Today I have my first meeting with refugees. My job is to write narratives about patients who pass through ADT and the first step is to sit down with them and conduct interviews. My Arabic doesn’t go much further than hello and thank you, so Mahmoud is going to be my interpreter. At 9:30 AM I meet Mahmoud in the parking lot of my building and we drive to Our Lady of Peace again. They have three new patients at OLP getting fitted for prosthetics. I’m going to interview them in between their measurements. Mahmoud hands me a piece of paper with their names, ages and injuries: Ahmah, 19, left below the knee amputation and right above the knee amputation – Moneer, 28, right below the knee amputation – Mohammad, 16, left below the knee amputation.
I feel queasy about this. Here I am, this well-fed, well-clothed, well-educated American in his Warby Parker glasses going up to these people and prodding them for their “narratives” which means getting them to describe their most brutal traumas to me. I’m afraid of being some kind of trauma tourist – someone who walks away with some fantastic stories for dinner parties and job interviews while people lose their legs, their families, their lives.
I am unable to articulate these anxieties to Mahmoud, so instead I tell him I’m not sure what questions to ask the patients. He gives me some suggestions like “where are you staying?” and “do you want to stay in Jordan or return to Syria?” and “do you have any advice for other refugees?” Then Mahmoud smiles at me and says, “Don’t worry about it. It’s easy.” I try my best to smile back and seem assured.
We arrive at Our Lady of Peace and walk straight to the prosthetics center. Maher is there with three trainees circled around him. Their names are Husom, Khalid and Majed. They are all refugees themselves. Maher is smoothing out a rough cast for a prosthetic foot with a small tool that works like a cheese grater, sloughing off the top layer of plaster into a trashcan. There are two women who work in the prosthetic center as well, named Sajedah and Bayan. They come over and watch Maher every now and then when they’re not doing their usual clerical work. All of them are wearing white button-up work shirts. The atmosphere among the trainees is laid back. Khalid in particular likes to make jokes, which I don’t understand of course, but Sajedah and Bayan seem to find them funny. Maher stays laser-focused on the cast, his hands steady. At one point Bayan brings out a bag of cashews for everyone to snack on. Husom peels some cashews and tosses them into Maher’s mouth. Maher remains focused.
After the cast has been smoothed out Sajedah brings out a latex sheath filled with wet plaster. Maher applies this plastic to the foot with a palette knife. He gives the foot a sturdy bottom and sculpts in curved surfaces with defined edges. When he’s done it looks a little cubist.
As I’m watching Maher work I detect some movement behind me. I glance back and see some figures in wheelchairs coming down the hallway. My stomach tenses. I go back to watching Maher and pretend not to have noticed. But then Mahmoud taps me on the shoulder and tells me that the patients have arrived. I’m relieved when Maher and the trainees speed out of the room to meet them and block my way. I remain in the shop room, pacing around, pretending to inspect the equipment. I hear the sounds of shuffling feet and clinging metal from the hallway. I try to collect myself, breath and so on.
Mahmoud comes in to get me to come speak with the refugees. I frantically ask him for last minute suggestions but he just waves his hand and tells me not to worry about it again. We turn the corner and enter the fitting room. Inside everyone is clustered around a patient sitting on an elevated table. He is a young man, but his hair has already turned grey. He has a tired, sullen face. His hands are covered in burn scars, his posture is slumped and his right leg is gone below the knee, leaving a scar-covered stump. This is the moment where I realize that I can’t do this. I have no right to be here. I can’t speak Arabic, I understand nothing about the Syrian Civil War, I have no credentials in anything. All I have is a high school diploma and a friend whose dad runs a humanitarian organization. For me to try to participate in this man’s suffering is an obscenity.
I turn to talk to Mahmoud but, to my horror, he’s left the room. All of the prosthetics staff are busy preparing the man’s leg for measurement, so my one comfort is that no one in the room is paying the least attention to me. But then of course Mahmoud returns and tells me to come out into the hallway and speak to the other two refugees. What’s good about this situation, or maybe what’s bad about this situation, is that whether or not I feel ready to do this it’s going to happen.
We walk into the hallway. Two young men are sitting there in wheelchairs with their physical therapist standing behind them. Mahmoud says something in Arabic and they look up at me. I shake their hands and say “as-salamu alaykum.” Then I sit down next to them and try to explain why I’m here, which is difficult now that I’ve been questioning my right to be here, and I ramble on for long enough that Mahmoud has to interrupt me and remind to speak concisely so that he can translate. I don’t know what Mahmoud says to them next, but I doubt it’s a literal translation of the nervous word salad I just put forward. Then it’s time for me to conduct my interview.
