Objective Enough to Tell the Truth
This presentation was given by Dima Hamadmad at the Refugee Hosts International Conference, Without Exception: The Politics and Poetics of Local Responses to Displacement, Dima’s presentation examines the importance of language within academic research and the ethics of using dominant narratives, often perceived as objective, but that can decontextualize and ignore the causes and impact of displacement.
You can view Dima’s presentation below:
If you find this piece of interest please see our Reflections from the Field series or visit the recommended reading list at the end of this post.
Objective Enough to Tell the Truth
by Dima Hamadmad, Refugee Hosts
Usually, when I am asked to introduce myself, I start by the fact that I am Syrian. But before the Syrian uprising in 2011, I have never thought that I would introduce myself by this fact; being Syrian didn’t mean anything to me. I belong to a family that was displaced in the 1980s when Hafez Al-Assad ruled Syria with a very oppressing regime. We are from Hama city, where Hafez Al-Assad committed a massive massacre in 1982, killing almost 30 thousand of the city’s residents in only one month and shutting down a small uprising started against him. I lost my grandfather and my uncle at that time.
My family had to flee from Syria, and they never came back since then. I was born in Jordan, with a Syrian passport, but I have never visited Syria – my father always thought that it’s very dangerous to go there. With a Syrian passport, living in Jordan, and unable to visit Syria, I always had this unclear identity, I didn’t feel that I belonged to any place. Although I haven’t been physically displaced, I always felt that I am a displaced person, perhaps it’s because of this lost identity, or displaced identity. This is the case of the whole generation.
When the Syrian uprising started in 2011, I suddenly felt that I belonged to one thing, and I have an identity, it became a life purpose, and since then, being Syrian suddenly has a meaning. Those brave people who stood up against one of the most dictatorial regimes, and who chanted for freedom and dignity through the most beautiful peaceful demonstrations; they made me proud that I am Syrian, and I am still so, despite everything that has happened. Since then, I like to introduce myself in that way. I think, once again, this is the case for the whole generation.
Afterwards, I became very sensitive to any false or inaccurate description of the Syrian uprising. I feel that any inaccuracy is unjust in many ways, and that I have to defend my restored identity, my belonging, my purpose, defend the brave people who sacrificed their lives in this uprising.
Regarding this sensitivity, I reflect on a story that took place two years ago.
One day I was sitting with a professor who I really admire and respect, and we were writing a description of research we were working on. This research studies the impact of trauma on Syrian refugees. When she wanted to write a contextual description about Syria, she used the term “Civil war”. I stopped there and told her that we should use the word “uprising”, because it’s an uprising, not a civil war. She answered that in research we have to be “objective” and “neutral”, and this is the way that everyone uses to describe and talk about what happened in Syria, this is the narrative used in research, media, politics… everywhere. I disagreed with her, and insisted on using the word “uprising”.
What happened in Syria was a peaceful uprising. It started in Dara’a city when young children were detained and tortured, because they wrote anti-Assad graffiti on the school’s wall. Their families went to the governor to ask him to release their children, but he only humiliated them. This was the spark of the revolution, and peaceful demonstrations started across the country chanting for dignity and freedom. But the Assad regime responded in every possible violent way, killing demonstrators, committing massacres, detaining, and torturing. He even tortured children to death like Hamza Al-Khateeb and Thamer Al-Sharei, who were detained during a protest in April 2011. They were also a spark for the Syrian revolution and demonstrations across many Syrian cities.
It doesn’t matter how the world saw the uprising, it doesn’t matter what the world turned it into. What I care about is the truth, and the truth is that it’s an uprising.
But does it really matter to write either “civil war” or “uprising”? Well, it’s not only about minor details, or just a couple of words, because these words matter, and it does matter how we talk about events, how we tell others’ stories. It does matter how we represent human sufferings. Every narrative we use has an effect, and this claimed “objectivity” also has an effect.
