There are several strands of conversation, or discourse, on the subject of refugees and why they should, or should not be offered the hospitality of our national borders. I find two of them particularly disturbing.
First, the idea that refugees are worthy of help because of who they may become.
The argument goes something like this: we should allow refugees into our countries because they may become the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein: they may end up contributing to history in such a way that it would be a huge mistake not to let them survive and thrive in our country. They are valuable because they contribute to our sense of the common good, and thus because of their utility.
The flaw in this argument is that it fails to recognise that human beings are valuable. They’re valuable not because of what they contribute to the greater good, but because of the basic fact of their humanity. We should offer hospitality to refugees not as some kind of high odds gamble in which we may hit the jackpot and find ourselves hosting a genius, but because we recognise the humanity we share.
The second is the idea that refugees should only be understood through the paradigm of victimhood.
There is a good reason why refugees tend to appear in the media as either victims of a great injustice, or as villains seeking to portray themselves as victims.
The reason is that the former is the easiest way for organisations like the UNHCR to raise funds.
They make a video that talks about how helpless these people are and how we must save them, otherwise they will die or face some other terrible injustice. How do we save them? By giving money to the UNHCR, who in turn promise to convert cash into changed lives.
The competing story about refugees has its roots in the same concept, but is the antithesis of the victim discourse. It says that refugees are not victims, but opportunists using political unrest in their homeland to further their personal ambitions. They leave an otherwise peaceful part of Syria and move to London or Stockholm in order to improve their standard of living and to give their kids a chance at getting in to better schools. Refugees, in other words are not victims but scroungers who don’t deserve to be helped.
My issue with the idea that refugees are victims is that it ignores the agency, the decision making powers, that the individual refugees have and use throughout their process of relocating.
Most of the people I have met who have obtained refugee status are extremely creative, strategic individuals who have used all their abilities to get to Europe and begin building a life for themselves here. They are doing what any of us would if we found ourselves in a similar position: finding a place that is more stable – somewhere that future generations can succeed. I don’t understand why we can’t learn to celebrate this creativity, to recognise their agency, rather than seeing it as a threat.
The victim narrative paints the picture of someone who is utterly useless once they arrive in their host country: they’re all take and no give, which is the opposite of the experience I have had as I’ve gotten to know refugees in Sweden and Jordan.
Last night I dreamed that I bumped into Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a cafe.
He was sat thinking, recording his ideas via audio note on his mobile phone. Then his phone rang and he spoke to someone in Arabic for a few minutes.
After the phonecall I introduced myself. I told him how inspired I was by his Antifragility concept.
Half way into this dream, a girl in a beret snuck behind the philosopher. She switched his beret, which had been resting on a shelf behind him, with hers.
He didn’t notice the girl but, before she finished sneaking behind his back, I pointed her out to him. He had a twinkle in his eye as he stopped her and reclaimed his hat.
The whole time, he seemed gathered and at ease, in good spirits.
Once the girl was gone, it was like she’d never been there. He finished his conversation with me and went back to his thinking.
I think this dream illustrates my own inner dialogue pretty well. I adore well developed, longform writing and thought: philosophy, theology, fiction. I long to be part of that world. But I have a boundary problem: I let too many of the thoughts of others into my head.
I do this through Twitter, news apps and email. Before I deleted some of my apps, I was also a slave to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Flickr.
For example the BBC app tells me “worry about the Democrat Party leadership contest,” and I do. Even though the outcome of this particular contest will have little or no impact on my life. Even though there’s nothing I can do to change the outcome.
By letting others dictate what I think about I lose control of my mental space.
I lose the opportunity to apply my thinking abilities to the work of crafting ideas that I can be happy with.
The girl who wants to steal my beret and the guy who wants to stop and have a chat have distracted me from my work of thinking.
Unlike the Taleb of my dream, my undisciplined mind falls prey to the many things that vie for my attention.
Now I’m not saying that I want to cloister myself from the world. There will always be diversions, welcome or otherwise, from the path I expect to take.
But there’s a difference between handling everyday intrusions and choosing a lifestyle of distractedness.
There’s a phrase that Paul of Tarsus uses in a letters to his followers: “take captive every thought.”
I think he’s alluding to the fact that we have some influence over what we think about. We have responsibility for taking every thought captive.
But how do we do it? I think it involves looking at each one, examining it and asking “does it belong in my mind?”
We have to cultivate mental space that we own and that reflects our values.
