Planet Duke: Stories of Displacement

Students gather oral histories of Syrian refugees
April 28, 2014

Nour has fair skin and gray-blue eyes, accentuated by her ocean-colored hijab and dress. She tells us how in love she is with her husband, how he waited three years until she was old enough to marry him. She speaks of her son as the only bright spot in her life here in Jordan, the only happy moment. She details the horrors of her father-in-law’s public murder in Syria and even shows us pictures of his flowery burial on her cell phone. A lot more has happened in her eighteen years than in my own.   —Sasha Zients

With the help of a translator, freshman Sasha Zients sat on the floor listening to the life story of Nour, a Syrian refugee. Zients was one of six students examining the impact of forced displacement on the mental health of refugees in Jordan this past spring. From their fieldwork sites at makeshift camps in the Jordan Valley, they could hear the faint thud of bombs just across the border in Syria. Situated on a fortress of Jordanian cliffs, Zients wrote that her “level of security is not compromised. yet the proximity [to danger] is no less haunting.”

The group spent a month interviewing refugees about the most significant events in their lives—along with their perspectives on religion, values, family, and community—delving into “what’s meaningful to them and why,” says Suzanne Shanahan, associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics (KIE) and an associate research professor in sociology. The interviews were part of vulnerability assessments conducted in partnership with health workers from the Jordan Health Aid Society.

Politically stable itself, Jordan has received more than 2 million Syrian refugees. That number is expected to reach 6.5 million by the end of 2014, according to the UN Refugee Agency. For those displaced by violence, “the act of leaving one’s home can be equally as traumatic as one’s direct experiences in the war,” observes junior Nali Gillespie. For certain refugees, it is the second or even third time they have fled.

In addition to large numbers of Syrians, Jordan also is providing asylum to 500,000 Iraqis and 2 million Palestinians. The massive influx of foreigners has placed strains on Jordan’s health-care, education, and economic infrastructures. “This experience has challenged me to re-evaluate my understanding of ‘conflict.’ While I can intellectually understand the numbers, they were still abstract until I saw and heard what many people have been through,” reflects junior Tra Tran.

The research project is a continuation of DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted, a semester-long research initiative sponsored by KIE and the Office of Undergraduate Education. With the information they gathered in Jordan, Shanahan and her team will compare results gathered from three refugee groups: Syrian, Iraqi, and Bhutanese. The Duke researchers are interested in how factors such as race, class, education, and language affect mental health and the likelihood of successful resettlement.