Sunday, February 21, 2010

Published Pieces

Check out the following links to read published pieces from my experience in Malawi's refugee camp!

The New Wine Press

The University of Manitoba - WISE Magazine

Posting long overdue

December 19, 2009 (again, February 21st 2010)

I delayed posting this entry because I have been searching for the right words to close my experience in Dzaleka. I hope this entry can help to better put my experience into perspective for many of you that have been following my writing. Let me also take this opportunity to thank you for following my experience and offering your comments. Many of you felt as though you were able to feel the experience as I was going through it but likewise for me, it felt as though others were with me every step of the way and that support is something I truly appreciated.


Thursday, December 2nd, 2009

The vehicle pulled up to beside JRS and everyone unloaded from the car. Before getting out I asked if I could have a few minutes with the SRP class before it began. This was the last time I would see them--at least until they find their way to Canada for post-secondary studies.

The students sat as astutely as I remember they had in the past. I asked for their attention and stood at the board writing my email address and contact phone number as a way to buy myself time to choke back the tears that were swelling. I told them I had to go, that there was a sudden change in the program, that I wasn’t aware the change would happen this way and that I’d only have a day to say goodbye. Holding back tears and stopping between sentences I avoided looking into their eyes as I knew I couldn’t possibly make it through if I had a moment to see who I’d be leaving behind. With a break in my voice I told them I’d be around camp for the day. I wished them luck encouraging them to complete their exams successfully and before I could crumble in front of them I quickly grabbed my things and walked out.

My next stop: delivering a Swahili dictionary to a primary school teacher...I never did get the chance to look through it. Still on JRS grounds, I encountered a couple women sitting under the shade. They extended their arms, greeted me with smiling faces in Chichewa and shook my hand with pleasure. I crouched beside them and listened to them speak without understanding their words. I suppose I can’t always have an interpreter with me but in this case I was glad. I was glad for the lack of words I could provide because I really couldn’t offer any that would be of comfort to them or myself. How do you tell someone you’re leaving when you know they’ll likely never get the chance to leave themselves? I spoke simply and said, “Me, Canada, plane. No more Dzaleka.” I don’t know how but they understood.

The look on their faces was the same look I’d end up seeing from many others during that last day at camp-- a look that transforms from pleasure upon greeting to let down and regret. They couldn’t understand why so soon and like them I also didn't understand. Usually people walk away from things they no longer need in life, things they no longer have interest for in their hearts. For me, this is what I wanted yet somehow I had to leave it behind. I suppose it’s fitting for the work I’m doing: refugees have been forced to flee their homes by no will of their own and like them, I am otherwise being forced to leave--the contract is up and my visa will expire in three days time.

We walked through the camp together stopping to chat with people I knew, people who hadn’t yet heard the news. Again and again the drop in people’s faces told me they couldn’t understand why I had to leave. The suddenness of it all hit harder as people had to digest the initial shock and then the understanding that we would not meet again after we departed. Exchanges of email and photographs was the only way to ignore the finality that weighed heavy in silences.

At the end of it all I left my belongings with Peter and walked to the Teacher Training course to have some last words. Dalisto closed up by honoring me with these words: I was leaving behind a legacy and the success of the program had a lot to do with my contributions from start to finish. I said one final goodbye to my students and wished them well in their studies. They believe I have not only helped with their learning but with their capacity to trust others in the camp. I offered another apology but found solace in their final words: "most of us you were interacting with remember or will remember you as someone with whom we could exchange your way of humbling yourself we had been always comfortable comparing to others who preceded . i am not vaunting you but i am telling you who really you were for us .if you hear from anyone else it will be the same." - student's written word.


The impact continues to feel the same even though it's been some time now that I haven't been with these people. I know I can't and wont ever want to forget them, they have touched my life in a way I will forever be grateful. They have taught me the finiteness of life, of what it truly means to be free and to have physical security in what I do and say. To them, I am my own free agent able to direct my life path and experience the successes and failures in my attempt to accomplish what I decide to pursue. The difference between myself and them is that I have the ability to chose.

Freedom as choice. Amartya Sen defines the good life in this way and in this context I have to agree with his claim. Refugees aren't given the choice on how to live but rather are defaulted to live with only that which is provided to them. Many will argue that what's provided is next to nothing but a place to rest their head and even that leaves many with a sense of insecurity.

To finalize the experience many refugees feel is their reality, life is nothing but an encampment, a shield of invisible bars restricting free movement and the ability to work to make something of oneself. It is nothing but a place where many educated people lose their sense of dignity and hope and often their minds. It is a place where you fight for your place in line for water and wait your turn to receive a food ration that will never be enough. It is a place where many struggle not only with disease but with the challenge of accessing proper health care to treat their illnesses. It is the ultimate test of patience because each day is simply another day that flows into the next and if one is strong enough with patience and faith he can find some sense of normalcy in a place which is everything but normal. It is a place where most people live and die as the last hope for resettlement is one which can be fulfilled only by the selected few. As a friend of mine always used to say, this is the life.