Two weeks ago, the Pulitzer Center asked me to speak briefly at the National Press Club for their student fellows on why crisis journalism is meaningful, albeit difficult. "Make it personal," they said. They didn't know that I'd been wrestling with this question for months, trying to face the mental health impact of engaging with trauma and suffering nonstop without losing a sense of purpose and grounding. I'm thankful because articulating all this helped me to figure out why it's worthwhile to keep going and to keep our eyes open.
Here's the video of a panel I was on at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs last week, co-sponsored with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Watch it for my 25 minutes of speed talking about religion and refugees in Germany, and how a better way to frame the narrative around displacement and integration might be to move away from "Is Islam incompatible with the West?" and to ask instead, "When people come to our Western countries, are they afforded the same agency over their religious beliefs and practices as we are?"
Also check out the excellent work of my colleagues Robin and Ben, who likewise received support from the Pulitzer Center and used it on fascinating, important reporting re: Syrian integration in the U.S. vs Canada and human trafficking/smuggling routes across the Sahel in Africa. As always, it's an honor and encouragement to be with people who give their time and energy to those living through crisis and trauma, and who believe in the importance of bringing their stories to the public.
I love this piece for its confrontation with so many realities: the irrational hope that faith can bring to people living in real danger; the twisted nihilism of believers who say their religion is about “love” but then exult in fantasies of war and destruction; the irresponsibility of apocalyptic escapism, the idea that the world is burning but thank God, we’re in the “saved” group that’s going to get out.
I grew up within evangelical Christianity, often hearing that humankind was trapped in a burning building with only one way out, and that it’s the job of Christians to pull everyone through our escape door, whether they think they’re on fire or not. Muslim, atheist, Buddhist, agnostic - whatever they are, if they’re not in our group, they’re damned, and they’re going to be left behind. I’ve only recently figured out why this idea disturbs me: it’s a worldview that’s already given up on this world, that lets the poor be poor, the blind be blind, the children lie slain on the beach, the chemical attacks continue, and the lucky few get away. It’s linked to the kind of vile, slickly cynical temptation that tugs at me in weeks like this, when we grieve the deaths of bright, brave colleagues in submarine horror or amid the unending killings in South Sudan - the voice that says, What’s the use of bearing witness? Everything is burning and you’ll only burn along with it. Give up. Turn away.
I love this piece for its quiet refusal to look or walk away from our world, for its assertion that even with eyes wide open and chests breaking apart, there is Life worth living. It reminds me of an idea a dear friend posed to me several weeks ago: maybe we are in a burning building, with a task not to run away but to stay, join hands, go deeper, go where it’s hot, put the fire out, try to grow a garden. Isn’t that what Christ did - come straight into the fire, spilling water into every untouched corner, kneeling down, washing feet, leaving those who thought they were Chosen and Good speechless?
這次準備來台灣分享時，主持人問了我最近在報導什麼，能不能找一個 theme 來說。我回想一下發現去年我關注的題目好廣泛，好 obscure: 中國穆斯林、中東的外籍移工、歐洲的新來穆斯林難民。最終我發現可以說關注的都是少數群體，活在社會邊緣上的人，也是往往容易遭到主流社會偏見與排斥，甚至欺負或虐待的人。
每次來台灣看到那麼多人真心想要了解離這裡那麼遙遠、奇怪的題目，我都很感動。這次出乎意料的是在分享之中，聽眾朋友問了比較 personal 的問題，想知道我對於自己的身分有什麼認識，是不是因為也是少數或者外人所以特別對這些人群有興趣。我回答的時候是第一次跟你們，也是第一次跟自己說出來：從小到大我跟著爸媽一直搬家，從美國到台灣到香港到上海，哪裡都沒有歸屬感，到今天還是無法回答 “where are you from” 這個問題，無法說出究竟哪裡是家。小時候我很無奈，記得我先是害怕搬到美國會被欺負，後來又拼命禱告說不要搬到上海，覺得自己因為沒有資格說任何一個地方是徹底屬於我的，所以我似乎有種根本的缺陷，因為永遠是 alien 所以永遠不完整。
