“After this our exile…”: My Glimpse into the Refugee’s Plight

by ursavoice

Sam Lam
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

Over winter break, two classmates, Lauren Gruber (1L) and Susan Lewis (2L), and I went to Amman, Jordan as part of our work with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). On the day before our fact-finding and client meetings actually began, I lost my passport. Now, I have little idea whether losing a passport is a big deal to most people, but for me it was terrifying.

I scoured my bags, my jackets, my pants, every nook and cranny of my hotel room. I felt as if I were tearing open the seams of my world for something more than just a tiny blue booklet. I was searching for my connection to home, for truly “you take my house, when you do take the prop / that doth sustain my house; you take my life, / when you do take the means whereby I live.”1

I went online and tried to figure out how to get an emergency passport, and it turned out that I first had to get a police report from Amman authorities before I could even apply for an emergency passport with the U.S. embassy. Because it was already late into the night when I discovered I lost my passport, I had to wait until the next morning when police stations would re-open. So for one sleepless evening, I wallowed in the darkness of the realization that I could not return to the U.S. if I wanted—that is, I could not return home.

The next morning I prayed all the prayers I had to Saint Anthony, and I also prayed the rosary. There is a prayer to Mary at the end of the rosary that includes the following verse:

Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb…

When I hit the line “after this our exile,” I began to sob. I suddenly remembered that none of this was about me. The relatively insignificant uncertainty I felt about being unable to return home was nary a glimpse into the experiences of the very people I was in Jordan to help: refugees.

When I lost my passport, folks nearby reassured me that there were ways of my getting an emergency passport, but of course that would cost a handsome fee, and in any case, “you’re an American, Sam, so don’t worry—you’ll get back home.” In retrospect, this was a bittersweet reassurance. It was only by dint of the luxuries of my circumstance that I could find a way to get home, but what about others who are not as fortunate as I am, but who nevertheless deserve just as much as I do to have a home?

Because I was an American, that meant I “would be taken care of.” I could afford the emergency passport fee if I really needed to get one. Susan and I were blessed to meet a Palestinian American who was staying in our hotel and who graciously spent the entire next morning with us, going from police department to police department translating Arabic for me. (Heaven knows what I would have done without him.) So, yes, I had people to take care of me, I was so lucky. But what about people who cannot return home because of war, persecution, or famine? How do they return, when no amount of money can purchase a route back, when even if there were a dollar amount one could not afford it, when one does not have a guide, a path, to lead the way home?

The answer is, of course, that refugees cannot go home. And that was the theme of the entire trip for me. For a week, I met and heard about Iraqi refugees who were in a state of limbo. They had arrived in Jordan, Syria, or other neighboring countries gracious enough to take them in but, for rather legitimate reasons, cannot or will not do much more. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that Iraqi refugees generally do not have work authorization in these host countries, and for many families, the inability to work means the inability to live, in all senses of that word. (“You take my life, / when you do take the means whereby I live….”)

So these men, women, children, and families wait indefinitely, some for many years, not yet able to get resettled in any other country, unable to return home, “stuck” in a place where they cannot really do anything but wait and hope, except that as time passes, hope can only renew itself by a reserve of energy that is itself finite. In short, the refugees I met look exhausted. Some considered going back to Iraq and risk dying because at least it meant they were doing something, going somewhere.

As I was riding in a taxicab en route from one police department to another trying to get together this police report, I got a call from Lauren. She said the U.S. embassy had called our hotel and told them that an individual found my passport and turned it in.2 Susan and I, along with our new friend, had the taxi driver take us to the U.S. embassy, where I picked up my passport within minutes. I do not think I have held onto any artifact so tightly in my life—this, my talisman for Home.

In my journal entry for that day, I wrote the following prayer:

I pray for those who cannot return home. May what tiny fear, loss, uncertainty, exhaustion, and sorrow I feel give me a glimpse into that much greater suffering of the displaced and homeless in the world.

2. Particular thanks go out to Anna Davis, our pro bono director, for having us register with the Department of State before we went to Jordan. It turns out that was how the U.S. embassy in Jordan was able to connect my passport with where I was staying.