The first patient I talk to is Mohammad. He tells me he’s 18, but his file says he’s 16. Despite his circumstances, he has plenty of teenage boy energy. He laughs at my awkwardness as he spins a toothpick around with his teeth. He has a Hendrix-style mound of black curly hair on top of his head and the awkward, teenage beginnings of a mustache. This is the file on his injury:
“Diagnosis: below the knee amputation. Victim of blast injury resulting traumatic left below knee amputation and right open tibia fibula fractures with multiple shrapnel. Surgery was done on 21st of March on the left lower limb and external fixator applied on the right lower limb. At the moment the stump is in a good shape, daily physiotherapy sessions and figure eight bandaging being applied. Ready for prosthesis.”
His left leg is gone below the knee except for a small stump that he swings back and forth. The other leg is whole, but it has this white metal scaffolding called an “external fixator” sticking out of it. Maher later tells me that his amputation was very poorly done, and that it took many correcting surgeries to get him ready for prosthesis.
I learn that Mohammad was living in Daraa when the war started. Daraa is a city in the southmost part of Syria. It is the site of some important protests in 2011. The first defections from the Syrian Armed Forces took place in Daraa, which lead to the formation of the Free Syrian Army. Mohammad doesn’t go into detail about what he was doing before the conflict, or how he got injured. All he says is that he was sitting with his friend in Daraa when a rocket exploded nearby. His friend was killed and Mohammad’s legs were badly injured. He received first aid in Daraa before being transported to the nearby village of Tell Shihab where he received his amputation at a Doctors Without Borders clinic. Then he was transported to Ramtha, a city in Jordan on the northern border. A government hospital is in Ramtha where he’s currently being housed and treated by Doctors Without Borders. He tells me that once his prosthetic treatment is complete and he can walk again he wants to return to Syria to “keep fighting.”
My interview is halting and awkward. After Mohammad responds and it’s time to ask another question my mind goes blank and I often have to ask Mahmoud for suggestions. However, I no longer feel the urge to sprint for the door and catch the nearest cab to Queen Alia International Airport.
Next I interview Ahmad, who is outwardly much sadder and more nervous than Mohammad is. He is slumped over next to me. His sad eyes never seem to focus on anything but constantly drift about the surroundings. And his voice is very soft. However, he has a pair of sunglasses perched on top of his hair. Ahmad is 19. This is the file on his injury:
“Diagnosis: left below the knee amputation, right above the knee amputation. He is a victim of blast injury on the 4th of April 2017 resulting lower limb amputation and left upper limb 1st degree burn. Surgery was done on the 11th April 2017 and the stumps were left exposed since 12th June and stitch removal on the 14th of June of both lower limb stumps. At the moment he is on physiotherapy of muscle strengthening and figure eight bandaging on the stumps. Ready for prosthesis”
Both of Ahmad’s legs have been amputated. He was injured by a landmine planted by ISIS. His story, at the level of detail that I gathered, is identical to Mohammad’s. He was injured in Daraa, amputated in Tell Shihab and now lives and receives treatment at the Ramtha hospital. Like Mohammad, he also wants to return to Syria once his prosthetic treatment is completed and “fight the bad people.”
Sajedah comes into the hallway to retrieve Mohammad for fitting. He wheels himself into the fitting room. Shortly after the first man I saw comes out and wheels himself into Mohammad’s place. His name is Moneer. He is 28 years old. He looks tired and even angry, but not at anyone in particular – at least not anyone here. His hair is gray and he wears small, oval glasses. Splotches of burn scars go up and down his arm, which are big and muscular. This is the file on his injury:
“Diagnosis: Below the knee amputation, right lower limb. This is a 28 year old patient who got a blast injury in Syria and admitted on 8th May 2017, thus right below knee amputation was done. Stitches were removed on June 13th and the stump has been exposed since then. Muscle strengthening physiotherapy and figure eight bandaging has been applied. Ready for prosthesis.”
Moneer is a landmine victim like Ahmad. And he went through the same process of going from Daraa to Tell Shihab to Ramtha. He also wants to return to Syria and fight.
It’s clear that my questions aren’t going deep enough, because I’ve ended up with three iterations of the same story. I can’t think of anymore questions, though, so I decide to end the interviews. I shake Ahmad, Moneer and the physical therapist’s hand, thank them and turn to leave. The interviews, though far from perfect, went better than I had expected. Still I am relieved that they are over, and that I can have some time to process everything.
