Resisting a single story

Recently, at the nonprofit office where I work , a new volunteer came in to help members of our community look for their first jobs in Canada.  As we debriefed at the end of the day, she expressed surprise about the level of skill and competence shown by the people she had met. She was impressed by their high level of education and professional experience, and she told me that she hadn’t expected refugees to be like that. “Someone should write about this,” she told me. “People don’t know this about refugees.”

I am grateful that this volunteer had the chance to encounter people seeking refuge in Canada face-to-face, and that she allowed the experience to challenge the stories of refugees she had encountered up to that point. Her surprise alludes to one of the narratives I often hear repeated about refugees in popular culture these days: that they are helpless, passive recipients of charity. This narrative has no doubt motivated a large number of people to help because it tugs on heart strings, but such a one-dimensional story is dehumanizing nonetheless. Though it is true that refugee newcomers have survived trauma and tragedy and are in need of assistance as they begin the process of rebuilding their lives in a new country, they are not merely the victims of the worst thing that has ever happened to them. The people I know who are living the refugee experience are protagonists in their own stories; often, they were forced to flee their home countries  in the first place because of courageous decisions to stand up for what they believe in, to defend the rights of others, or to be themselves in hostile places that demand conformity.

But beyond negating an individual’s agency in his or her own life, the “charity case” stereotype of refugees plays into the very destructive and misleading idea that we need to be careful about how many of these needy people we let into our country. According to this narrative, we could easily be swamped with people who will be a drain on resources and drag us all down by taking more than they contribute. Following this logic, we can begin to see refugees–or people in poverty generally–as a problem to be solved.

Yet I have discovered firsthand just how far from reality this story really is. The refugees in my life are medical doctors, diplomats, poets, human rights activists, engineers, journalists, and business people. They are children who arrive with no English and become fluent in a matter of months just by overhearing adults’ conversations or being thrown into a classroom where no one else speaks their language. Or they are housewives who never even had the chance to attend school in their home countries, but who are now eager to enroll in high school completion programs, learn language and culture, and start their careers.

The refugees I know are loving parents, loyal friends, socially engaged people who are eager to volunteer and give back to their communities. Basically, they’re the kind of neighbors that any of us would be lucky to live next door to, and the kind of people we should be welcoming into our nations with open arms—not only because it is the right thing to protect people who are vulnerable, but because of the amazing contributions these individuals will make to our society. Seeing all the creativity and energy my friends bring with them and all that they offer to our community, I am unable to reconcile my experience of them with the fear-mongering rhetoric of scarcity that tells us there are “too many” coming, or not enough resources to go around.

In her TED talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Adichie explains how the use of a single story to represent an entire nation or group ultimately “robs people of dignity. It makes makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult” because “it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” When Adichie discusses the complexity of her own childhood, touching both the happiness of her family and the fear of living under the rule of a military junta, she tells her audience, “All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only [the] negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

So let’s spend more time getting to know as many stories as we can: the stories that have formed us, and the stories that have formed the people we think we already know. The next time you hear a single story flattening refugees or  any other group into cardboard cut-outs of who they really are, think of the magnificent, multi-dimensional human beings I’ve just described, and challenge the narrative.

My guess is that the more stories we are able to hold at the same time about the same person or group of people, the less we will be able to draw firm lines between “us” and “them,” between who is “good” and who is “bad,” or between who belongs and who doesn’t. The more fluid our categories become, the more we will recognize pieces of ourselves in each other, and the more we will be both humbled and awed by what we see.

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