Thinking right is important
We all know that thinking right is important to how we view ourselves and the impact that we make on the world. We’ve all seen the damage that thinking wrong can do to a person’s life.
We’ve known people full of potential but held back by their fears of who others say they are. For some of us, we are those people: always asking ourselves, “who do you think you are?”
If thinking right is so important, why we give so much mental space to others?
After all, those “others” usually don’t have our best interests at heart.
Back to the BBC
All news organisations are in a competition for readers and viewers. Reporting feel good news doesn’t attract readers the way that reporting danger does.
Humans want know what risks are ahead.
Journalists know that a story describing some new risk will be easy to sell to a news agency. Their goal is selling papers, and spreading fear does just that.
Those agencies have apps and Twitter feeds that keep us updated on the Breaking News that we need know about.
At any moment we can be interrupted with the latest notification. The new thing that totally overshadows whatever it was we were just thinking about. Our previous thought relegated to the back burner.
If it’s not our just our hunger for knowing about risk that keeps us tuned in. We are also plagued by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
It’s no fun being the only person who doesn’t know about that latest thing that just happened.
But in this sphere not missing out (NMO) isn’t as satisfying as we expect.
In the real world, when we let FOMO take over, the payback is usually tangible. We go to that party instead of staying home. That means that we have the memories and experiences of that party.
But most of the breaking news that we hear doesn’t offer us a payback. Our day gets distracted because X has happened, but there’s nothing we can do about X.
Sure, we can talk about it. But the outcomes of this particular scenario are out of our hands. Instead of feeling engaged, we end up feeling alienated.
The elites skirmish and play their power games and all we can do is spectate.
Our news cycles are set up to reinforce dissatisfaction and a sense of powerlessness.
Take the power back
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It’s something we each have to weigh up for ourselves.
There are some for whom electronic discipline comes naturally. They know when to turn off their phones and focus on the real world.
And there are others who just don’t see it as an issue. The convenience of constant connection to the shared consciousness far outweighs its drawbacks.
But I’m not in either of those groups. I want to take back my inner space, and I can’t do it without conscious effort.
Maybe I’ll begin by learning to take every thought captive.
One way that you can really stretch yourself linguistically is to put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable.
In comfortable situations you usually use vocabulary you know well. Only spending time with friends can leave you relying on their familiarity with with your style of speaking, rather than on your accuracy.
It’s also easy to treat speaking your target language as a performance that you’ve prepared in advance: you’ve chosen the subject, memorised the relevant words, and now you’re demonstrating that knowledge to someone who you feel relaxed in front of.
Making yourself understood by strangers, in higher pressure situations, is a whole different ballgame. Your choice of words and style of communication become really important because the listener doesn’t have relational history to lean into as they try to follow what you’re saying.
Go get rattled
Although I’d practiced this while living in Jordan, I hadn’t really reflected on it’s benefits until I read Nathan Field’s blog post, 20 strategies for becoming a fluent Arabic speaker, a really useful post that he’s currently converting into an ebook. In his post Field says:
the key to really getting good at spoken is making sure a huge portion of your 250 hours take place outside of your comfort zone. You want: To be in situations where you are nervous [and] To be in situations where you are “rattled,” if not embarrassed.
He describes two situations in which car trouble (a blowout and a collision) forced him to speak, and where adrenaline and the ‘muscle memory’ of his studies “took over”:
The Arabic words just came out. I didn’t think. I reacted and spoke effectively
Taking up the challenge
Yesterday I put this principle to the test using the other language that I’m learning: Swedish. I’ve recently returned to Sweden, and decided to visit Arbetsförmedlingen, the official body that assists job seekers.
I had an appointment, and decided to use only Swedish during it, even though I knew the person I was meeting probably spoke pretty good English.
Beforehand I was much more nervous than I would have been going into an English-language meeting, but the decision payed off. The two staff members I met with were happy to stick to Swedish, and I understood almost everything they said. There were two moments when I reverted to English because I didn’t know the right word, but we returned to Swedish afterwards.
I left the interview excited and invigorated at what I’d just achieved, and exhausted from the amount of focussing I’d had to do!
Tips for getting uncomfortable
Here are a few of the ideas that Field gives for getting out of comfort zone language practice:
Take 5 minutes to research terms related to vacuum cleaners or some other device that you need to buy. Then Go into a department store and ask for the pros and cons of the vacuum cleaners they have on stock. Only in Arabic. Preferably with a queue behind you.