But Mahmoud directs us back into the fitting room to watch Mohammad get measured. Maher is kneeling by Mohammad’s stump with the trainees watching him and handing him tools. Maher takes a latex sheath and puts it over the stump. Then the sheath is wrapped in a cellophane-like material that Maher draws marks on with a blue sharpie. While this is happening, Mahmoud recommends that I interview a trainee. He brings Husom over. Husom is middle-aged, but he has a youthful face. His hair is short, but he has an enormous brown beard. I’m at a bit of a loss for questions, so I look around me. Despite the tragedy of the circumstances, the whole team is calm and businesslike. Khalid, the jokester, takes over for Maher and adopts his laser-focus while applying a layer of plaster to the cellophane. I turn to Husom and ask him, “Is it difficult for you to work with amputees and be around this amount of suffering?” He looks at me blankly for a moment and then replies, “Depends on the patient. Sometimes the amputation is good and makes the prosthesis easy. Other times the amputation is not good and it takes more work.” I tap my fingers against my chest, “No I mean is it emotionally difficult for you.” Husom thinks for a moment and then says, “It is at first but then … with time it is easier.” And that’s that I suppose. I later ask Maher the same thing and get the exact same answer. Although these people are acting out of deep emotions like duty and empathy, there doesn’t seem to be any value in getting emotional in the field. In fact, that would only get in the way. My own feelings of guilt prevented me from being a confident, thorough interviewer. I hope that time will come and subdue my own feelings as well.
It’s time to leave. I wave to all the trainees as I walk out. Maher stands in a back corner, smoking a cigarette and staring out the window.
Mahmoud and I return to the ADT offices and find Akram there, smoking on one of his couches and watching CNN intently. We he sees us he smacks the cushion beside him and tells me to come sit with him. We go over each interview one by one. As we do, Akram points out countless details that I missed that, in retrospect, seem obvious. “Did you ask him how many family members he has?” “No, I guess I should have” “And what was he doing with his friend before the rocket came?” “I don’t know, I didn’t ask” “What was his job before the war? Was he a student?” “I don’t know.” Akram smiles at me knowingly and raises his eyebrows. “When you write a story, you need to have every detail,” he says, poking the air with his index finger, “If I’m reading a book and I think the author is skipping something – that he’s cheating – I throw it away!” Akram pantomimes throwing a book, my book I guess, across the room.
Mahmoud enters the office with Husom and Khalid in tow. Mahmoud brought them here to be interviewed. At first I don’t at all feel up to more interviews, but Akram takes the lead this time. Instead of asking them a series of atomic questions, he asks each of them to tell their stories in a fluid manner, from the time before the war broke out in Syria to today. Husom goes first.
Husom is 36. He is from Golan Heights, a highly contested area of the Levant which is currently occupied by both Israel and Syria. Husom comes from the Syrian part. There he lived and worked on a family farm. He went to university to study engineering and english literature (Shakespeare is his favorite author). He graduated in 2010, one year before the war. By the time he was seeking his professional certification for engineering the war had broken out and made it impossible for him to move around the country safely. For a short time he stayed in Golan Heights, but soon the Syrian Armed Forces showed up there. The army ransacked and then burned down the houses in Husom’s village. Knowing that he would be killed if he were to stay, Husom fled to Daraa. But soon the Syrian Armed Forces reached Daraa as well, so Husom headed for the Jordanian border. Once inside Jordan, he stayed with his uncle’s family. Many of his family members were still in Syria. One day he heard that his brother had been killed by the Syrian Armed Forces. Around this time, a cousin of his told him about Asian Development Training, so he contacted the offices and got an offer to train with them. He moved in with his sister in Amman and began his training with ADT. That was three years ago. Now his sister has emigrated to Canada, so he lives alone in Amman. He is being trained and prosthetics, orthotics and psychology. He wants to continue this work and be a prosthetics and orthotics technician. Ideally, he would like to do this in Syria, but he realizes that may be impossible.
Khalid goes next. He is 26 years old. He is from Daraa. He came to Amman in 2010, before the war started, to study hotel management at Al-Quds College. Before the war, he would visit his family in Syria twice a week. The last time he was able to do this was in 2012. Soon after, his brother’s family got out of Daraa and came to Jordan. Khalid finished his studies in 2013. In 2015 his mother and his younger brother moved to Jordan too. The same year Khalid joined ADT as a trainee in prosthetics, orthotics and psychology. Today, in addition to his work with ADT, Khalid works in a bakery and at a supermarket. Unlike Husom, he plans to stay in Jordan. He married a Jordanian woman last year and they have a baby coming in one month.