很多人問我說為什麼要去中東，為什麼關注難民，難道不怕，難道不想家嗎，等等之問題。我這幾天在分享中才意識到，其實我在過去這幾年的報導中已經回答了自己小時候對自己問的問題：沒有家的人還是有價值嗎？無家是不是就等於無價？當我和難民、移民、少數人群和每一個獨在異鄉為異客的人相處、採訪、認識的時候，我清清楚楚地看到：許多人最深的痛苦是缺乏歸屬感，被主流社會鄙視、撇開、忽略。但同時我也發現，其實“家”不是一個地理問題，也不拘束於某個文化、語言、國家。我之所以一直被這些 alien 群體吸引，也許是因為我跟他們在一起的時候發現，只要找到能夠互相看到、聽到、願意同行的人，不管再多陌生的地方，都能找到家。即使我們不屬於任何地方，但是我們屬於彼此。我相信許多嚴重的社會問題，包括年輕人極端化、各種種族歧視、宗教衝突和（我個人最討厭的）ethnic nationalism 除了出於政治家為了自己私利的操縱以外，也出於我們自己因為孤獨、害怕、不安全所以也沒有主動去了解身邊也許一樣渴望歸屬、渴望“家”的人，反而強調自己的超越性與獨特性，想要尋找被接納的資格，即使踩在別人頭上也無所謂。
The Atlantic | May 24, 2017
AMMAN, Jordan—I got my first glimpse of what it’s like to be a Filipina migrant worker in Jordan on an October day in 2013, shortly after I’d moved to the region. I was walking down a street in western Amman when a police car pulled alongside me on the road, the officers inside rolling down their window and beckoning me to stop. A man slouched in the passenger’s seat looked me up and down, then said, “Where is your passport?”
I was confused. I’d left it at home, as usual, I told him. He said, “Where do you live?”
I beckoned in the direction of my apartment, still perplexed until he said, “Where are you from? Filipina?” His colleague in the driver’s seat smirked.
I looked at the men. “No, I’m from America. USA.” The two officers sat up quickly, glancing at each other. “Welcome to Jordan!” one of them said as he rolled the window back up, his partner already driving the car away.
That incident repeated itself several times, always with the same progression: Men followed or pulled alongside me on the street, asking, “Philippines?” When I told them my nationality, they quickly backed off.
There’s a neighborhood in Amman nicknamed “Manila Street” where many migrant workers live and congregate on their days off, setting up Filipino food markets, buying phone cards, and visiting the Western Union to send money home. Many of the Filipina women who live there are “runaways,” meaning they lack regular papers and can be arrested or exploited on the streets at any time. When I visited the area, a Filipina woman at the street market explained why police kept pulling me over. “They will try to make you their ‘girlfriend,’” she said. “Sometimes they are police and sometimes they are just pretending. They say: ‘You have iqama [residency papers]?’ If you don’t have, they ask you for money, or drive you somewhere to do fucking. Or else they can send you to jail, or back to your country. I hear too many stories like this.” Several other migrant women later told me the same thing.
I’ve been reporting on migrant domestic labor in Jordan and Lebanon since January, visiting shelters, women’s prisons, and overcrowded neighborhoods where migrant women flock together for survival, often cramming as many as a dozen people into a small apartment. Jordan has about 50,000 migrant domestic workers, of whom the largest subgroup are from the Philippines. Lebanon had nearly 170,000 registered domestic migrants in 2016. Most of them—about 105,000—are from Ethiopia, but Filipinas are the second-biggest group, at roughly 18,300.
In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are specifically excluded from labor laws, which means they have no legal guarantee for basic rights like a minimum wage and maximum work hours or days off, and nowhere to appeal when they are verbally or physically abused. Their work contracts require that they live in their employers’ homes. When abuse happens, they have nowhere to go. A startling number of migrant women jump off balconies, dying in either suicide or failed escape attempts. Lebanese General Security, the government’s intelligence and security agency, told me that the bodies of 110 migrant women had been repatriated from Lebanon in 2016 alone. That’s more than two a week. As of mid-April, 28 more women had died in 2017.
