Burning building by Alice Su

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?

尋家 by Alice Su

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。

我在想,假如有更多人能夠改變想法,從“我要保護我的家,不讓外人進來”變成“我的家不是我的私產、護照、和祖籍,而是我和你雖然不同,但能夠超越差異互相接納、認可、了解的那種 magic”,世界有多少絕望的人會被鼓勵,多少黑暗的地方會突然有光?

On women hurting women by Alice Su

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.

On protest, more words for today: by Alice Su

Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out for longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.
— Wendell Berry, "A Poem of Difficult Hope"

رجعت by Alice Su

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:

It is tragic to see how the religious sentiment of the West has become so individualized that concepts such as ‘a contrite heart,’ have come to refer only to personal experiences of guilt and the willingness to do penance for it. The awareness of our impurity in thoughts, words and deeds can indeed put us in a remorseful mood and create in us the hope for a forgiving gesture. But if the catastrophical events of our days, the wars, mass murders, unbridled violence, crowded prisons, torture chambers, the hunger and illness of millions of people and the unnamable misery of a major part of the human race is safely kept outside the solitude of our hearts, our contrition remans no more than a pious emotion.

Can we carry the burden of reality? How can we remain open to all human tragedies and aware of the vast ocean of human suffering without becoming mentally paralyzed and depressed? How can we live a healthy and creative life when we are constantly reminded of the fate of the millions who are poor, sick, hungry and persecuted/ How can we even smile when we keep being confronted by pictures of tortures and executions?
I do not know the answer to these questions.

Maybe, for the time being, we have the accept the many fluctuations between knowing and not knowing, seeing and not seeing, feeling and not feeling, between days in which the whole world seems like a rose garden and days in which our hearts seem tied to a millstone, between moments of ecstatic joy and moments of gloomy depression, between the humble confession that the newspaper holds more than our souls can bear and the realization that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility. Maybe we have to be tolerant toward our own avoidances and denials in the conviction that we cannot force ourselves to face what we are not ready to respond to and in the hope that in one future day we will have the courage and strength to open our eyes fully and see without being destroyed. All this might be the case as long as we remember that there is no hope in denial or avoidance, neither for ourselves nor for anyone else, and that new life can only be born out of the seed planted in crushed soil. Indeed God, our Lord, ‘will not scorn this crushed and broken heart’ (Psalm 51:17).

When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. There we can feel that the cruel reality of history is indeed the reality of the human heart, our own included, and that to protest asks, first of all, for a confession of our own participation in the human condition. There we can indeed respond.

The movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement that allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions for a conversion of heart, which makes our responsibilities a vocation instead of a burden, and which creates the inner space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow human beings becomes possible. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out to our innermost being to find there our great healing powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as a gift to be shared with all human beings.
— Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, published in 1975, words for today.

نامه از ايران by Alice Su

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.

Schism by Alice Su

I wrote this explainer for IRIN on how Kiir's splitting South Sudan into 28 new states, largely along tribal lines, is politicizing ethnic identity and exacerbating civil conflict.

This week I'm in Beijing, finishing up finals while thinking about Orlando, Jo Cox and too many instances of death on top of death. Tribal conflict in South Sudan seems distant and obscure, but then again it's not: so much violence and vitriol is coming from our inability to coexist with those we see as "not us." We want our tribe first. We don't want our values challenged. We dehumanize refugees or Muslims or LGBTQ people or we dehumanize those that we label bigots at the opposite end of the political spectrum. All this friction is setting us on fire. The answer can only be a) learn to live together, or b) split into groups, separated by tribe, color, religion, country, etc - I have my space, you have yours, and we don't cross each other's borders.

It's increasingly clear to me, especially after reporting this piece, that the second option isn't going to work. South Sudan's president is drawing circles and borders around tribal majorities. Some think this is good because now their tribe will have representation and power. But the borders are unclear, many tribes are mixed, and dividing land has created sides, disputes and mutual killing among people who once shared.

I can't stop thinking about two things: first, that forming exclusivist states along ethnic/tribal/racial/religious lines only worsens conflict; and second, political powers are often manipulating these identities for their own interests. As one South Sudanese activist told me, "[Politicians] used tribal identity in the same way they used sexual violence, as a weapon of war." Identity is not the problem. The problem is exploitation of identity so that you cannot see or hear the Other, so that you hate him, so that self-righteousness morphs into tribal supremacy and you forget that the Other is human as well. This is a political maneuver that is as hateful and wrong as sexual violence, and perhaps even more sinister because it's couched in self-victimization and pride. I am so sad that we're letting this happen, not only in South Sudan but across the world, East and West, Muslim and Christian, right and left wing, establishment and "not." I wish we could listen, and insist on crossing borders and sharing land, and guard each other against manipulation instead.

