Frozen Transience: Young Arab Refugees Stranded in a Hole in Time

by Curt Rhodes

“I lost my soul the day I became a refugee in Zaatari camp,“ said a young Syrian man. “I want to be like the two or three people I read about in books who, even though they are in prison, still feel so free. But everything seems so empty.”

Who is this young man? He grew up playing in the shadow of two minarets of the same mosque—one one for Sunnis and one for Shiites. No one thought about religion on the soccer field. But now a new describer, one based on a single characteristic—religion—has limited his choices: with them or with us. He is aware that radicalism is an incredibly self-absorbed process. He sees that what is portrayed as sacrifice is very often a disguised loss of morals. And this awareness tears at him inside. Is his only choice now to kill and to die?

In order to understand the conflict within this young man, within the rubric of “war within Islam,” we have to comprehend that the way we describe people and the way we provide humanitarian assistance to them must not result in limiting their ability to make choices. Furthermore, it must not impede our ability to cooperate and co-create with them.

This young man struggles with overcoming the cultural moment—the circumstances of time and place that seek to dictate his options, his choices. He feels the “must” of this moment. Is it inevitable that his life will be dictated by circumstances over which he has no control? Perhaps the most dehumanizing thing that can be done to an individual is to take away his or her ability to have choices, to make choices, to become a person that contributes to the kind of future in which they want to live.

Humanitarian response to refugees and displaced persons carries this risk of dehumanization: recipients of aid are in a state of “frozen transience.” They exist in a hole in time in which their social, cultural, and economic isolation robs them of their agency, their ability to make choices. Delivery of aid is a very patronizing process. Someone else chooses who gets, whatthey get, when they get, if they get. They wait, for the next moment, for the next day, for… something. The human tendency to resent and resist the dehumanization of this patronage is a powerfully motivating force.

There are other choices that must be integrated into humanitarian response if we want to prevent our contributing to extremist, rejectionist outcomes. Creation of a different cultural space is necessary and possible—to deflect the tremendous forces of anger and helplessness felt by younger, “lost” generations in the Arab world. It is possible to engage them in creating different responses to the swirl of violence around them—to increase their personal agency to make positive change in their lives and the lives of others like them.

These young generations of Arab youth are struggling with how they can be actors in a play that is marked by the degradation, indeed the disintegration, of the politics around them. It is true that humanitarian approaches cannot substitute for political solutions, but young people must build their lives today. They will not be able to wait for “better times.” Instead they must be supported to become “better people” active today in the circumstances of time and place given to them.

The lives and aspirations of millions of young Arabs are being formed in this experience of anger and powerlessness forced on them by uncontrolled and uncontrollable political change. We have to be aware that they want to become better people who can make a better world.

In our rhetoric describing war within Islam, we must remember that these young people carry the creative seeds of a new world they intend to build. We must ensure that our language about them, our descriptions of them, and the options we present to them do not blind us to their own potential for active good.

About the Author

Dr. Curt Rhodes is the founder and international director of Questscope, a non-profit, non-governmental organization working with, and on behalf of, marginalized communities and young people across the Middle East since 1988. In 2011, Dr. Rhodes was named a Social Entrepreneur of the Year in the Middle East by the Schwab Foundation/World Economic Forum. In 2014, he was awarded the Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award from Tufts University. Dr. Rhodes holds an MPH degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and MS and PhD degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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