Personal Narratives

By Puja

I started writing a piece on Aleppo (Which  You  Should Deeply Care About) and really got into the weeds with this entire plot (with some receipts) that Russia is trying to provoke a war with the US, then frantically texted the SIL girls that I have gone full conspiracy nut and does anyone have anything else that we can post today? It was 7am and they were probably asleep (sorry), but the panic – to borrow a phrase from Sneha- “it got me thinking.”

Why? Why do I care whether the readers of this blog know about Syria and Aleppo? What is it about my perspective on this – and to interject (can you interject on yourself???) it is slowly killing me to not give you some bullet points on what is important about Aleppo – that will make a difference to all the reporting hasn’t already? We’ve all seen the pictures.

FINE– There is an estimated 320,000 Syrians dead, many civilians. The closest US City to that population (based on the 2010 census)? St. Louis. The amount of people estimated killed by the genocide over YEARS in Darfur? 300,000+.

Back to why I care, I care because of the survivors. Imagine if you will, attempting to flee  St. Louis (with just your family and maybe some valuables). You leave the city and drive, wait in long lines for gas, food, bathrooms to reach some welcoming relatives in another part of the state. You have PTSD, your kids haven’t been in school (and also have PTSD), your brother is still missing, your co-workers all died, and cousin Clementine is getting mighty anxious every day, so you say OK. I have to get my family to safety, I do not trust the Government isn’t going to start a militarized fascist state. You pack up, gather all your belongings and head to Iowa. Iowa goes “Not here your filthy Missourians! Get out of here, there isn’t room with all our corn, college football, and racism.” OK, lets try Tennessee then. “Oh nope. Nope. We got enough blues here, we don’t have the resources to take on more people. Good luck with it though.” OK but I can help, I wasn’t just planning on sitting around and taking resources, I was and can be a productive member of society. Just give me some time to learn about the ways of this great land of Tenassneeze (sorry that was my accent). “Sorry, I mean we could try, but we won’t. Good Day.” Nebraska and Kansas can’t help because they are preparing for something called a college football showdown and teaching Christian theology in public schools in defiance of separation of church and state.  I just want my kids to be safe. I just want to go back to normal. I am just a person who went to work every day, spent time with my family, and tried to enjoy life. I just want that again. Can anyone take me?  Oh Oklahoma’s Native American leaders said they will open the reservations for us. Let’s go. Wait a minute…what are these conditions? So now you and your family live in a tent on a friendly reservation with other fleeing families and you share a bathroom with 5,000 other people.

What are you going to do? You become a refugee.

There are hundreds of thousands of people around the world attempting to flee persecution and find a new home as a refugee. The screening for refugees is really strict, layers and layers of background checks, you have to relive the horrors you just experienced and be told it may or may not be compelling enough evidence for acceptance. But you have no home, your friends and perhaps a lot of your family are dead. The places you made memories and had dreams in is gone and that isn’t compelling enough evidence that my family and I just want to be safe. Let’s back out of our Missouri example and pointedly talk about racism in America again.

All humans should have a right to safety. But there are real concerns about infrastructure, resources, and acceptance we have to contend with. And to that I am saying, that as every day citizens who do not work with refugees every day we have to trust that people are doing their jobs. For infrastructure and resources…please tell Flint and Corpus Christi about infrastructure and resources too, so that (and do NOT excuse the pun) doesn’t hold water. When a family is granted refugee status and they enter your neighborhood are you going to be the welcome wagon that actually welcomes a family just trying to get back to normalcy? Or are you going to shun them or do nothing as others newly emboldened roll out the ‘go back to where you came from’ wagon? This whole election has taught us that we need to be better than that.

What does any of this have to do with personal narratives? Just this very cynical observation: things like ‘Humans of New York’ and the aftermath of the election have a lot of people saying that personal narratives will play a lot in changing the way people think about and interact with each other, but in my experience that is bullshit. I do not understand why we have this expectation that a personal narrative will solve everything. Oh but more people will hear this one story and if we all just keep telling our stories then everyone will empathize with everyone. That all may be well and dandy, but let me hand you a couple of receipts real quick:

  • Native Americans told personal stories before the Government disenfranchised them
  • African Americans were hosed down in the streets in the 20th century on film for trying to assert equal rights; and I guarantee you that each one had a personal narrative.
  • Muslim Americans have personal stories, but they don’t seem to prevent hate crimes perpetrated against them.

I feel that personal narratives can only go so far before you start getting into (1) tokenism territory. “Oh not all <INSERT MARGINALIZED GROUP NAME HERE> are bad, I have that one friend.” Oh ok so now your one friend has to play representative politics for you? Sigh. And (2) creating an echo chamber. Personal narratives may have an affect, but only if people listen. What happens if the only people listening are the same people over and over?

I get it, we don’t care until it affects us. Perfect example, I knew about strokes and what they were, but until my father had one it was just a thing that happened to people. I am saying that we need to change that form of thinking. We need to start with blanket empathy.  We are talking about fellow human beings, who have hopes, dreams, anxieties and boy drama like we do, and their right to person-hood is equal to yours so get with it. So find something in common. Because there will come a time when people become desensitized to personal narratives and switch them off unless it is something worthy of becoming viral. But think about your mom or your favorite little cousin, if they were fleeing for their lives how would you want them to be greeted or cared for? We owe each other that. I shouldn’t have to tell you my story to prove that I am worthy of your decency. And that is why personal narratives can only go so far. I don’t know what the solution is since the news isn’t really spurring us to action, are personal pleas and narratives far behind in inefficacy? Do we need them all in tandem for them to be effective? Or this there some other way to reach  masses of people that I’m not thinking about?

I understand that in situations like this, us as average citizens may not know what we can do. Well we can donate (there are links in the first sentence); If you can’t donate then maybe help bring awareness to the matter so others can donate; Or find out if there are any organizations in your area collecting ITEMS that may help resettle a refugee family (furniture, clothes, electronics, etc). If you are more action oriented, maybe volunteer to help teach/practice English; OR we have this representative government, if you hear your representative come out in a position about Aleppo or refugees (or hell immigration) that you don’t agree with, let them know. The very least we can do is remember and remind each other: we are all human beings. Human beings are one species. One. Lets bloody act like it.

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