Intentionally “get lost” in a neighborhood in the Arabic city you are studying. Then ask for directions in Arabic back to the spot you know and find your way back home. If anyone tries to help you in English, say you are from a country where no one would know the language: Mongolia.
Phone calling – so much of communication is conveyed by body language, seeing each other and that is often a crutch for Arabic students: just call a restaurant to order; call the department store to ask about stuff etc.
Sleep is one of the most under appreciated sources of energy and clear thinking.
Because of the multi sensory experience of living outside my comfort zones continuously and trying to wrap my brain around new words and a brand new culture, my early days in Jordan were enveloped in a dull cloud of tiredness. At times I felt like a zombie: there, but not really there.
After a while this deep tiredness began to subside, but I’ve noticed that having enough sleep, even slightly more than I’d need in my home culture is a winning ingredient for absorbing new vocabulary.
If I try and memorise new words at the end of a school day they do not stick. My brain hasn’t had time to absorb everything I’ve been learning during the day, so it’s like pouring water into a glass that’s already full: the extra water just trickles down the sides.
But I found a way to get more out of my afternoons. If I take a 15 minute nap after school, I feel refreshed and ready for an afternoon of studying and visits.
In the last few days of the experiment, the subjects who were restricted to a maximum of six hours of sleep per night showed cognitive performance that was as bad as the people who weren’t allowed to sleep at all…
One of the most alarming results from the sleep study is that the six-hour sleep group didn’t rate their sleepiness as being all that bad, even as their cognitive performance was going downhill. ( FastCompany)
Unsurprisingly, the group that had 8 hours’ sleep a night performed the best.
As for the connection between sleep and memory, some research has shown that while we sleep our brains replay experiences from the day, which deepens our recall of those events later. If we don’t go through full sleep cycles, we miss out on this memory-consolodation process.
Want to improve your memory? Get yourself a good sleep habit.
I’ve found the ideas in the book so engaging that I’m going to write about some of them before I’ve even finished reading it, since I think I’ve got a handle on at least the core of the idea, and writing about it will help me encapsulate what I’m thinking…
First off, I should probably summarise the idea of antifragility:
Whereas fragility is a state in which the more pressure something is put under, the more damage is caused to it, antifragility is the state in which the more pressure that something is put under, the tougher it becomes. This is not the same as robustness, since something that is robust simply isn’t affected by pressure: it becomes neither stronger nor weaker under pressure.
Nation States vs. City States
In part of the book Taleb juxtaposes the popular idea of the modern nation state with systems that have a more devolved approach to power. He describes how, prior to the rise of the Baath Party in the Levant, the region enjoyed 12,000 years of economic industriousness and prosperity. This was thanks to devolved networks of power that allowed local elites to run the regions. First it was the Roman Empire, then the Ottomans. Both had a relatively light grip on everyday affairs, so long as they received their taxes.
After this era, the Nation State Project took over, as western influenced powers insisted that this was the best, most ‘democratic’ and ‘civilised’ way to organise a nation.
Power became more centralised and the region which was governed by a single government became larger. Larger governments give the illusion of stability for a longer period of time, but when they fail, things are cataclysmic. This is because large states hoard more powerful weapons and possess more organised military, and because when they make a mistake its impact is amplified across a larger region.
When power is organised into smaller groupings, those groups may make more mistakes, but the mistakes have less impact. Mistakes made on a smaller scale allow for correction without the risk of mass-scale crisis. Decisions can be reversed.
Taleb compares the Nation State with how Switzerland is organised into smaller municipalities that are largely self governing. People vote more regularly in referendums on issues that affect them. They are engaged. Switzerland is one of the most hardy (antifragile) nations in the world, and the book argues that this is precisely because it’s government isn’t highly centralised.
When power is top-down and distant from the electorate, it becomes easy for those making decisions to lack empathy for those they are representing. They are just another name, another row in a database.
It also creates room for disproportionate influence of unelected corporate-funded pressure groups. In the Swiss setting, a lobby group would have to focus their efforts on the entire population to be able to sway lawmaking in their direction. In a nation state, they just need access to the corridors of power (which can usually be purchased in one way or another).
An example from my own life:
I occasionally email my local politicians in Wales: Members of Parliament who represent the interests of me and my neighbours in Cardiff North. The emails are usually related to some issue that I’ve become aware of, that I know that Parliament will have the opportunity to focus on: refugee reunification, aid to Syria etc.
