Last Night I Dreamt I was a Refugee

Last night I dreamt I was a refugee.

I was offered an opportunity by a stranger, “leave with us or stay here and die. If you go with us, you may also die, but you may also make it to safety and have a future. If you stay here, there is no future. And if you die, at least you die trying to survive, here you are a victim.”

Making the decision was the hardest part. They said I could never come back if I got on the boat, they said there was no way back home. There was not even enough time to say goodbye; if I did not make it safely to shore, my family would never know what had become of me.

I was in love in my dream, and I knew I could never see my lover again, and it filled me with agony and distress. So I asked myself, is it better to die soon, being able to see my family and my love each day for the time we had left? If I stay I would die, or I would watch them die or both. I would have no future where I was.

The other option was try to live a full life, but I would always miss my family and wonder if they were alive, hurt, sick or maybe doing fine.

I decided to go, somehow I felt that I owed it to my family to stay alive, I knew they would want me to have a future, even if I was leaving them behind to face such danger and hardships. I had an opportunity and I had to take it.

We stepped into a small raft and pushed off out to the sea, the journey was terrifying and perilous, but we made it. In my dream I arrived to a land where everything was different and I didn’t know how to live, or act or be. It was scary, and I was terrified. Soon after, I had gotten word that my family was killed and that everyone I knew was dead. The indescribable pain that followed made me believe that maybe I had died too.

Last night I dreamt I was a refugee and it was a nightmare.

Michaelle
Refugee rights advocate/caseworker
Doctoral researcher on refugees and human wellbeing.

Turtle Poem

 

01 First steps into the unknown

First steps into the unknown,

 

02 Walk together

walk together,

 

03 Walk alone

walk alone.

 

04 It's a long road and we stray

It’s a long road and we stray,

 

05 And many times we wonder

many times we wonder,

 

06 Which way

which way.

 

07 Crossing hurdles and hills

Crossing hurdles and hills,

 

08 Its daunting

it’s daunting,

 

09 But daunting also thrills

but daunting also thrills.

 

10 So embrace the crazy ride

So we learn to embrace the crazy ride,

 

11 The magnificent unpredictability of life

the magnificent unpredictability of life,

 

12 And surf the tide

and surf its tide.

 

The Best of 2014

We started this blog in May 2014 when Michaelle was living in Bangkok, Rachel was living in San Fransisco, and Jennie in Rwanda. Now eight months later, Michaelle is in Brighton, Jennie moved to Tanzania and Rachel is keeping us represented in Bangkok (the place we all met).

To celebrate the fantastic year of 2014, we thought we’d do a joint Christmas post looking back on the highlights of year, what we’ve experienced and learnt.

We always hope that by sharing our experiences we are creating a space where people, especially people away from their families and homes of origin, can find some reassurance, comfort, empathy, or just some amusement. We hope you have been enjoying our random posts this year and will keep up with us in 2015, we promise to get into loads of trouble, maybe even jump out of an airplane again.

Without further ado, The Best of 2014!

The most valuable thing I learnt

Michaelle: It was the year of learning, but I guess the number one thing I learned is that life has a way of working itself out; the answer presents itself eventually to all perceived problems. This year I am going to try to keep that in mind instead of worrying so much!

Jennie: It was without doubt the best year of my life for new learnings, but the most valuable thing I learnt must be that it’s never exclusively a bad thing to find yourself in a difficult situation. With some determination and courage, hardships can open up doors to fantastic new opportunities and possibilities.

Rachel: I’ve lived in three countries this year – Australia, the United States and Thailand. This experience exposed me to three very different cultures, very different communities of people and the very different values and beliefs of individuals living very different lives. What I’ve learnt is that our interests (and our obsessions) are not a given; we weren’t born with them, we were born into them – they are largely shaped by the environments in which we live. This is not surprising, but what is surprising is that despite the circumstantial (and therefore, arbitrary) shaping of our own values and beliefs, we cling to them with conviction, so much so that we often cannot identify with contradictory or differing perspectives. Many of us are willing to openly persecute, vilify or denigrate others to defend our own perspectives. Of course, civilized disagreement is good – it can lead to healthy debate, the readjustment of our thinking and ultimately, the advancement of human consciousness. My point is that we are pretty bad at adjusting our perspectives and even more simply, at respecting different ones. In 2014, I’ve witnessed the “great human disconnect” (which is arguably made worse communication technologies and social media platforms that seem to fortify communities of shared values). The most valuable thing I’ve learnt then is that at least on a personal level, I’ve really got to work on my listening skills.