I will return to the description of the research we were writing. For that research, I interviewed many Syrian women, specifically mothers, and collected their stories. One mother was pregnant when she left Syria to go to Jordan so she can give birth. Her husband stayed in Syria and promised that he will follow her just after she arrives; he couldn’t join her at that time because he was a leader of the uprising in his neighborhood. After a short time of her arrival to Jordan, she learned that her husband was martyred, he was targeted by the regime’s forces. She spent the last month of her pregnancy grieving him, and there was no way for her to come back to Syria. She gave birth to her last son, and named him with the name of his father, whom he will never see. Every time I visit her, she tells me how her son looks just like his father, and he is very much similar to him, he talks like him, acts like him, he even sometimes uses the same phrases that his father one day used. She envisions him and she believes that her son, who only knows his father through her stories, will be just like him, brave, strong, strives to help people, to defend and fight for the truth, and stands against oppressors.
I very much remember also another mother, her son chose to participate in the revolution, but he then was killed by Assad forces. She is one of the strongest mothers I have ever met. Despite her huge loss of her son, she never gives up. When I am sometimes in despair and see no hope, I find she still has the deep faith: that we have to continue this uprising against Assad. We should never give up, and we should continue demanding our rights, our freedom and dignity. She is still in contact will all the activists in her city, following their news, and grieving on the lost ones as they are all like her sons.
These are only two stories, among thousands and thousands of others.
For these collected stories, it would be wrong to put them in a context that is vague, gray, unclear, a context that avoids telling the truth, and avoids referring to the actual perpetrators and the actual events. It’s not ethical to take these stories out of their true context and say that it’s just a “civil war”, or very vague words like “conflict” or “crisis” or “war”, as if there were equal parties fighting each other on some interests, and without referring to the actual perpetrator, the Assad regime and his allies.
This out-of-context stories and displacement turn refugees into a mere emergency case, people who only ran from a random war or random cross-fires, and who deserve the international compassion, but with no referral to the cause of their displacement and suffering. This representation ignores the refugees’ rights to justice and accountability, their rights to hold those who caused their sufferings accountable. As long as we claim to be objective and neutral, to just say it’s a civil war, or to be gray enough not to mention the crimes of Assad regime, or not accurately describe how all this originally started, as long as we do that, we ignore the very important rights of refugees to ask for justice. Through these rights, they can only heal and restore their lives.
The impact of this narrative not only stops there. But, moreover, it impacts the local responses in hosting countries. When one says it’s a “war” or civil war, the first normal response of the hosts will be compassion. However, when this objective narrative says that this war reached an “end”, the shelling has stopped, and cities can be inhabited again, the normal local response would probably be that refugees now should go back home, since it’s safe and stable and the war has stopped. In this so-called “stable” country, there are still thousands detained by Assad, dying under torture every day. In this country, the regime’s forces are detaining and kidnaping many residents who thought it’s safe enough to go back to restore their normal life. One question we might ask ourselves, why, specifically now, after 8 years of displacement, we are witnessing racist acts against refugees, why now is the hostility growing in some countries? We should think very much of how we represent the whole context, and what impact several words can have.
I know that, for researchers, objectivity means telling the truth, regardless what others say, and regardless of any previous bias. And telling the truth requires using the right words. Yes, we have to be objective, yet truth tellers, we have to be neutral, clear, and accurate. We are documenting our history through these narratives, and we have to document it correctly for the future generations.
On the same day I had that discussion with that professor about what words to use, civil war or uprising, I found an email from her inviting me to a documentary film about the Syrian uprising. She wrote in her email: “Dima, Syrian uprising, tonight, in my department”.
We went together, and at the end of the movie, I glimpsed tears in her eyes. While I was watching, I remembered all the Syrian martyrs who sacrificed their lives to document events and to tell the truth. I feel that I have that obligation towards them, that same obligation towards all those who told me their stories, I will be objective enough, to tell the truth.
You can view Dima’s presentation below:
If you find this piece of interest please see our Reflections from the Field series or visit the recommended reading list below.
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Reflections from the Field: Introduction to the Series
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Anti-Syrian banners and graffiti in context: Racism, counter-racism and solidarity for refugees in Lebanon
Itani, B. (2019) The Importance of Identity