“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
I had the privelege to reconcile the opportunities to attend Professor Palumbo-Liu's Human Rights Class and to visit Greece in order to assist a refugee relief organization this summer.
To experience human rights on paper - that is, to hear about it in a literature-oriented classroom setting - and to see it in person are two very different things. I would argue, however, that my Professor is certainly correct in his stance that literature is a holistic way to encompass the complexity of human rights. To be in the port side camp, to hear the stories of refugees, and to spend time with them is to understand that there is no single story. I braided the hair of a Muslim Afghani woman and commiserated with her about the death of her hamster as a result of heat stroke one day. The next, I spoke with an Iranian Christian who was living in a safe house because she and her family had been threatened by Afghanis in the camp. To know these people is to know many stories.
One girl, obsessed with Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, spoke glowingly of America, how she and her family dreamed of one day living in Southern California. She proudly shared her expanisive knowledge of New York and the West Coast in carefully pronounced but lilting English, a language which she said she was deeply in love with. A woman named Fatima came from Iran - a practicing gynocologist. Needless to say, she was homesick for her city. She described a luxuriant, wonderful life in a place that she was convinced was the most beautiful in the world. She was well versed in American news and culture, and asked me what I knew of Iran. Embarrassed, I could only say nothing. In that moment, I was aware of my ignorance as a byproduct of the bubble I live in. To be raised as I am is to often only know of a single story or, if you know multiple, to not know enough.
From the outside looking in, the refugee crisis is sad. Some may feel convicted enough to call it a tragedy - I am now among them. We call it sad but are not moved enough to welcome them with open arms, or at least our leaders are not. Some other country, we say. They are Europe's problem. We are too far across the ocean, too removed by culture and space, to be able to help. And yet, the borders between Greece and freedom are closed. In this Human Rights and World Literature class, I have heard of stateless people. How sad. To think of Australia's indigenous, America's natives, how sad... Only on this trip have I looked into their eyes, have I seen the reality of people with a place to sleep but no home, basic provisions but no hope. I look into their eyes and touch their hands and comfort their babies, and I see abandoned people.
I held a baby one day, one that I had never seen at the center before. I would guess him to be at about 6 months of age, just a few months shy of my baby cousin's. The difference, though, is one that I can't forget. He could not hold his head up. His mother, with a nod of affirmation to confirm that I would gladly watch him, had gone to the showers. I attempted to prop him up with pillows in the high chair, but his head lolled back and forth, his eyes hardly focused. He teethed on the corner of a table, could not grasp the teething rings that I placed in his hands. Any attempts to speak to him, to flutter my fingers or capture his attention, were futile: he spent the hour or so of my time with him gazing dazedly out the window, or at the wall, or at the floor. There was nothing wrong with him, and yet there was, his motor skills miles behind where they should have been, simply because he had been born in a desolate asphalt paved camp.
The condition of the camp is not one that I am exaggerating. I saw it myself, in blistering triple digit heat. Grafitti covered the walls of the abandoned airport. A little boy urinated at the base of a lamp post. Women with babies reclined languidly in a small patch of shade, and the overwhelming smell of urine and feces hit me as soon as I came off of the street. Fabric hung off of lines above the tents hardly moved in the breeze, and children ran barefoot across the blacktop, kicking a worn soccerball. I only passed through - my work that day was to help at the distribution center, but when faced with that... As we made our way up to the storage facility, some women lifted their faces to us and greeted us in Farsi: Salam. I cannot fathom greeting a stranger after leaving my home for a life of squalor, a life aired out in unbearable heat. And yet, I was told "salam" five times on my way through that camp.
I returned the day before yesterday from Greece. My mind is still there, troubledly turning over the people and places and things that I've seen. I spritz No. 5 Chanel on myself before I go to bed, but there is still the woman I gave a bottle of sunscreen to, one who could not afford it at 10 euros. The young sisters whose hair I combed out after the showers are still at the camp, wearing the bracelets I made them. The toddler in the olive green shirt who ran to hug me upon first sight is still there. I am back at Stanford in my Human Rights class learning about Waiting for the Barbarians and The Hungry Tide, hearing about stateless people, but unable to focus because I am unable to stop hearing the stories of the ones that I met. I am unsettled because, in this merging of experience, the union of study and seeing, the reality of what I am learning comes alive. I hope that it never dulls or dims. I hope that, for the rest of my education, the things that I am taught continue to come to life in unmistakable vibrancy before my eyes. Why else would hearing stories matter, if not to truly experience them?