South Sudan by Alice Su

Sometimes people ask me why I’d rather be a journalist than anything else. “Don’t you wish you were the person making headlines instead?” This question always strikes me as peculiar and a little disturbing, because it suggests that news is about the Big Guys Up There, the rich and famous and powerful, that they are doing important things and we the common people are meant to read about, admire and emulate them. It suggests too that the most desirable place for us to be is there at the center of the story, not on the periphery - speaking, not listening; being seen, not seeing; stars, far removed from darkness.
To me, the most important place to be is on the side, in the margins, behind the building in the back of the abandoned yard. That’s where the dust and shadows, secrets and stories are kept. That’s also where you find the people that the big guys want you to forget, and that do not have space to speak for themselves.
Yesterday a local journalist’s father told me about his son's abduction. The 27-year-old had written a column that called on followers of the ruling party to stop behaving like “mindless animals” and think for themselves. National Security kidnapped and kept the journalist incommunicado for three months before his family secured the connections to get him out of the “blue room,” South Sudan’s secret detention center for enemies of the state. 
“Stop writing,” Abu Journalist told his son. “Go to university, get out of South Sudan, and maybe come back and write then - but it’s not safe now.” His son said yes and stayed home for four days before he was abducted again, this time by masked gunmen who spoke in Dinka colloquial language and roared at him, “What did you write about our president?” They must have been illiterate, because his column didn’t mention the president at all. A few days later, the journalist’s father received a call: his son was lying in the cemetery. When the father rushed over with two friends, they found the journalist propped against his backpack, half-conscious. He was covered in blood, fresh and red across his chest, and burned from the hips down, his trousers twisted into blackened flesh.
Kan fi nar, nar, it was fire everywhere,” Abu Journalist said, patting his own legs up and down and up and down. He wrung his hands before me, describing how he'd carried his son to the hospital, feeding him mango juice while a doctor scooped melted skin and trouser from his legs. “I cannot see my son like this. I would die before seeing my son die. There is nothing wrong with writing, ya3ni, nothing wrong with any job my children want to do. But not when they are walking through fire. I cannot." 
Hours later, I sat in a shack of a home, 3 x 3 meters of mud and straw under a tin roof, housing my displaced 27-year-old friend Valentino and his family of 9. I perched on one of two beds, squeezed between three women each scolding 2-3 children, flies crawling on our foreheads. The fabric covering their makeshift windows hung heavy and damp in the heat. A plasticky white Jesus stretched his mouth into a thin smile at us from a poster on one wall, ‘SAVIOR’ in block letters above him and John 3:16 printed below. Valentino is from the Upper Nile region of South Sudan and teaches at a nearby school, making 900 SSP ($30 USD) a month, supplemented with manual labor in his time off. He wears jeans and a black t-shirt with white graffiti letters. He’s tall and inky dark, a typical Dinka but without the customary scars that their tribe carves into men's foreheads. 
Valentino didn't get that coming-of-age ritual because at age 13, his cattle herder father got everyone in their village to sell a bull so he and 9 other boys could journey to Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, and seek education. The 10 boys spent two months walking across then-Sudan, smuggling onto an Ethiopian trader’s truck (stuffed full of biscuits, but their 17-year-old leader wouldn’t let them touch a single one), talking their way across the Kenyan border and finally entering school. He grew up with those boys in the camp until a few of them were taken to Nairobi by a Sudanese-American who wanted to “help” them - but abandoned them after 9 months because he'd decided to pursue a graduate degree in Texas. Valentino went back to Kakuma, but by now his refugee ID had expired, which meant no access to aid. 
So Valentino went home to his village. He’d only finished primary school, but that was enough to become a headmaster there. For two years, he taught at the village, giving his 700 SSP ($24) of income to his mother every month. One day, she called him and his father together and announced: "Valentino must go back to school." Without anyone knowing, she’d only spent 200 SSP each month, stashing the remaining 500 SSP until now she had a few thousand in savings, all to send her son back to Kenya. moved by his wife’s determination, Valentino’s father sold ten cattle, enough for their son to complete high school education and become a full-time, fully-qualified teacher.
In 2013, war broke out first between the Dinka and Nuer in Juba, and then in Upper Nile, especially in Valentino's village of Duk, which sat on a border between the two tribes. That’s when his mother died. "How did she die?" I asked Valentino. He flinched. 
“Now I feel like crying,” he said, looking at the ground with a forced grin. We were quiet for a moment, the women and children around us still chattering and shushing one another in Dinka language, oblivious to our English conversation. 
“Ask me again,” Valentino said.
“How did your mother die?” I asked.
“I was at the school teaching when it happened. My father, he loved me too much. He wanted to tell me there was fighting in our area, so he came to the school. She was left behind with the children at home. The men came to our village. They were burning everything and killing, and we couldn’t get in, we couldn’t get home. By the time we got back she was dead."
