This week our nation mourned the death of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, killed last Tuesday in an attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi. During the past summer, I worked in Jordan through DukeEngage. While there, I met Libyan refugees who spoke highly of Ambassador Stevens. They respected the ambassador because they believed that with his guidance they had a chance to return to a stable, welcoming and democratic home. Those Libyans had the sort of hope that was inconceivable for Syrians, elusive for Iraqis and jaded for Palestinians.
But the death of Ambassador Stevens has reminded me of the overwhelming fragility of hope in the Middle East. It’s been nearly two months since I left Jordan, but I remember the people who are still there. Men, women, children—all refugees, searching for a home, for a life, with little hope to guide them. As I remember the refugees I met, worked with and lived with, I particularly recall one man and his daughter.
The memory begins in the office of the refugee organization where I work. I’m eating lunch with the supervisor (let’s call him Nadeem), and a man enters the office accompanied by a withdrawn, young girl. Nadeem shows them the couch and they sit down, perched on the cushions with tense expressions. Nadeem tells me they’re Iraqi; the girl is his daughter. The man looks like he’s in his early 30s, and he has dark hair and skin and thin, hooded eyes. His whiskers slip into his mouth when he speaks. That mouth moves in close to his daughter’s ears and he inaudibly whispers something that relaxes her tense posture. Nadeem brings them tea, and they begin to converse in Arabic.
It doesn’t take long for the man’s previously reserved demeanor to become desperate when Nadeem gives replies that do not satisfy. The man is yelling, not at anyone in the room, just yelling into the air. His daughter grows sullen and she sinks into the couch and digs her chin into her chest. Nadeem is telling the man to calm down, everything will be okay, but the man is then reaching into his black bag. He pulls out a folder, whips it open, removes a letter and pleadingly presents it to Nadeem. There’s acknowledgement from Nadeem and he gives a supportive nod. The man then gets up, holding his daughter’s hand, and they slowly exit the office with Nadeem’s words behind them.
I ask. Nadeem says, “He was denied resettlement in America without ability to appeal. And this man, he worked with American army in Baghdad. He has letter from White House saying he helped Americans. He does not know why he can’t even appeal and he is mad. He cannot return to Iraq because the militia, they will kill him because he worked with American army. He is also Christian, so little support back home. He has no time for job because he has to take care of his daughter—his wife is dead, the girl, she has no mother. He say, ‘Why they deny me? I have no future, I help American army. I have letter from White House.’”
Iraqis who helped the American army usually get preferential treatment in the refugee resettlement process. This man’s application for resettlement was not only rejected but also denied an opportunity for appeal. I ask Nadeem why he thinks the International Organization for Migration (IOM) made this decision. Nadeem says, “I think maybe he defect from army. The army remembers if people go, but they don’t understand that they must leave to protect their family from militia. I don’t ask this man but I guess. He is too crazy, this affect his psychology. Now American army has left; he has nothing but his daughter.”
Months after my encounter with the collaborator, I haven’t forgotten his story. That man kept the hopes for his future, the hopes for his daughter’s future, in a letter from the White House. But he left his hopes in our office, and I wanted to chase after him and give them back. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I look at the Middle East now, and my own hopes for peace are elusive. But the death of Ambassador Stevens reminded me why we can’t let go. Our country must continue to work toward peace in the Middle East, and the path to that peace starts with the contagious hope of democracy. Libyans won their revolution, in part because they were guided by the leadership of Ambassador Stevens. The ambassador was a dedicated public servant who managed to inspire while also serving his country. Yet, there are still so many individuals without hope, like the Iraqi collaborator. In memory of the ambassador, I hope all of us can continue to work toward peace in the Middle East. For the sake of all who have helped us, we cannot give up.
Patrick Oathout is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickoathout