Last Friday I sat on a student panel that discussed DukeEngage with parents visiting for the weekend. I’d been invited to speak about my experience with the DukeEngage in Jordan program, where I taught English to Iraqi, Syrian, Libyan and Palestinian refugees. Even though I received the moderator’s questions before the panel event, I hadn’t prepared at all. So I stumbled when I was asked, “How have you applied your summer experience now that you’re back at Duke?” I rambled at first, because I realized on the stage that I didn’t know the answer. I’ve spent several months back in the United States, and I’ve since reflected and processed my summer in Jordan. But, even after months of processing, the answers to questions about my summer are so incredibly difficult to articulate.
Since I’ve been back, many people have asked me how my summer went. Social norms always pressure me to give a short answer—I don’t want to burden anyone with a 20-minute story unless they ask for it. So I instead give a one-minute summary that never does my summer justice. Since I know I’ll ramble, I’ve memorized an answer—“My summer was very challenging but so rewarding. I spent 10 weeks teaching English to refugees and I beta-tested a mobile application I’m developing. I had some great experiences there but I’m so glad to be back at Duke.” Notice the last clause—an added flourish to redirect the conversation away from the summer. Because the truth is, I’m not prepared to give any more summaries of my summer. There’s so much to tell and share, and I know if I’m asked any follow-up questions I won’t be able to give a short answer. I’d rather just not talk about it.
When I’m asked a follow-up question, I usually tell a short story. I’ve processed my summer in vignettes because they slice up everything so it’s not so overwhelming. And there are so many stories to choose from. I reach into a memory of gems and randomly pull one out. I tell the story. There won’t be blatant commentary, but depth will be embedded in the distanced tone. I’ll wrap the story up with another flourish, a forced push back to reality.
Here’s an example. One afternoon in Jordan my English class was canceled, so I went with a supervisor at my organization (let’s call him Nadeem) to a case management interview. We headed to a decaying apartment building near our organization. We entered and knocked on apartment three. A woman with a hastily tied hijab greeted us; behind her was a man supporting himself with two steel crutches. His legs noticeably bulged outwards at the knee and he was wearing cargo capris. We sat on a threadbare couch. After a few questions Nadeem pulled out his small camera and gestured toward the man’s legs. The man then pulled up his capris—it was grotesque. Just below each knee a gnarled mass sagged. The masses were streaked with veins and had valleys where muscle without bone had grown. Under each mass the leg was appallingly thin, not more than five inches in circumference. The man then leaned forward for a demonstration. He grasped his knees with his hands and pushed down—the legs heaved out with a bend at the swollen mass. I grimaced, and the man noticed, so he pulled his capris back down. Nadeem asked several more questions but it was hard for me to focus. When we left, Nadeem told me that militia in Iraq came to the man’s home looking for his brother—when the man refused to give any information they held him down on his kitchen table and beat his shins with the butts of their Kalashnikovs. The man’s legs are still technically broken, three years later, because he’s never received adequate medical treatment.
I could tell more stories. I have told more stories—in class, in my columns, in short conversations with people I run into. I’m still shocked and overwhelmed by the tragedy I saw, and I ground my resilience in storytelling. I could tell more stories because I don’t want to forget anyone I met in Jordan. I got to come back to the United States. The man with the broken legs, along with everyone else I met, is still in Jordan. They haven’t found a solution, and I haven’t found peace.
I don’t want to be a recluse. For me, wallowing in bed with the memories of a summer past isn’t a future. I take action through storytelling; I guess I think that I’m doing something to help the world when I recount. However, I avoid telling my own story because the conclusion is still so obscure. The summer is over, but the introspection is not.
DukeEngage was an unforgettable experience that expanded my own capacity for stress, hard work and pain. I would never take my summer back. I look at students this week who are polishing their applications to DukeEngage with admiration because I’ve been there before. But, I always want to add, “I’ve been there … and back.” Working in Jordan was an adventure that ended when I passed through U.S. Customs. Now, I’m on a new adventure, a post-DukeEngage odyssey. It’s an odyssey because I’m still trying to get home, to the place and person I knew before I left. I’m not at all sure I’ll make it back.
Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickoathout.