by Jax Streng
Stories have the power to change lives. It was a powerful revelation during a trip overseas that led me on the path of reporting on the resiliency and tragedies that victims of conflict, oppression and poverty face.
When I was 18 years old, I spent two months volunteering in Pune, India. For most of that time, I was living and working at a safe home for youth who had been rescued from living on the streets. The street life I witnessed in India is brutal. Due to the caste system and many other factors, children are neglected, abused and often do not have a family. It was at the home where I met a 10-year-old boy named James and learned his story.
James lost his parents to HIV/AIDS and was living completely on his own on the streets by four years old. I grew to love James fiercely. He was pure innocence in my eyes. I spent weeks taking care of him and other kids, slowly unfurling more and more of who he was.
To me, James was not a street kid, nor an orphan. He was a human being with a story, and that story completely changed both myself and how I saw the world. I wondered how his story could also open the minds of other people. And if not his story, then how could stories in general bring about transformative, positive change in our world.
After another year of volunteering, I enrolled at Palm Beach Atlantic University and majored in journalism. I wanted to learn the tools of investigating, interviewing, and proper news writing, while consciously keeping in my mind the idea of human storytelling. I think the problem with traditional news is that we become overwhelmed by tragedy and desensitized to the human behind that tragedy. We separate the facts from those who are affected by those facts. I believe in a different approach.
Following graduation, I went with a professor and other students to the Middle East for three weeks. We visited Jordan, near the Syrian border, to gather the stories of Syrian refugees who had fled into Jordan. While most of team worked on a documentary, I did my own photography and interviewed the refugee families I met.
Being that policies and news surrounding refugees have been the focus in current events, I wondered if I could use my skills to bring humanity to the forefront. What if we move beyond these policy issues? Who are the people being affected? What have they been through? How are they like us? One of my favorite quotes is, “People fear what they do not understand.” I wanted to tell the stories of refugees, and let them be seen, heard and understood for who they are. Maybe then, the rest of the world would have a clearer perspective and could make their own conclusions from there about how they feel on the issue.
We are thrown endless information on Islam, the Syrian War and on Middle Eastern culture. But is all of that information true? Is it in context? What do people who actually live there have to say? I wanted to give them a platform to be heard, where they weren’t just a sad story but living, breathing, people with depth and emotion.
I ended up gathering the stories of five different refugee families. I was constantly humbled throughout the entire process. I met the most hospitable, loving and strong people. I felt joy, heartache, frustration, and many other emotions. These families opened up and took me through the most trying moments of their lives. They wanted people to know what they had been through, and I felt honored to be their liaison.
One of the families I had met lived as farmers in the countryside of Aleppo, Syria. One day during a conflict between two warring parties, a missile hit their home. Four of their daughters were in the kitchen when this happened, and the explosion left them with severe burns. The parents were able to rescue all of the children from the house, but fled Syria soon after. Khitam, who was four at the time of the attack, has needed 13 plastic surgeries since. They lost everything, but despite this, the father Khalaf beamed so much joy and was one of the most loving fathers I have ever encountered.
Meditation keeps me joyful. Sadness, whatever reason might cause it, will lead to sickness on many levels. Physical. Psychological. Sadness will not bring good fruit. I will not open the door to sadness and let it win.
I also met Hammad. He was 18 years old, working construction in Homs, Syria, when a mortar was thrown into the building he was working on and exploded in front of him, embedding shrapnel in his brain and permanently injuring his leg. Many people back home in the United States related to Hammad because, of all things, a tattoo he had. I’ve found that stories which introduce a common thread between the reader and the subject have the biggest impact, so finding these commonalities became another task of mine.
My tattoo has a long story about a girl I met when I was younger. This ‘H’ is for the first letter of her name. H in Arabic also stands for habibti, which means, ‘my beloved.’ The last meeting we had, she told me she was going to get married. I could not stop her. I said, ‘You can go and get married, but I will be sad.’ She was sad too. But I told her, ‘I will leave a mark on my body to remember you by.’ So then I went and got it.
Amal was also from Homs, Syria. She survived tank and sniper fire, was forced to choose between the lives of her two children, and nearly lost her husband by capture of rebel forces, before making it to Jordan. She taught me so much on the importance of home, and has an intensely passionate personality that is contagious to anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting her.
I fled with just the dress I had on me: this dress here. It was the only thing I brought with me with the smell of my home.
One of the most inspiring people I met was M’hanna. He worked as a citizen journalist in Homs, secretly filming the misdeeds of both the Syrian government and rebel forces, uploading the footage to new sites throughout Europe so the world would know what was truly happening in Syria. Free speech is the biggest crime in Syria, so he risked his life every day to tell the truth of the war. He was captured and tortured for his work, but escaped.
War is purely bad. You have to let go of a lot of things. Your dreams. Your friends. Your country. And at the end, you will be titled as, ‘refugee.’
When it comes to any major world issue or human injustice, I encourage people to go right to the source: the people affected. Read or listen to their stories. Learn about their lives and struggles. The easiest way to get off track is to dehumanize those living in situations of injustice or oppression. We are made to feel, and by empathizing with what people are going through, there are more opportunities for banding together for solutions.