Displacement forces refugees to confront restrictions to their mobility, whereby the policies of states and other actors tend to physically limit their access to space. However, as Jude Wafai argues in this piece, this immobility is often combined with challenges that restrict refugee futures too. By exploring how space interacts with temporality in this way, this piece demonstrates the need to look beyond short-term responses, and to recognise the long-term implications displacement often presents to refugees. If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of this piece for more.
Al-Mustaqbal in the Space of Refuge
By Jude Wafai
I met the Shami* family in November of 2015, while I served as a teacher at a Syrian refugee school in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. The matriarch, Elma Shami* was and still is the principal of the school and offered to host me throughout my time in the Bekaa. The Shamis are Syrian refugees from Zabadani, a town on the outskirts of Damascus. They were displaced to Lebanon in September 2012. Ever since their arrival, they have been confronted by a hostile education system and job market: Elma’s children, Ihab, Jad and Mirna, have collectively attended more than thirteen academic institutions during their time in Lebanon. From school to school and scholarship to scholarship they continue to try to “make future” in a space that consistently rejects.
This “space of refuge” for Syrians in Lebanon, as the Shamis often described it, is not just characterized by a place, but by a time. Now twenty-two, Jad is currently a scholarship student at the Lebanese International University. He attained a scholarship in autumn of 2016 after four years of battling the education system in Lebanon.
Jad and I are sitting in the living room peeling oranges and discussing the future on yellow cushions that line the wall behind the subiyah. He looks at me and speaks quickly as if stating the obvious:
“I saw nothing. I felt like I was living one minute at a time, and that was it. I mean when you think about mustaqbalat (futures, sing. mustaqbal), we all have our own dreams and our own ideas that we want to make happen, but we saw a sadd (block). And honestly, until now, I just see a sadd. A sadd. It’s like I can’t even imagine it.
Like even right now, every time I turn in an assignment, every time I take a test I know that I am studying for a degree that I’m not even going to work with.
I see this sadd. And I know that I’m going to keep living the way I’m living right now, just like this, until either I die or there is some mu`ajiza kawniyya (universal miracle) to change the circumstances completely or hayk, khalas (like so, it’s done).”
“I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to you. Here, everyone, all of the people, know that even if you study, you’re not going to get employed. You’re Syrian, first; so, student or not, you’re not going to get employed.”
(Jad, November, 2017).
In Gert Biesta’s work on education, the future, or rather what Jad calls al-mustaqbal, is a horizon against which school systems project educational desires. When we set education up as a horizon towards which to work and by which to measure our present, we make time “ahead of us” our essential purpose. It as though we limit and define our futures through the horizon set by education. In this model, present action directly instantiates our future through a linear mode. In the context of displacement, however, there is reason to question this linearity. Discussing the several degree-level scholarships he had applied for, Jad reiterated this projection whilst detailing the contradictions brought on by displacement. I preserve his term, al-mustaqbal, to convey the peculiarities of Jad’s situation, which is as much temporal as it is spatial, and to call attention to the non-universality of the spatio-temporal condition of “future” for the Syrian, Arabic-speaking refugee.
To Jad, his mustaqbal, at this time, is confined to the boundaries of Lebanon, and is confined by the boundaries of “the way [he] is living right now just like this until either [he dies] or there is some “universal miracle,” as he said (emphasis added). Thus, seeing education as projected against a temporal horizon begs an array of questions. Why should refugees learn if al-mustaqbal clearly withholds mobility? Why study if your horizon is bounded by the context of displacement?
I asked Jad these questions often, and we always came back to the subject of amal. I take amal here to mean “hope”, but it is a more holistic hope; it is a complete feeling, and faith, that what is wanted can be had. When Jad speaks of amal, he smiles softly and he looks me straight in the eye. Instead of shifting in his seat or tinkering with the subiyah as it drips oil, he becomes still.
“I am hanging on by this amal. I am stuck to it. It is part of me and it has to be part of me. You never know when you’re going to get the opportunity. Like finding an opportunity and having a degree is different than finding an opportunity and not having a degree. You never know when those doors are going to open.”
(Fieldnotes, February, 2018).
As someone who has lost amal, I question Jad’s strength. I ask him constantly, “How do you keep this going? Does your family instill this in you?” He solidly points to his chest and pats his heart.
“I find this amal inside me. I keep it strong from inside me. In the end, you’re the one who’s going to plant that amal in yourself. Otherwise, it’s not going to work out.”
(Fieldnotes, February, 2018).
Our conversations often end like this. Jad has nothing further to say about his amal. It is unwavering, unspoken, and ready for whenever “those doors are going to open.”
But, Jad hears a ticking clock. It is incessant, in the background of his every day. Time is passing. He is still here. We talk about scholarships often, as do most of the Shamis, because scholarships, to the Shamis represent possibility and al-mustaqbal. They are the realization of amal. But when I talk to Jad about scholarships now, it is not just a question of al-mustaqbal, spatially, in a new place, but temporally.
“Sometimes I ask myself, I’ve been here since 2012. If I was in a foreign country, I would’ve have a citizenship by now. I think, wow. That is time. Even the idea of going to a new country, I am taking a risk. Like now, I’ve been here what 6 years. If I traveled abroad I would have to be there for another six years in order to settle. How old will I be then? This point crossed my mind all the time. I am 21 now. Okay, if I leave now to Canada and I spent four years doing my degree there. Okay so then I am 26. And then I will try to work in order to buy a house, I’ll be 29 or 30 years old. It won’t be until after I turn 30 that I can even think about creating a family, like yalla, let’s go.””
I feel like this time, it’s being stolen from me. Instead of being 26 when you start creating all of these things, I would be 30. Like in those four years, I could’ve already had a family.
Like what if I meet someone but I have nothing to offer them?”
(Fieldnotes, February 17, 2018).
To Jad, the clock is still ticking. It is time passing in the same place, in the same space, in the same country, with the same mustaqbal, or lack thereof.
*All names have been changed for privacy.
Featured Image: the Bekaa Valley (c) J. Wafai
Read more pieces from the Refugee Hosts blog:
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon Face and Uncertain 2017‘
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Space of Refuge: Opening Night‘
Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) ‘Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Turkey‘
Rowlands, A. (2018) ‘Turkey – Crossroads for the Displaced‘
Zbeidy, D. (2017) ‘Widowhood, Displacement and Friendship in Jordan‘