2014’s Most Unexpected

Michaelle: I never would have expected to gain a brand new family. In 2014 I was so welcomed into the Palestinian-Syrian refugee community in Bangkok  and  I never could have expected so much love from a group of people. Also, after having faced a war in Syria and innumerable hardships in Bangkok, you could never imagine how much love they still have to give. They make me believe in the good in the world and I am proud and inspired by their strength.

Finding family everywhere

Finding family everywhere

Jennie: Everything about 2014 was unexpected. I started it off rather miserable, having recently split with my fiancé, more or less unemployed and temporarily living with my parents in a snowy and dark Sweden. I remember watching the fireworks on my own on New Year’s Eve – my parents at a party and my guests already home with their two small children. The future seemed a tad gloomy.

In the midst of it all, I had this nagging gut feeling telling me that I needed to go back to Rwanda for a volunteer opportunity. I didn’t have much money and no real plan B, but went anyway. Now, a year later, I’m looking back on 2014 and seeing some of the best times of my life. I have made a ridiculous amount of new friends, many which I’ll keep for life, and I’ve landed a dream job in Tanzania.

This New Year’s Eve, I spent in Dar es Salaam cooking up a storm with three (2014 new) good friends. I couldn’t be happier.

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NYE 2013, not quite the party we had this year.

Rachel: Late one Monday night, I was lost in Los Gatos, California, with Terry Hershner. There was almost no charge left on his electric motorcycle – our only mode of transportation on a public holiday in this small isolated city. Cold, hungry, grumpy, lost, we stumbled across the only bar in town showing any sign of life – a group of beautiful, middle-aged women enjoying the remnants of a lavish meal. The restaurant had closed, but out of kindness, these women invited us to join their table and before we knew it, we were the centre of their attention, eating their leftovers, drinking their wine and sharing stories of our journeys across California on Terry’s electric motorcycle. This was the night I met Durga, an Indian, cricket playing venture capitalist with a gapingly open heart and open mind. After we’d finished eating, she invited us back to her house and almost 24 hours later, several Indian meals later, we were still there, sharing stories, exchanging beliefs and how we each hoped to impact the world. It was the most unexpected encounter of my life to date and it’s a day I’ll never forget. I think of Durga often and how wonderful it is to live so openly and without judgment to the strangers around us.

I spent too much time worrying/thinking about…

Michaelle: Men. They take up entirely too much time. On top of that, I have the worst taste in men. If I were the statue of liberty my sign would read “Give me your passive aggressive, your emotionally unavailable, your masses of idiots”. I have no general solution on the topic, however.

Jennie: Contract extensions. Job applications. Written tests for jobs. Job interviews. Those stupid things I said in job interviews. Hearing back from job interviews. Whether or not I would get job A, B or C and move to X, Y or Z. Whether or not I would die unemployed and penniless of exhaustion.

Rachel: I want to help create educational resources for kids. At some point in the process of creating these resources, I started to question my own motivation  – was I doing this because I believed in the cause, or because I wanted to prove myself and my own capabilities? I had definitely taken a fairly significant stand in moving away from the UN system to go it on my own. But was this about ego or conviction? Once the idea entered my head, I found it hard to erase and I could not easily separate these two driving forces. In the end, worrying about this has held me back from doing something important. As Mark Twain famously penned, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” There is no point stalling. In 2015, it’s time to start creating.

I particularly remember this one happy moment…

Michaelle: I was getting into bed one night in Bangkok in the flat I shared with a wonderful woman named Erin. I yelled goodnight to her through my open door into the neighbouring kitchen. She responds with, “Did you just say I love you?”

