First Lived Experience Conversations…

Last week I met with two former refugees who had gone through Nancy Callahan's hospitality training program and still work in the hospitality industry. One gentleman was from Afghanistan/Pakistan and the other from Myanmar (Rohingya). I met with them both together which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. I initially wanted to hear about their experiences navigating US and international immigration bureaucracies, paperwork, challenges they faced navigating this system and if they did it themselves or relied on other people to help them navigate these systems. It was a very eye opening discussion but I should have anticipated how this conversation could be something that in itself makes someone relive past traumas. I purposefully wasn't asking questions about why these two men had to flee their home countries as a lot of the training I was receiving for working with the children stressed that asking about why people had to flee can often trigger people into reliving past traumas. This "trauma informed" model of care assumes that participants have experienced trauma leaving their home countries and that as someone who is not a trained mental health professional it might not be in their best interest to spur those kinds of conversations. The journey after leaving one's home country is often another form of trauma and that's what I failed to take into account in this case. The gentleman from Afghanistan seemed very open to share his story (and his family of 9) and was able to do it without getting upset. The guy from Myanmar was quite the opposite. He's been in the US maybe a year or so and his journey is still very fresh in his mind. After leaving his country and transiting through several different countries by boat he ultimately landed on Christmas Island and was detained by Australian immigration and held on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for 6 years. This was where his formal process of immigration began which included being beaten by guards, protesting his imprisonment with other detainees and speaking to hundreds of people (as he tells it) over the course of those years where people would arrive from various countries, agencies etc and all repeatedly ask him the same questions without giving him any notice that they were coming or even ask him permission to talk to him. His path through international immigration systems was wholly cruel and unusual punishment. I remember reading news articles about Manus Island and seeing some videos but it was barely a blip in the global news cycle here in the US. Ultimately this guy got a bit agitated as he worked himself up by recounting his story mostly unprompted. It made it hard to speak to both participants but I was able to have a basic conversation with each of them and plant the seed for a potential further meeting (separately next time). Both of them agreed to meet again expressed that they both very much wanted to. The meeting had gotten side tracked by the one fellow as he recounted his story and took over the conversation so the other guy from Afghanistan quietly texted Nancy Callahan to come in and politely interrupt so that the conversation didn't devolve further. He also had somewhere he wanted to go and he wasn't getting the opportunity to talk with me as much because the other guy had begun monopolizing the conversation. I can completely see how it all happened now. Ultimately I don't think it was a big problem for anyone but it did teach me a valuable lesson. I tried to ask some questions of them both that prompted them to think about what they might be getting out of working with me. I asked them "Why were they willing to talk with me and spend their time with me? Also, what if anything did they hope that talking with an artist/photographer might achieve for them? One responded he just wanted to help new refugees coming to America, here now at Heartland etc. He's very focused on the present. The other responded that he just doesn't want anyone to go through what he went through and that if there's any way he can say or do something to help ensure that was motivation enough. I've been thinking about this since last week. I'm going to message both of them to arrange second meetings shortly. I think there's something here and there was lots more we discussed regarding paperwork and such that I could tie in to other things I'm exploring at Heartland programs.

2 thoughts on “First Lived Experience Conversations…”

  1. This is really powerful.
    1. From the perspective of the fellowship, it is exactly the kind of experience and insight that such proximity alone might provide an individual. It speaks to why this is such a unique opportunity, why the nuance you get to explore is so profound for the larger conversation and awareness, and how your experience is as integral to the work as any images you produce.
    2. From the perspective of expanding our awareness beyond the headlines and trite tweets, the profundity of your realization as evidenced in the comment “The journey after leaving one’s home country is often another form of trauma and that’s what I failed to take into account” is again truly powerful. So many people only focus on the hardship that drives someone to leave or the “gift” of being given refuge. Yes, there have been some who have documented the rough conditions refugees go through, but rarely do people focus on the PROCESS as one of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

    I was really struck by your comment (as he relayed to you) “…all repeatedly ask him the same questions without giving him any notice that they were coming or even ask him permission to talk to him.” Imagine how frustrated we as Americans get when we’re asked the same question twice by any government agency, let alone asked over and over again to repeat TO TOTAL STRANGERS the most difficult and trying experiences of our life.

    Last, what a powerful testament to the two individuals’ agency and purpose in wanting to be able to have an impact on the lives of others! This is an experience you are opening up for these two men (and others) well beyond any image you make!

    Finally, the experience navigating this difficult situation happens for each fellow at some point and I just know how unsettling it must have been. Bravo for getting through it and for sticking with the tough spots!

  2. Part II: you are getting a firsthand education about what it means to be trauma-informed, to actually put concern for human dignity into practice, and to uphold the power of someone’s agency (to speak, to participate, to contribute…or not). It strikes me that this is one of the most profound aspects of the work of my co-workers across Heartland that I’ve had the benefit of witnessing. Even asking for permission is a powerful act. And now it is something you can not only do but be explicit about (not that you don’t already ask for permission — I realize you are quite practiced in photographing human subjects).

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