“No, my siblings didn’t die. They ran away but she didn’t run with them. She stayed with two. They were 5 and 3."
“Yeah, they survived. I know because the older one told us. You know we live on a border so we understand the Nuer tongue. So he said he heard the soldiers when they came, they told her, ‘You have two things to choose: give us yourself and we kill you, or else we kill your children.’"
“I guess they kept their word. My brother and sister lived."
“She loved us too much."
I cried with Valentino for his mother, and because I was in his hut of searing heat and empty stomachs. I saw their corner of makeshift kitchenware, damaged pots and pans that they fill with water and leaves snatched from the neighbors’ trees outside. I knew how hard he'd fought for so many years just to live, to learn, to stand up and have a place in this world, and I knew all he wanted now was to go to university. It costs some 5000 SSP a year, less than $200 USD, but that was a galaxy away for him. It’d be $800 for all four years. I’ll make more than that writing one article. Valentino eats leaves and reaches into the dark.
Here I am in my Father’s world, astounding beauty and crushing pain all swirled together, snatching your breath away. Another day this week, we drove to Terekeka, 3 hours of bumpy road outside of Juba. The entire way was laced with white and golden butterflies, flocking and fluttering from the clumps of deep red mud. Baby goats grazed in idyllic green fields. We passed occasional pools, dark silhouettes dipping themselves into them to bathe. Little girls sold us peanuts and acacia seeds. We ran into an entire cattle camp crossing the road, and I photographed a herder boy carrying a lamb, his forehead scrunched in concentration, gait steady as he and the flock marched forward. A Mundari girl carried a bucket of water high on her head, chin tilted up as her skirt swayed, her steps a metronome keeping the beat for a sea of cattle’s horns surging behind her.
I'm on a fellowship with the International Women's Media Foundation, and I am thankful for companions on this trip who know how to see and how to listen. As a freelancer I’m accustomed to slipping about on my own, going without fixer, translator or security guy most of the time, let alone my own private drivers and all-expenses-paid hotels. I’m more likely crashing on someone’s couch, squeezing onto public buses and absorbing days or weeks-full of sadness to be digested alone at night in the dark.
The difference, especially with a group of all women reporters, is palpable: you are allowed to be a little sad. You can carry the stories together. We are seeing layered tales, scribbling down and photographing the corners and edges of sorrows that overlap and ricochet off one another. When my photographer friend Sara talks about being stuck at the hospital door, watching a family wail and cry, an old man crumbled in age, for their daughter who has died in childbirth, 
I know the weight of her witness.
And when she tells me, a few days later, that she dug into the story and found that girl could have been saved if only she’d had a blood transfusion, that she’d been waiting for days but no one in her family came until she’d passed away, that she was just one of more than 30 women teetering between life-and-new-life or death-unto-life after having given birth at the maternity ward, and that all the doctors are on strike because they haven’t been paid for months, so the women are alone,
I feel the weight of that too.
Sometimes I think we-the-comfortable are more in need, soul-wise, to remember how little we are, how evil is the lie that good and evil do not exist, and how desperate and urgent it is to fight against oppression, injustice and hatred with an insistence on seeing and speaking the truth. How badly we need mercy. How thirsty we are for grace. How vacuous and silly it is to grow obsessed with my achievements and career and need for glory and admiration.
I am ready to leave South Sudan but pray not to forget. One woman sits in my heart like a queen: 42-year-old Abuk, who was sold at 13 as a slave to work on a millet plantation for rich Arabs who'd bought her from traders that burned her village down, killed her father, then abducted her and her mother while they were fleeing as refugees. After escaping slavery, her mother died of disease, leaving Abuk and her husband to survive in Khartoum doing laundry and building houses. They fled again, raising their children in an Eritrean refugee camp. South Sudan's independence was supposed to bring peace at last, but last year Abuk lost two of her children in bombing on Malakal. Three of her other kids were so traumatized they couldn't recognize their mother, but that didn't stop them from asking her where their missing brothers were. 
I met habibti Abuk, mother and survivor, in the same cramped hut with Valentino. I still see her expressions as she told her story, face moist with sweat but clear as ice before me. "What would you do if you were president of South Sudan?" I asked her. She answered clear and straight: bring education for all women and girls, bring water taps to all the villages, and declare equal split of resources and power between all tribes and all people. No discrimination. Knowledge and water. Truth and life. Walls and tribes and hatred torn down. Life abundant, life to the full.
I pray for her vision to spread.
I pray for her voice to rise.
I put my pen to paper.
I am happy to keep my name far from the headlines, shrugged into a corner, small print, a recorder, an eye, an ear.
There is space here, and truth that pierces, but so does light, so does birth, and it is the piercing that keeps us alive.