Husom and Khalid also spoke briefly about their training experience. They agreed that this year the atmosphere among the trainees is the best it’s been. They say it feels like a family. I ask them what factors have contributed to the good atmosphere. They say that the number of trainees (6) is good, a smaller number than in previous years. They like that holidays are respected by ADT. They also think Our Lady of Peace is a better facility than the one they were working at before. Later, Akram adds that Maher probably contributes to the improved atmosphere because he is a native Arabic speaker, whereas the previous trainer was an American.
We thank Husom and Khalid and they leave. It’s been a good day, but I really hope that Akram and Mahmoud don’t have anymore interviews for me to do. Fortunately, we just do a short debrief. I walk home to my apartment and head straight for the bed.
“Virtue signaling” has been a popular internet buzzword recently. It signifies a phenomena that’s plagued my generation ever since we developed a political consciousness. It’s common that a given millennial will relentlessly repost articles on Facebook about the suffering of this or that “marginalized group”. This comes in hand with the vocabulary of political correctness, which serves at all times to demonstrate just how much the speaker’s heart bleeds for the less fortunate. Also, to be “woke” is the central moral imperative of social media, which means to be aware of social injustices. Action is less emphasized. It’s equally common for the millennial doing all of these things to refrain from performing any good works save for the occasional protest, which they document for their friends with a deluge of selfies.
This phenomenon is not new. Jesus criticizes it in Matthew 23 when he says,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
The “hypocrisy” of virtue signalling is that it emphasizes public displays of pity over the difficult, and usually unrecognized work that actually improves the lives of the pitied. It’s easy to recognize the lameness of this behavior, but it raises another, more interesting question: what is the value of pity for moral action? My time in Jordan, working with professional humanitarians, has caused me to question the value of pity.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that moral action has its origin in an intellectual notion of duty, rather than in an emotional source such as pity. This view has often been criticized as cold, as inhuman, but observing the work done at ADT and Our Lady of Peace has made me think that it might be true. I haven’t heard any talk about “those poor refugees,” nor is there head-shaking, sighing or self-flagellation after an amputee wheels himself out of the room. In this environment, the war-wounded are not morally elevated simply because of their suffering. Instead, as I’ve mentioned, the atmosphere is professional or even lighthearted. What could be more depraved, to a virtue-signaller, than to remain calm and professional in the face of another person’s deep suffering?
If there is any emotion involved in moral action, it seems to be pride. Akram compares his work with ADT to his work as a travel agent. In both cases, his goal is to provide excellent service to people and to run the elite company in his field. In other words, he has a certain conception of himself that compels him to pursue excellence. Likewise, Michael seems to be fueled by an inner ambition and a taste for adventure. When I have spoken to him there is, again, no talk of his great sadness over the pain of humanity. Instead, he speaks with excitement about the Polus Center launching new projects, or about traveling to exotic parts of the world. What could be more contemptible, for a virtue signaller, than to derive anything but guilt from your encounters with another person’s deep suffering?
Years ago, I worked for a tiny company that processed housing applications for homeless people in Boston. The man who ran this company had more outward disdain for the homeless than anyone I’ve ever met. He called them stupid, called them losers, and would often say that it was their fault that they were homeless. And yet, he sacrificed his sleep and his social life to make sure that these people had a roof over their heads. His was low-paying, thankless work, but he did it. He didn’t need to idealize the people he was helping in order to help them. What is more evil, to a virtue-signaller, than to ever criticize another despite his deep suffering?
It is possible that pity made an appearance in the lives of people like Akram, Michael and my former boss, and perhaps it got them started on their paths, but I don’t see it playing a sustained role in their behavior. Its usual function, as far as I can see, is to allow the person who feels the pity a sense of moral superiority. The idea is that pity issues from a highly developed moral faculty so, of course, the more pity felt and the more pity expressed the more moral the person. The problem is that expressions of pity are not correlated to moral action. And pity in this form, where it gives rise to nothing but virtue signalling and indolence, is no different from sadism. A video or an article is posted on social media depicting someone’s suffering and people “like” the post, comment on it, and thereby derive pleasure from knowing how moral and woke they are. How is this pleasure different from that of the sadist who relishes in other people’s suffering? It is dressed up in the language of pity.
This form of pity is at least morally worthless and, by my estimation, it probably gets in the way of moral action. We have known this for a long time. Thinkers as disparate as Nietzsche and the prophets of the Old Testament have been skeptics of pity, and above all of virtue-signalling (by different names of course). But this is what education is for. The bad ideas continually resurface across the generations, and so they must, in turn, be continually stomped out.
This blog is written by Sam Copeland, an intern with the Polus Center and Asia Development Training, about his time in Amman during the summer of 2017. It is meant to be read in a linear manner, so scroll down to the bottom and then go up for the full experience.