First-Person: The Refugee Story Isn't Just a Tragedy

When we fixate on that, the scope of the crisis, and the resilience of the people, is lost
December 14, 2015

As the daughter of Arab immigrants, I’ve often grappled with what home is. Born in the U.S., I spent the first few years of my life between Egypt and Mississippi as my parents were trying to discover the balance between heritage and opportunity. Dad learned to downplay his heavy Egyptian accent while mom struggled to make the hijab a familiar artifact to a predominantly conservative-Christian town. Their language, their foods, the expression of their faith—these are elements that have constantly been in flux for them.

But I was accustomed to a transnational, transcultural life—winter, spring, fall here, summers in Egypt—and my experiences with migration shaped the way I understood this world: Some of us live betwixt and between like this. It wasn’t until I came to Duke and began studying refugee populations that I understood my story as one of voluntary migration and that there was this very different experience of forced migration.

My migration gave me a malleable identity that helps me build connections with people who look nothing like me. In working with refugees, particularly students my age, I’ve seen how their migrations stripped them of their identity and forced them to create new lives of meaning in communities that did not nurture connections.

In other words: One passage is safe, the other is not.

This fall I was reminded again of this stark distinction. I was at work, eating lunch at my desk and skimming the news, when I saw the photo of the three-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi: His clothes were heavy with the salty Mediterranean waters. His skin was slightly exposed, and its color seemed to have escaped to the redness of his shirt. Still wearing his shoes, he’d washed up on a Turkish beach. He was face down, but he was not faceless.

By one o’clock, the photo was trending on Twitter, Facebook, and every news agency I follow. By the time I got home, everyone was talking about it, from friends in Mississippi to the world’s most powerful governments.

I couldn’t put the image out of my mind either. It was crushing. But there was something else, something unsettling in the way Aylan’s death caught people unawares. Families like Aylan’s have been fleeing their homelands for years, and apparently few people understood the horror of this. The tragedy galvanized Western sentiment—which was long overdue—but I couldn’t help wondering why other refugee stories I encountered, as a student and researcher, did not. If this photo was symbolic of the greater migrant crisis this world is experiencing, why was the discussion so narrowly focused on one country?

That night, I went home and searched online, looking for some articulation on this tragedy. Khalid, one of the student refugees I met in Cairo during a Duke research grant experience, had posted his thoughts on Facebook:

“I feel sorry for [Aylan], but he’s in a better place now. I don’t care about this story just because he’s Syrian. I care about this story because we’ve seen this in my country, too. But our children back home can’t even make it to the waters,” he wrote. “Many are dying just because of the smells and gases coming off the streets! But no one ever talks about us.”

Khalid was a student in my English and photography classes three years ago at a refugee organization in Egypt. He was one of many unaccompanied teenagers who escaped home— in his case, Sudan—in the hope of securing a better life elsewhere. Other students came from Eritrea, Iraq, Palestine, Central African Republic, Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan. After nearly every sentence I spoke, five students eagerly translated the lesson to the others. These students, just like ones at Duke, were inspired and energized by educational opportunities, which explains why they endured the tedious translation process in my class. They were determined to resettle in the U.S. and someday bring their families over.

Khalid was only a couple of years older than me, but his life experiences far surpassed mine. When he was not learning English, he volunteered at the organization I worked for and earned his living as a manual laborer at an automotive factory, teaching himself the trade because he loved fixing things. Working in Egypt is illegal for refugees, so Khalid had to find a private employer, which paid him half of what he could make as a native citizen. Like so many of my thirty to forty students, he never missed class or work. They were all my age, and they were making a life in a new country without the support even of their parents. But I came to see that wasn’t exactly true: My students came to Egypt because their parents envisioned a better future for them, alone as a refugee rather than with them in a country awash in violence.

It’s what the Somali-born poet Warsan Shire describes so brutally in “Home,” her poem about the refugee experience: “No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark.” That was Aylan’s story, too. But it’s not the whole story.

As a teacher and researcher, I was often so focused on what refugees went through to escape their homelands that I couldn’t see or understand their unwavering resilience or the outcomes of their determination. Focusing too much on their past shrouds what so many are working on: their futures. Aylan’s picture may be the thing we needed to wake up to the crisis, but fixating only on horrific stories can hide the global elements of the crisis and the full measure of the people involved.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, we see what happens when the public and politicians don’t understand this, and think of refugees only as an unknowable mass of people clambering to get in, and not as individuals with humanity and potential. Islamophobia bubbles up. Strangers are viewed as enemies. When we don’t fully understand why people are migrating and see what good they can bring to their new communities, then fear and prejudice take hold.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there are about 19 million refugees worldwide, and more than half are younger than eighteen. Globally, one in every 122 individuals is a displaced person. And only 2 percent of the refugees who are waiting for permanent resettlement in transit countries like Egypt and Turkey will ever find it. That is why they risk the crowded boats with inexperienced drivers, or the poorly ventilated buses, which have killed refugees in Austria and Hungary, hoping for a home in Europe.

The ones who make it to safety in the U.S. must pass through a rigorous vetting process—countless background checks, interviews, and investigations. North Carolina, the tenth-largest acceptor of refugees in the U.S., has absorbed refugees from Bhutan, Burma/Myanmar, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan. I got to know many of these families in Durham. The Kenan Institute connects them with local resources, and working with the men, women, and children of all ages, led me to cofound an organization, Supporting Women’s Action (SuWA). While most men find jobs and meet members of the community, women stay at home with children, often lingering in their memories of the past. SuWA started three years ago with six Iraqi refugee women and now has more than forty women from Iraq, Sudan, Central Republic of Africa, and Syria.

From Khalid to SuWA, I have witnessed the inspiring effects of a fresh start. Khalid is now studying to be a mechanical engineer in the U.S., and so many women in SuWA have fulltime careers. But new anti-refugee sentiments have left many Americans questioning refugees’ place in the American landscape. The day after the attacks in Paris, I was on Facebook trying to explain to friends in Mississippi, who had heard remarks from the governor of Louisiana, why we shouldn’t equate refugees with terrorists. I told them I fear that we’re turning our backs on some of the world’s most vulnerable people. I want to believe that facts and my personal experiences can counter the misinformation circulating among people I know, but some days I’m not sure that’s enough. The stance so many political leaders have taken has revealed the depth and pervasiveness of our misunderstanding of refugees.

I have fears and questions, too, though very different ones: Are people really afraid the refugees are terrorists, or is the real issue a more general fear of migrants from Arab countries? If so, that’s part of my identity, and their words feel like an attack on me and my family, too. I’ve taken a break from social media until I have a better understanding of my own melting pot of emotions.

We should be able to agree on these few things, at least: Refugees did not choose to be refugees—they are, in fact, the primary victims of terrorism. And they are first and foremost people with families, skills, goodwill, and determination. I am reminded of Noor, a single mother in Egypt who is in the middle of the resettlement process, who told me, “I am not old in your country—I will make it, and I will give my children the lives they deserve.”

El-Sadek ’15 is a research analyst at the Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience at RTI International and cofounder in 2013 of SuWA at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics.