Resist Normalization

#WorldRefugeeDay Reflection and Arts Retrospective by founder and CEO of #MeWeIntl Mohsin Mohi Ud Din
#WorldRefugeeDay Reflection and Arts Retrospective by founder and CEO of #MeWeIntl Mohsin Mohi Ud Din

It’s Father’s Day in the United States. Around the world, it also happens to be World Refugee Day. This is a bizarre juxtaposition of days — one celebrating man nurturing and caring and sacrificing for his offspring; and the other — an internationally mandated day to ‘celebrate resilience’ and ensure refugees are not forgotten. I am struggling to write this.

I’m internally wrestling with the absurdity that we are here, yet another year, and the term ‘refugee’ even exists in our language. Think about it. We invented a word in our language and culture to capture our world’s failures to eradicate the injustice, suffering, and inequality of families forced to leave their homes and countries. We had to create a sound and word to symbolize fathers and mothers forced to leave everything they’ve known in order to rebuild and reconfigure their families and their identities in a place where their lives and the lives of their children are not threatened daily.

Language is a funny animal. On the one hand, it carries the energies for liberation, healing, and transformation. And on the other hand, language carries inequality and can be a tool to normalize things that should never be normalized. The word ‘refugee’ should never be normalized. The word ‘war’ should never be normalized. Words are so powerful, but they can also be a powerful tool for masking things that demand transformation. The word ‘resilience’ is such a word. In our community work and across the humanitarian sector, we use this word every day. But this word is now also becoming a mask for normalizing things that should not be accepted.

How many more years are we as a global community going to ‘celebrate the resilience of refugees’, and ‘celebrate the resiliency of oppressed and traumatized people’? Resilience should not mean acceptance. Resilience will risk becoming a hollow word if its use is normalized. Our language and our words are symbols for who we are and what we live by and believe. So what does this term and hashtag of the day, ‘#WorldRefugeeDay’, say about what we accept and believe?

I first met Syrians inside Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan when we were just starting to build #MeWeSyria — a communication skills-building program and community-building methodology using narrative and storytelling interventions to advance mental health and psychosocial support of refugee youth. The Syrian kids whom we were collaborating with were teenagers, 13–18 years old at the time. That was seven years ago. My Syrian friends who were once in their early 20s are today fathers and mothers — raising a new generation inside Zaatari refugee camp. Those kids who were 14 years old almost a decade ago are now young men and women, still inside the refugee camp. Are they resilient? Yes, and then some. They’ve managed to every day — for years and years — grow as caretakers, parents, activists, and students. Is this something to celebrate? For them absolutely. But for us, on the outside, no. The language around ‘refugees’ and ‘resilience’ and ‘war’ has grown to mask acceptance of the circumstances of their injustice and suffering. Our Syrian brothers and sisters and refugees around the world are the living embodiment of the words ‘resilience’, and ‘humanity’. But language and communication are not one-way streets. Words are living things. They live through us. How I give and receive within me shapes the story of my world with you.

Each of us on the outside must carry these words and actually transform them so that ‘refugees’ and ‘resilience’ are no longer masks for normalization and acceptance, but catalyzers for social transformation and behavior change.

I started #MeWeSyria seven years ago with one camera, and 20 or so Syrian friends in Zaatari refugee camp. Because of these youth and activists — what started as a project for one location and one small group of people is now being led by Syrians across two countries and has reached more than 4,000 other refugees across four countries. The Syrian heroes in Zaatari refugee camp are building these spaces for expression and healing, not me or #MeWeIntl. Even during the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic, our Syrian-led teams innovated ways to deliver #MeWeSyria’s programs through WhatsApp and Zoom to more than 1,000 refugees across Turkey and Jordan.

What started as #MeWeSyria in Jordan in 2014 has today inspired spaces for healing and communication for youth and communities in Mexico, Honduras, America, and 12 other countries to mobilize and lead #MeWeMexico, #MeWeHonduras, #MeWeGeorgia, and #MeWeDC. This isn’t supposed to happen. It’s not ‘normal’ for a program led by Syrian refugees in refugee camps in the desert to inspire incarcerated youth across the ocean in Washington D.C. or survivors of violence in Honduras to engage in #MeWeDC and #MeWeHonduras. Syrian refugees innovated #MeWeSyria and its exercises and programs. Today, these same exercises and journeys for healing that been innovated by refugees are being cascaded to detained youth and vulnerable communities across oceans, in different cultures. This defies logic. This defies gravity. But it is happening…every day.

For now, I wanted to leave you a sample retrospective of the productions, voices, and perspectives of the Syrian brothers and sisters in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon who we continue to work with — -after all these years. Some of the stories and productions shared here go back to 2014 and 2016.

The kids you’ll watch in these stories are now young adults, and the young adults at that time are today fathers and mothers. Everything you’ll see below was written, produced, filmed, and led by Syrians from our #MeWeSyrian programs in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon in partnership with our on-the-ground partners DARB, Mobaderoon, Zenoubia, Women’s Support Association, and Questscope.

Our intention for doing this is simple: to not normalize the extraordinary energies, the other-worldly strength, the graceful resistance and light that each father and mother and young Syrian are unleashing every day. Our intention is to not normalize #WorldRefugeeDay.

Syrians and the over 80 million refugees around the world are everyday defying gravity. So too must we.

COVID: Drawn from Experience | 2021

Future to Present | 2016

‘I Am a Refugee’ | 2017 | #MeWeSyria Turkey

‘I Still Believe…’ | 2017 | #MeWeSyria Lebanon

‘Rebuild a World of Colors’ | 2016 | #MeWeSyria Turkey

‘Hope from the Ashes’ | 2015 | #MeWeSyria Jordan

#MeWeSyria Interviews | 2017 | Turkey

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