I’ve learned to tense up every time strange men ask me if I’m Filipina, and to quickly announce my U.S. citizenship, even as I feel sick for wielding my privilege as self-defense. I didn’t think about how trapped it feels to be a migrant domestic worker until I was exposed to leering men trying to exploit me because of my Asian face. My own response has been to report on what’s happening and try to understand and expose it. But in his essay “My Family’s Slave,” Alex Tizon went beyond exposure to self-exposure, which is why his story moved me.
Reporting on systemic injustice—analyzing a broken policy and telling the stories of its victims—is crucial work. But it offers a certain kind of psychological safety: Even as you expose yourself to heart-wrenching injustice, you write about it as a professional observer, removed from any guilt or complicity. It’s much harder to tell a story of injustice that—without excusing or explaining away evil acts—nonetheless acknowledges the humanity of the perpetrator, and admits that we all have the capacity for cruelty. Confronting the conditions that can lead someone to choose evil is an important part of understanding and preventing exploitation.
I recognize in Tizon’s descriptions of his mother and “Lola” a pattern I have seen in my reporting: how one exhausted, single immigrant mother turns all her fury and shame into abuse of another, weaker woman in her emotional and physical bondage. They remind me of a Filipina woman I met in a shelter here, who told me how her madam had starved her, threatened to turn her over to the police, and beat her so badly she jumped out of an upstairs window, injuring her hip and spine, to survive. I wrote all of that in an article, but couldn’t fit what she told me about her madam: that she was also a lawyer, single mother, and bulimic. That she used to cry, binge, and throw up at home every day, and that the worst beatings usually came after angry, screaming phone calls with her estranged husband. For months, I’ve been watching and wrestling with how to articulate this specifically cruel way that women can dehumanize and harm other women. I’ve often wished I could include a footnote to these stories: Sometimes the victimizers are victims themselves.
Two weeks ago, I visited a women’s prison with the Jordanian police’s anti-trafficking unit. They were interviewing detainees to determine whether any had been victims of trafficking. One Syrian woman started sobbing as soon as she saw the police. She was a refugee and single mother, she wailed, whose husband had been killed in the conflict and who just wanted to see her children again. The investigators told her to stop crying. Then she admitted that she had allowed paying customers to enter her unit in Zaatari Camp and rape a 15-year-old girl, another refugee even more vulnerable than herself.
My insides curl at these stories, the ones of hurt women hurting others, empathy and horror churning against one another. I meet mothers and sisters and daughters with such capacity to nurture and heal, but such ugly potential to be monsters as well. I wish they came in neat categories—the wicked stepmother versus the kind princess, the brave heroine versus the jealous queen—but they don’t. So often they are good and bad at once, which doesn’t in any way vindicate the bad, but rather helps us to comprehend it.
When I report these stories, I am terrified by my own understanding of the abuser and abused. I want to feel like I write: in third-person, distant from the villains, certainly incapable of the unforgivable crimes they commit. The power of Tizon’s approach—an openly guilty one—is that he turns the culprits from they to us. He uncovers his own shame instead of pretending that only certain people are evil and exploitative. His story strikes at my secret fear: that we are all capable of cruelty, dehumanization, or self-blinding complicity with injustices from which we benefit. He writes not about good people versus bad people, but about people who can do good or bad, and who give in, tragically, to the latter. How fearful to acknowledge that we can go either way, I think. But then again, how freeing to realize that we have a choice.
The quickest of updates to note that I've returned to Amman, Jordan, and am at work at several projects related to migration, religion, minorities and extremism. The same topics I've focused on for years and see as increasingly important in this age of nationalism, borders, wars and walls. I'll also write more about and from the perspective of women this year inshallah. Amman is likely the only place where I'll ever be happy that most of my friends are gone, resettled to Germany, Canada and the U.S. It's also where I came to understand the goodness of discomfort, sorrow and anger at injustice, if only to move us into action against it. It's very good to be back. I've got many words and not enough time to share at the moment, but here are some from a wiser man that I have felt for the last few days:
Belated sharing, written in September:
Monday evening finds me kneeling in a neon green mosque, surrounded by Iranian women rocking back and forth in prayer, some pressing forward to touch tear-stained hands against the mihrab, others tracing lines of Persian in their prayer books, others fingering chains of blue or green prayer beads, murmuring and pressing their foreheads against holy rocks with “Ya Hussein” carved on them, still others just scrolling through their smartphone screens or trying to rein in their toddlers. The woman on my left looks at me, looks again twice, whispers “Salam” and offers me a chocolate. The woman on my right has her eyes closed, hands clutched tight around her chador, the cloth cape we’ve all been required to wrap ourselves in from head to toe.
I’m at a pilgrimage site just outside Qom, the holy city in central Iran host to many of the world’s most influential Shia clerics. This shrine is a spot where the twelfth imam of Shia Islam supposedly once appeared, so now pilgrims come to pray here, believing they will be blessed, healed or helped for it. I’m ironically reminded of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where men and women also pushed forward in separate sections to rock back and forth in fervid supplication. I wonder here, as I often wondered in Jerusalem, what they are praying for. There are many grandmothers and mothers around me, and I wonder if they have sick children, unfaithful husbands, or sudden deaths like the ones that struck my church in Beijing last week and youth group in Shanghai months ago. I wonder if they are crying for understanding and peace in the face of broader traumas, like Americans felt with this week’s killing of another black man. I wonder if some have family members fighting in Syria alongside the state, for what they believe is the sake of preserving stability and combating Wahhabi-driven extremist groups, as the Iranian television reports 24/7.
The women are just like those that crowd around me on the bus every morning to say Farsi baladi? Do you speak Persian? And when I give a few broken sentences in response, they kiss me in delight. Azizam, the Persian version of habibti, they croon, adorning me with terms of endearment just for being here and listening, as so many Palestinian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Syrian women did before. I wonder if some are just tired. I wonder if their prayer helps. I know, at least, that it always helps to be heard.
I am surprisingly comfortable in Iran, where two Fridays ago I passed a street demonstration marching downtown, its leader chanting “Death to America, Death to Europe, Death to Saudi” through a megaphone, the people echoing after him. I know what that means is “Down with injustice, imperialism, oppression,” down with lack of accountability after hundreds were killed during last year’s hajj in Mecca, down with bombings on Yemen, occupation of Palestine and corporate profits at the expense of black and brown bodies. I know it also means, “Up with the regime,” something familiar to me from similar state-coordinated demonstrations in China as well as Jordan, where people are told to chant their support for the government, whether that’s reflected among the grassroots or not.
Days after that demonstration, young people told me at a party that they just want to live, just like I’ve heard from Israeli surfers in Tel Aviv, Jordanian musicians in West Amman, and now Iranian rich kids sneaking vodka, crop tops and a huge amplified bass sound system to party at their parents’ villas in North Tehran. All these kids could mingle at one party in the U.S. and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Religion is more enforced in Iran than anywhere else I’ve lived in the world, but most people are less devout than even my “Communist” Chinese brothers and sisters. In Esfahan, my friends and I visited Safavid palaces redolent with splendor, all crystal domed ceilings, hand-carved mosaics and murals of lavish banquets filled with dancing and drinking women. “This was an Islamic dynasty? With the dancers and all that wine?” my Syrian friend asked, confused. “Of course,” our guide said. “This is Iran.”
When Afghan invaders overturned the Safavid dynasty, they scratched out the faces of the women in Esfahan’s palace murals, thinking them too lascivious. When the Islamic revolution happened in 1979, the new government replaced their flag’s lion with a sun on his back, an ancient sign of Persia, with the word “Allah.” They also replaced all the historic squares, mosques, and hotels that had “Shah” in their names with “Imam” instead. I asked our guide if they did that as a sign of power purging the former regime, or out of actual puritanical aversion to lions, suns and shahs. “Both,” she said, and then added: “But you know, Iranians were much more religious in the shah’s time. Especially the youth now, they couldn’t care less about Islam. They want to be Zoroastrian. Force people to believe, and they won’t. Tell them to be secular, and they’ll believe.” My Syrian friend laughed, “Kul mamnu3 marghub. Whatever is forbidden is desired.”
