Capturing the Life Stories of Refugees

12 06 2011

By Elise Jordan

Greetings and “Namaste” to everyone!

Today marks the end of our second week in Nepal and the end of our first full week in Damak. By way of introduction to our week, here is a quick progress report for those of you who are wondering what exactly we are accomplishing here:

12. The number of cockroaches we’ve boldly killed in our guesthouse.

122. The highest temperature (heat index) that it reached in Damak this week.

12,222. The number of water bottles we have consumed to keep healthy and hydrated.

4. The number of camps that we’ve visited.

3. The number of interviews that we’ve actually completed in the field.

9. The number of Dukies who are exhausted and enthused after our second week in the field.

We arrived in Damak Thursday and made a visit to Beldangi, our first of four refugeecamps, first thing on Friday morning. Saturday-Tuesday were spent fine tuning our interview tool that will guide our life story interviews with the refugees. This involved meeting our four talented research assistants who have quickly become an integral part of the team. The second half of the week was spent visiting camps where we practiced research methods taught to us by Katie Hyde. Katie works for Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, and she has joined us in Nepal to teach us a series of techniques that we will use to bolster the information that we obtain from interviews. Each of the three methods utilizes the art of photography to elucidate life stories.

In order to familiarize ourselves with both the new photography techniques and the camps themselves, we were sent off by ourselves in each camp armed with only our camera and list of 8 photos that we individually decided would best illustrate the most important aspects of life in the refugee camps. Our charge was to take 8, and only 8, photos.  After overcoming the initial awkwardness of wandering around alone through the personal spaces and places of refugees’ lives, each of us made discoveries that were worth capturing.  This picture was one team member’s interpretation of the importance of gardening for those who live in the camps. Many huts have beautiful gardens, which they work hard to keep healthy. Many of the Bhutanese were farmers in Bhutan and their affinity and skill for cultivating land is apparent even in the limited space they are given as refugees. It is a beautiful glimpse into their pasts and a powerful picture of their desire to create beauty, even in the camps.

In addition to finding meaningful ways of capturing camp life in photographs, we found ourselves making meaningful memories with refugee families in the camps. A common theme of the week was the remarkable hospitality that the refugee families show us. During our photo excursion Thursday, Jenny was invited into the homes of three Bhutanese families where she stayed for tea, food, and movie time. It was no wonder that she was nowhere to be found when we all met back at our van for lunch.  Each family she spent time with was convinced that she was now their very best friend, of which they informed her enthusiastically.  Others on the team were invited to visit camp schools, medical centers, churches, and even a festival at one camp’s temple.

Through this initial orientation to camp life we have gone from feeling like strangers—feeling truly strange in an unfamiliar place—to a place where we feel an authentic understanding beginning to emerge. An understanding of what it means to face hardship and persevere through it. An understanding of how to take the little you’ve been given and make something beautiful. An understanding of what it looks like to live life as a Bhutanese refugee.

We are eager to learn even more in our remaining weeks, and look forward to sharing more of our stories with you during this time. All the best to everyone reading.





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