“Haha, no,” I said, “but I do!” And we started saying I love you before bed each night. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it always felt like a real home there, and when you are so far from your roots, it is all you need.

Jennie: 2014 was the year of road trips. I think it was in September, three good friends and I travelled up to Musanze and Burera in Rwanda. We found some stunning spots with views over lakes, mountains and volcanoes. We took silly photos of ourselves surveying the lands and came up with inside jokes we’re still laughing about. We ate home-made pasta at a small Italian restaurant, drank tequila shots and played semi-drunken “would you rather”. Having recently gotten a new job, I knew I’d soon have to leave beautiful Rwanda and these friends behind. Rather than feeling sad, it made me appreciate the time we had together so much more.

jennie tanzania

Rachel: I was in Barcelona on the Feast Day of St Joan, the start of Summer and the longest day of the year for the Spaniards. It was also my final day in Spain after a three week holiday. I remember reflecting on my state of mind and I realized that I could not remember feeling happier than I had over those past few months and especially those past few weeks holidaying in Spain. My happiness was tied to the beautiful company, the weather, the tastes and smells of Spain and then also the perfect dosage of alone time for necessary contemplation and appreciation. As I wrote then: “It’s late and I’m sitting beside an 85 year old women in a wheelchair who is drinking wine and laughing her head off. I don’t understand a word she says. Sometimes I fear that I’ve reached peak happiness. Watching her tonight, and with all that lies ahead, I doubt that could be true. So with firecrackers all around, salud to you Espana, for reminding me that happiness is always right here right now and that life – for it’s a jagged edges – is beautiful.”

Three people I would like to thank and why

Michaelle: There are too many. Can I group them into threes?

1.Fouad, Shouaq, Ibrahim for helping me with my PhD and becoming my family.

2. Dave Green and Erin Bodnar for emotionally supporting me through a super tough year.

3. Jennie and Rachel for always, always listening.

There are too many more people to thank and I am so grateful for all of them.

Jennie: I will only mention two: Michaelle and Rachel. Although I could easily write a 10 page essay about why, I will settle with them just being there, every step of the journey, always. Crying with me, laughing with me, telling me off, giving me advice and letting me do the same for them.

Rachel: Aside from Jennie and Michaelle, you have become like sisters to me, here’s mine:

Terry. In 2014, I spent two months with the wonderful Terry Hershner, helping promote the film Kick Gas and also learning a lot more about electric vehicle technology from one of the greatest EV enthusiasts in the world. Intellectually, Terry is far superior to me – I could not pretend to keep pace with his brilliant mind. Nonetheless, we have a beautiful connection and he has a beautiful heart. For all that he hopes to achieve in pushing electric vehicle technology and for all his crazy ideas, I admire Terry immensely. My life is richer simply for having met him.

Azin. Michaelle and I were playing tinder one night in Bangkok when Azin popped up as a match. She grabbed my phone and starting texting him. We met Azin that night and while he was only passing through the city and looking for friends to meet, for us, this was anything but a momentary passing. Since we met in July, I’ve come to regard Azin as one of the greatest listeners I’ve ever known. He’s also one of the most driven and most ambitious. For the something within that drives his entrepreneurial spirit, Azin has inspired in me a greater confidence in my own capability.

Ibrahim. If my year has been wild and carefree, Ibrahim’s has been the complete opposite. Some people have real problems and I am not one of them. But some of those that do have the inner resilience to not only overcome real challenges in their personal lives, but to pull the rest of us along with them, empowering us and inspiring us too. Ibrahim doesn’t judge a soul and in his humility and openness, he inspires me to be a better person. I don’t believe it’s coincidence that he and I have crossed paths in this life. Ibrahim has taught me a lot about the real challenges of so many in this world and about human connection.

Rachel and Terry on their many adventures

Rachel on one of her many adventures

2014 described with three words

Michaelle: Challenging. Eye-opening. Over (thankfully).

Jennie: Metamorphosis. Friendship. Adventure.