Last month I spent a few days visiting refugee friends who’d been resettled in Canada. One afternoon a Syrian friend, R, started telling me as usual about how Mohammad was a man of peace who did many good things to help people, brought social change and more equality, etc. I asked R how he deals with Muslim leaders who preach messages of sectarian incitement on YouTube and in mosques. How does he reconcile his peaceful, inclusive Islam with these people spouting hate and drawing lines between Sunni and Shia?
“That’s a hard question. Give me some time,” he said. We walked up a hill overlooking the river splitting Gatineau and Ottawa and perched on a statue’s base, stretching bare feet into the sun. “I guess I just have to represent Islam to those around me,” R said at last. “I don’t agree with what those people preach and I try to present a different version.” I told him that I understand – I watch videos too, of American soldiers blasting praise songs before going to fight countries that I love, or of very loud Christians marching in hatred against girls who have abortions, Syrian refugees and homosexuals, all categories in which I count some of my most beloved. I watch U.S. politicians affirm their faith and then spew chauvinistic militarism in the name of God, and I feel so alienated. But that’s also when I need to humility, to understand where these fearful words come from, to engage those I flinch away from and to represent a different kind of Christianity.
R’s problem with Christianity is that it doesn’t seem to offer justice, he says, and that’s not okay. “You have to punish the bad guys,” he said. “And some things are not just bad, they’re evil. How can you let them go?” I’m reminded of my friend E, who said, “Isn’t George Bush a Christian? So he could do whatever he wanted in Iraq and then because of Jesus, God would just forgive him? How can you be okay with that?” It’s hard for me to answer R from Syria and E from Palestine, because they know. They’ve been raised in countries filled with injustice and hurt, some dating back centuries, others just a few years fresh fresh but enough to strangle you a hundred times over. It’s hard for me to answer in Iran, too, whose history is rife with exploitation at the hands of ruthless shahs, rapacious Western nations, lying Americans and traitors who siphoned the country’s wealth to imperialists for the sake of personal profit. I see why the loudest and most effective message is one of justice in the hands of God, and we His servants struggling and sacrificing ourselves to make things right. I see why there are martyrs’ murals all over the walls of Tehran, and why nationalism is tied up with rhetoric of resistance, victimhood and righteousness. “How can you turn your other cheek to evil?” R asks me. “You do that, and all the good people will be devoured.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about Christianity, Islam, their parallels and connection in the context of Western hegemony and ongoing conflict in the Middle East – mostly because I want to love my Muslim friends better, to understand their truths while reflecting back on mine. I am hoping Iran will help me find answers to R, E, to the martyr’s mothers on all sides of conflicts in this region and to all those thirsty for justice in a world where religion is so politicized, where suffering is so deep, and where Christianity is so often associated with the blood and slime of imperialism.
The longer I spend away from the West, the more I love the church without a flag. I love the church as men and women of peace, kindness and joy, bringing bags of lentils and rice to hidden Sudanese families in Jordan, embracing the crippled and blind as “brothers” in southwestern China, loving those who point guns at their faces in Palestine, Xinjiang and Iraq, and responding to darkness by washing feet. I love the church that offers an alternative to vengeance without surrendering to injustice. I want to find it here.
I also want to listen well – to God, to the people around me, to the stories waiting to be told. I am glad to be here if only to put faces to Iran, so that what pops to mind when I hear the word is not nuclear deals and Shia militias but the Persian families begging me to join their picnics, the grandpa who sells me saffron and pistachio ice cream then tells me about his friends doing business in China, and the women’s apartment guard, Fatima, who loves having me teach her yoga in my broken beginner’s Farsi at 6:30 in the morning. I want to write well too, but only eventually, not on my student visa (haha), not yet. For now I am thankful to be here, small and foreign once again, and I pray to be all here.