themselves, whose nervous systems won't be able to right themselves as long as their surroundings are unstable or dangerous. Not only will their abilities to function and cope be compromised by the physiological distress of trauma, but some cases, this kind of long-term trauma is suspected to lead to serious mental disorders akin to schizophrenia and host nations often don't have the resources and medical care to deal with these sorts of ailments
The entire situation is extremely grim, as I have heard from Turkish people I am in communication with about pervasive resentment of the Syrian refugees who are already there because of the strain on Turkey's resources, and there promise to be hundreds of thousands--maybe millions--more Syrian refugees there within the next few months and even years.
In your opinion what do you think the long term situation will be for the international community when dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis?
Because of the situation outlined above, I think it will be the existence of long term refugee camps whose citizens don't have basic amenities, enough acceptance and/or citizenship to work legally in host countries, or the assistance they need to recover from trauma to the point that they would even be capable of performing those jobs. We face an unsustainable strain on host nations' resources and a group of people who are too traumatized to function as citizens normally do, and who are also routinely kept from working legally in host countries. We're looking at instability spreading to host nations as a result of the concomitant discord, and the situation in Syria will deteriorate the situations in host nations--not because Assad has run his armies beyond the borders of Syria, but largely because of this unsustainable system in place for the reception, or lack thereof, of refugees.
In my opinion, the long term solution would be a fairly massive overhaul of the attitudes that run our societies on a global scale. The perceptual coin of the realm, nationhood, is a concept we're going to need to question as the combined numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons on the planet moves closer to the 100 million mark. Because today's youth are growing up in such a globally connected world, this might not be as far-fetched as you might think. I think the people who will run our future, the people who are young now, are well aware of the gaping holes in the way governments and societies work: the critical-of-authority faculty is part of being young, for one thing, but most young people, who make up 50% of the world's population, at this point hail from urban areas in the developing world...and so most of them have experienced the negative effects of the silencing and marginalizing that old ideas of nationhood enforce. What makes someone a citizen? What do they need to produce, or prove, to be accepted into a new society? Does everyone deserve the same things; if so, what? The international conversation will probably see a generation of people willing to pursue these lines of interrogation with frankness, rapidity, passion, and an eye for practicability, because with a population of 7 billion, many of operational frameworks that used to work for organizing people simply won't anymore. The refugee "surplus" is just one symptom of that. Human organization is always based on ideas, attitudes, and belief systems--and those ideas are likely to change as a result of an often-impatient youth demographic being the majority in a world where resources aren't allocated evenly.
What do you think of the international response to the Syrian refugee crisis so far?
I'm saddened and terrified by it. There has been a great deal of support--513 million dollars, I think, is what America alone has given--but that is still nowhere near what is needed.
The crux of the issue is this: it's unclear who is responsible for helping people in need if those people are nationless. As an international community we still very much use that concept of nationhood to attribute responsibility for people. Government ostensibly exists to provide for its citizens and meet their human needs, and nationless people are governmentless: they're like the kids left behind after football practice because everyone else's mom and dad came to pick them up already. I think people still think--or old laws still govern--in ways that say 'if it isn't in our back yard, we won't deal with it.' Because the need for resources in refugee communities is staggering, caring for those communities is something of a hot potato. To continue with my imperfect analogies, no one wants to bear the burden of raising a child that isn't theirs when they all already have "their own" children and this adoptive kid will need a lot. In that way what's at issue here really is this elemental human tendency to shut out non-clan members, to prioritize the people we conceive of as in our primary sphere. When the international community begins to act more often according to the notion that all nations are responsible for caring for those displaced by war and famine, we might see some cultural and political sea changes with respect to the issue.
But the international response to a refugee crisis is inextricably linked to the international response to the war or famine that begot it. For example I think America, which is a country I love very much and feel very lucky to be a natural citizen of, loses credibility by drawing lines in the sand as to our involvement and response to war crimes. In a general sense, for me as a fairly young person myself, I'm kind of going, "As a society and an international community, we saw this in 1945; we said 'Never Again'. We saw this in Rwanda; we said 'Never Again'. What are we waiting for?"
But I also know that beyond the basic terms by which we'll either enter the fray or not, things are very, very complicated. Ideas change before the laws reflecting them do, and international intervention is, in the view of human history, still a fairly young practice and the international community continues to work out the implemented procedure of it once it'd decided upon. Even the Geneva convention beginning to address the phenomenon of refugees didn't come along until 1951. And the years since then have dramatically revolutionized many systems, of organizing people, of organizing data, of organizing authority, and laws and policy are slower-moving and always playing catch-up. You yourself are evidence of how the internet and smartphones have affected the world: how an individual citizen who hasn't been trained to be a soldier can still choose to review and analyze youtube footage, and then to supply valuable information on arms tracking inside Syria.
The technological age in which we live has also profoundly affected the centers or "nodes" of moral authority in our societies, which is no small thing when we look at the fact that responses to war and war crimes, international intervention and what it entails, are shaped by morals. Groups like Anonymous and individuals like Snowden are nodes of moral authority because they have the means of acting on moral convictions in ways that affect governments and disrupt societal systems. Their reasons for doing so are based on what they think is right. Our bishops and presidents are not, in other words, the only ones deciding such convictions for us anymore. Now you can, or I can, or a low-level CIA contractor can.
I've long been an ardent fan of Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ronan Farrow, who are both active on Twitter and who have both logged time working for the U.S. State Department at top levels (as special advisor and policy planning director, respectively). I agree with what Dr. Slaughter has been saying for two years, which is that we need to act on Syria to address the war crimes, uphold our values, and maintain any kind of international standing; I also agree with what Mr. Farrow tweeted recently--that there's no clean solution to Syria, and the bedfellows required to try and end this violent mess of a massacre would come back to haunt us. Syria has become a proxy war--which your own work elucidates by virtue of tracing weapons' origins, makes, and models to supplying countries--and as such, the humanity of refugees and casualties is lost because, to a worrying degree, they're not what's at stake to the leaders in big fancy positions in developed countries, because those leaders are using this conflict to arm wrestle with each other. The humanity of people is denied when those people are used as surrogates for what is essentially an ideological conflict between leaders of nations with opposing economic and political frameworks. Perhaps the worst idea of all in this whole thing is that powerful nations are willing to sacrifice untold numbers of people from countries far away in order to prove a point...because when that happens, it's not even a question of what makes someone a citizen anymore. It's what makes someone a person. Proxy wars guarantee dehumanization, and it's horrifying to see the "great" leaders of "great" nations consciously participating in one, especially one as bloody as this.
You can donate to Ming Holden's Kickstarter, In Search of Syrian Refugees & Their Stories, visit her website to read about more of her work, or follow her on Twitter.