Rachel: Painful. Exhilarating. Joyous.

Michaelle's 2014 summarized here.

In Summary: Michaelle’s 2014

What I’m looking forward to in 2015

Michaelle: Finishing my PhD, writing a book, the conflict ending in Syria. I also hope to just go with it a bit more this year, I am on the right path, this much I am certain, I just need to stay on it and enjoy the ride.

Jennie: Seeing my parents again after more than a year and taking them on an epic holiday through East Africa: gorillas, safaris, craters, beaches, mountains and lakes. Showing them where I’ve lived and where I’m living, watching them also fall in love with these stunning places. It’s long overdue.

And while 2014 was a year of personal growth, transformation and change, I think 2015 will “institutionalise” these changes, slow things down and make the ride a bit more comfortable. Yet not any less fun!

Rachel: In 2014, I existed like a feather in the wind, floating by observing the lives of those around me, and occasionally getting sucked into them. I’ll be 30 in 2015 and I consider that an age of marked maturity and a time to transition from the role of passive student to proactive instigator. I’m feeling wiser for my wild and carefree 2014 and I think I needed this year off to reevaluate my values. Floating through so many very different communities in so many different countries has been critical to this. Ultimately it’s strengthened the convictions I’ve always held and with a stronger sense of self, I’m excited to see what I’m capable of creating.

UN Women and Emma Watson – The Missed Opportunity

I don’t often get very angry, but this morning I almost choked on my coffee when the first thing I saw as I opened up my laptop was this:

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I’m an avid supporter of UN Women: I interned with them in Bangkok in 2010 and was voted in as committee member for the UN Women UK London Branch in 2011. I think UN Women does great things. And Emma Watson for that matter. Her whole “girl next door” look is what makes her so great – we can all see bits of ourselves in her. She’s pretty yes, but not conventionally stunning. A bit awkward looking even and skinny, but not in an “I’m starving myself” way but because she hasn’t necessarily grown into a full-blown woman yet (no criticism here, I still look like a teenager at 30 so I can totally relate).

So why did this news make me angry? I think you’ve probably figured it out already (although I was desperately scrolling down among the comments on that post without seeing any similar reactions). Do you recognise the woman in the photo? “Yeah, that’s Emma, right,” you’re thinking. “She looks stunning,” you’re probably also thinking. “But perhaps she doesn’t really look like she normally does?”

Head on the nail.  A qualified guess is that the photo has been retouched. Not just a little bit but a lot (what on earth happened to her mouth?!). This is Emma as we know her, with freckles, dimples, a wonky mouth with a bigger bottom lip:

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You might not think it’s a big deal, retouching is a part of our daily lives. EVERYONE does it. Even you and I when we put that Sierra filter on our photos on Instagram to wash out those drunken red faces. But the whole idea of a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador is to support women around the world by setting a good example. With this photo, they don’t only fail that task miserably, they send the completely wrong message to women:

We have to be beautiful.

We’re not beautiful if we’re not perfect.

We have to be perfect.

How many women don’t struggle with this idea of being perfect? Almost all the women I know do, on a daily basis, whether they voice it or not. It is the number one thing that holds us back.

In this photo, Emma is not the girl next door anymore, she’s not you and me. She’s a famous, stunning, unreachable actress and we can only strive to be as amazing.

Of course, I don’t have any proof to back up my claim that the photo is retouched. None at all. And although my gut tells me that common sense is proof enough, I want to be diplomatic. So let’s say it isn’t, would that change things? Honestly, no. That photo made someone who doesn’t normally get very angry write this post, for a start. Even the fact that one might think the photo is retouched is a problem.  That Emma looks “perfect” is all well and good for her, but when conveying messages to women around the world, UN Women, out of everyone, should carefully consider what is actually being said.

