I'm ashamed to admit how afraid I am to go to the Middle East. I'm not afraid of being a half day's walk from Syria's warzone -- I'm not afraid for my safety. I am afraid of the weight of the pain I will witness. Afraid it will drag me down beneath the surface of reason and drown me.
I am traveling with the International Rescue Committee, heading into the field again. Last year we went to Ban Mai Nai Soi, Thailand (at the Myanmar border), to observe some of the oldest refugee camps in the world. Those camps are established, well-organized, clean and largely free of disease; the inhabitants live a life that not anyone would choose, nationless and transitional, but it is a humane one. I spent my time there weighing babies at the peri-natal clinic, talking squash in the community gardens, watching a master woodcarver hew a prosthetic leg -- a dignified existence is afforded this community of refugees by the efforts of international aid organizations and the hard work of the camp's population itself.
This time the IRC and I are going to Jordan and northern Iraq to explore the operations there -- operations that are a part of the relief effort absorbing Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. And this time I will be neck deep in what they call GBV, or gender-based violence -- it's an innocuous term that includes the systematic rape and beating of women and girls. And I am scared witless.
I am a victim of sexual violence myself (no, I don't want to say more about it), and those wounds cut deeper, festered longer, and left fiercer scars than any I have sustained in my life. I don't know the pain of a refugee -- I tried to express it on The Walking Dead, exploring the story of a group of frightened people without a government to protect them -- but it was all make-believe and existed only in my imagination. But I do know what sexual violence feels like, I know the seeds of fear that root in the marrow of one's bones, I know the horror of powerlessness at the knowledge that one's daughter is never wholly safe.
It's one thing to write, speak, advocate, and lobby on behalf of refugees who's pain I can only imagine like those from Myanmar. But in reading about the GBV in the Syrian conflict, sitting with the women to hear those stories, and writing and speaking on their behalf, I am walking headlong into my own darkest night.
What to do with the weight of the stories the women from Syria will tell me? What happens when I look in their faces and recognize the same shrinking isolation I saw in the mirror for years? How can I fling a life-preserver to women adrift in shame, fear, and rage without drowning in it myself all over again?
I have no idea, and I am numb with fear. But I am getting on a plane in a few days to find out. And that has to be the first step, doesn't it? To sit with one another, share tea and air, and hear each other's stories. Maybe hearing those stories won't be like drowning after all, and maybe sharing my story won't be like walking out into the night alone. Maybe -- could this be how it works? -- sharing these stories, even through tears or shaking with anger, brings all of us the grace of knowing we are not alone, and that if any one of us can heal, so can we all.