You might want to argue here that a Goodwill Ambassador is always a talented celebrity raising the profile of the organisation and it’s work. Yes, that’s fine. But there are tons of opportunities to use this fact in a positive  way (especially with Emma Watson, I’m stunned by this missed opportunity!) and we must ask ourselves if we are slowly but surely breaking stereotypes down or if we are reinforcing them? Are we celebrating the beauty, perfection and talent of the girl next door or did we just put her on a pedestal and superglued her to it? Are we making women feel beautiful just the way they are or encouraging them to botox their lips and bleach away their freckles (or find a suitable app that does the same)? You tell me, UN Women and Emma Watson.

Abandoned Places

I always thought there was something so fascinating about abandoned places.  Partly because I love photography and they make for the most extraordinary motifs, but mostly because of their haunting, inherent sadness – they once carried such great potential, they were the objects of expectations, hopes and desires to achieve something unique. Now, they might look like nothing to the bypasser. They might look like dirt and trash, unworthy of our attention. But I would like to argue that there is rare beauty in the sadness they bear, and there is always a concealed story of hope, often unknown to the world around.

There is one such place in Kigali, Rwanda. In the middle of the city, there is a small lake surrounded by an array of green vegetation, and somewhere in there, you can find an abandoned amusement park. The story goes – as recollected from various sources and rumours – that a woman brought over the rides and statues from China approximately 10 years ago, but was then unable to get the park approved and opened. The result is  a wonderfully bizarre and unique abandoned place in the very heart of Kigali. You can literally walk past it on the street, not knowing that what hides behind the greenery a few meters below in the valley.

If you ever come here, I will show you were it is. In the meantime, please do enjoy these photos. I hope you find them weird, ugly, beautiful, sad, mysterious, bizarre, random, terrible, fun, intriguing, unnerving  – anything but nothing.

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In Memory

This piece was performed at the Bangkok Poetry’s Event entitled “In Memory.” It was held May 22nd at WTF Gallery in Bangkok. The audience turnout was low due to the coup, so I thought to share it here.

Earlier this month, a friend of ours was killed in Cambodia. What struck me so hard about losing her was that, while I only knew her from a few encounters, quite a few years back, I felt her loss very strongly. My sense of loss was so intense that it got me questioning what really makes a memory? When I saw the “In Memory” theme come up just a few days after, I felt compelled to write and perform something in her honour. I am not much of a writer or a performer, but I felt the need to do something. So this is for Daphna Beerdsen and her daughter Dana. May they live on, not in our memories, but in our DNA.

“In Memory”

I don’t care for this term, this idea that we carry people in our minds after they leave us, it just doesn’t sit well with me.  You see, memory is the retrieval of encoded and stored data from the hippocampus located in the temporal lobe of the brain.

The way I feel when I think of the people that I have lost, I am sure that this description is less than sufficient.

Every day, in one way or another, we interact with 100s, maybe thousands of individuals- all day, every day, for most of us- from grocery store clerks to fellow commuters. This does not even take into account friends, family and acquaintances.

We see people, we hear people, and receive numerous electronic messages from people all day long, every day. Roughly, if you were to add it up, you would count, at minimum, 40,000 encounters a year. At the end of our lives we will have experienced millions and millions of interactions with other humans.

I have come to realize over the years, that when you interact, in anyway with someone, whether you pick up their change on the side of the road, yell at them for jumping the queue, or tell them your life story, you make them a part of you. What I mean by this is that these interactions shape us, they build us, as if they were restructuring our entire DNA sequence, whether we remember these individuals or not. These interactions are embedded in our subconscious forever, resulting in how we see the world.

With all these interactions, we remember some so strongly. THAT “data” is stored in the conscious mind, but for others, these encounters will slip by unnoticed. By this logic, if every interaction is life changing, and so damn important, why do we only remember a select few?

Now, over the course of my life I have lost many people, in one way or another, just due to prolonged travel, arguments and obstinance, and when people leave this life for good. What I have come to realise is that, when these people leave us, we can hold onto memories, and that is all well and good. We can retrieve all kinds of encoded and stored data: names, faces, laughs, smiles, acts of kindness, conversations, etc. But for those that we miss the most, is it the remembering itself that causes us so much anguish? Or is there something else?

In life there are times when you truly let someone in, when you are truly open to people, whether you interact with someone on a continual basis or just once. What’s left when they’re gone is more than a memory, more than data. There are these people that are open to us, that let us in, that let us take parts of them, even though the risks are great. These people will receive you, they invite you in. You don’t have to know them for long, sometimes you can spend a night drinking with them, or meet them on a long bus ride. These people are open, and ready to let you transform their DNA, for better or worse. And when this happens, they don’t just remain in your brain, they take over your whole heart and soul.

This openness, it is the key, it brings us together, it elucidates the infinite connections all around us, it reminds us that no matter where we are from, or what we are carrying around, we are connected. These people mark your soul and permeate your being. When these people leave your presence, something remains behind and it is not a damn memory, it is so much more.

The thing about memories is, they fade. When your brain no longer needs the stored data it shifts it just out of your reach to make space for things like Katie Perry’s song lyrics and other useless information. That, however, does not mean the indelible mark that people leave on your heart and soul will ever go away. Under this logic you can change the world by kindness, compassion and, by opening your heart, by not being afraid to give a piece of you away with every encounter. By doing this you will receive love in return, which will fill the void and that is the connection that makes life worth living, and that is what you are leaving behind.

And so to Daphna, and all the others that have left long before I wish they would have,

I am sorry, you will not live on in my memory, my data encoding and storing hippocampus will let you go one day, but you will live in every part of my heart and soul. I hope keeping a part of you here on earth is ok with you because you left behind a lot with me and with everyone else who was lucky enough to receive your love and kindness.

A Quick Intro…

2012 The Dubliner - Bangkok, Thailand

2012 The Dubliner – Bangkok, Thailand

Although the purpose of this blog is not to talk about us, I wanted to give you an idea of how our friendship came to be.

Jennie, Rachel and I have been friends for a while now. In the international nomad scheme of things, we have been friends for 7 lifetimes. I met Jennie in April 2010, but got to know her after sending a random text message to her in June of the same year. While en route to Bangkok from the Cambodian border on a visa run, I wanted to let her know I was there for her. We did not know one another very well, but she was having a rough time and I told her, if she needed anything at all, and I meant it, anything at all (a place to stay, a person to talk to, whatever!) I was there. I will never forget her response:

“What a lovely message, thank you so much. I just wish I knew who sent me such a lovely message, since I don’t have your number saved.”

I laughed to myself and was very embarrassed. See, I have this tendency to be a bit full on and very impetuous. Jennie, on the other hand, has a tendency to avoid people like me. In fact, I have seen her run from them. But in times of struggle, beggars cannot be choosers, and a friendship was born. Soon after, she left Bangkok, but our deep bond remained firm.

Now, Rachel. I first came to know of Rachel’s existence in Bangkok in late Summer/ early Autumn 2010. My boyfriend at the time came home at 4 a.m. from a bar in Bangkok called Wongs. Still buzzing from the evening, upon arrival, he began excitedly showing me pictures of the night’s events. I was looking through a group shot and spotted her, smiling her beautiful smile, also just so happening to be standing next to my ex. “Who is that?” I asked. “Oh that is Rachel, a friend of Nick’s,” he responded. “I have never heard of her,” I said, but what I was thinking was, “That Bitch!”

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Oh, my mature, 26 year-old self. If I only knew what a wonderful person she was and that she would end up being one of my best friends in the world. I ended up meeting her at a house warming party soon after and pretty much loved her instantly. I felt like my bold behaviour shocked her a bit, but she warmed to me eventually.

On my last day in Bangkok, October 2011, when I was moving to Kathmandu, Jennie moved back to Bangkok to take over my job at a UN agency where I was working. It just so happened that Rachel and I became colleagues many months after we first met, and we sat right next to one another.

Jennie moved into my spot, my job and my apartment, and I took off for Nepal. She and Rachel became close in my absence. Since, they have both left Bangkok, Jennie in Kigali, Rachel in the US. Of course, after they left, I returned. The three of us are rarely ever in the same city or the same country at the same time, but we run into each other now and again. Most of the time it is random, mostly unplanned, and it is always too short, but we make do.