Usually, after several weeks I get a response like this:
“Thank you for your email, which I take very seriously. You will be pleased to know that the Conservative Party cares more about this issue than you do. We actually have the _________ scheme and the __________ scheme already running to address this problem, and we’re doing better than any other government in the history of planet Earth. You really should be pleased that you have a Conservative Government.”
Of course the content of the email varies, but this is the tone and general message of the emails that I get back. Always.
A Cradle of Apathy
There are two problems that result from this system:
Apathy towards the political system
Reduced ownership for our surroundings
Ordinary people become alienated from the political process and make fewer attempts to redirect the attention of their leaders.
The leaders are left to their own devices to make decisions in their own interests (or the perceived interests of their electorate).
In a more devolved system, where I know the people making decisions and am actively participating myself (through referendums, community gatherings, submitting email feedback), the opposite is true:
The people are engaged because they know their input creates results
They take greater ownership
If I know that my input will affect my family and my neighbours’ family, I am willing to give it.
Conversely, if the political system is mysterious and inaccessible, it becomes irrelevant to my life until the Government begins infringing on my freedoms (by which time they have the legal and militaristic means by which to control me).
Can smaller groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?
I really like the idea of devolving power to its lowest possible level, having seen first hand the effects of apathy and disengagement. But I also see the need for some kind of centralised expectation on the way that the least in society are treated. In a globalised world, there’s a place for documents like the European Convention on Human Rights.
That said, the humane treatment of human beings is more desirable than words on paper. After all we live in a world where Saudi Arabia, the bastion of human rights abuses, can chair a UN panel on human rights.
I suppose the question could also be reversed: “can larger groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?”
Right now in Europe and America there’s been a surge of people voting for anti-immigration parties and representatives who would happily deny asylum to (and even deport) those fleeing war.
Our voting systems are built on the idea of anonymity, because anonymity encourages people to vote honestly, without the pressure to conform to our peers, bosses or family members. I think in principle this is wonderful, but I also wonder if it allows inhospitable values to fester like untreated wounds.
I’ve noticed people on Twitter recently asking “who are all these people voting for Trump? I haven’t met a single one.”
I’d guess that they have probably met several dozen, but the anonymity of the voting system means that you can vote one way and profess another. And perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.
But I’m not sure that it would be as easy to express anti-immigration views if you had to do so in front of your neighbours. If you have to look people in the eye (including the very families that you’re discussing) and admit that you don’t care for the outsider, the orphan, the traumatised, the widowed mother.
Is it possible that smaller communities could become more hospitable, more caring, if the individual members felt more empowered and more accountable?
There are some of us who learn really well directly from books. But most of us are wired to learn experientially: by doing. Although this applies to other spheres, it’s especially true of language learning. Learning a language isn’t just about the words that we’re speaking, but about the whole culture that those words belong to.
For example, an Arabic dessert like Kanafeh.
There’s nothing like it in Britain: a sweet cheese desert with caramelised strings of sugar and pistachio nuts on top.
To learn the word Kanafeh, don’t just look at the word in Arabic.
Repeat it out loud.
But don’t just repeat it out loud. Look at a picture of Kanafeh.
While you’re looking at the picture, with the word written underneath it repeat the word “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh!”
But while I know you’re having a super fun time doing that, even the repetition while looking at a picture, while reading the word isn’t the best you can do.
Go out for a walk. Find a shop that sells Kanafeh (if you’re in Amman, head for Habiba). Stand in the queue and breathe in the sweet smell of kanafeh. While you’re doing this, repeat to yourself “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh”. As you get to the counter, use your words to order yourself a slice.
Walk into the room and hand over your receipt for your order. Look at the trays of sweet, syrupy kanafe just waiting to be eaten. Think “kanafeh”. Say “kanafeh”.
As you put the kanafeh in your mouth, remind yourself what you’re eating. Savour it: think about the flavour, the smell, the feeling against your tongue. You aren’t just imagining Kanafeh, YOU’RE LIVING KANAFEH!
Words get caught up in our memory much more easily when they have hooks to hang them on. Stories act as great hooks for these words.
I find this particularly true of stories that I know well in my mother tongue. Movies are great for this. Or if you know a lot of Bible stories or fairytales. Anything that won’t take effort to reconstruct the basic narrative.
Using stories like this means that we can focus on our target language and not on some complicated and unfamiliar narrative.
Once you’ve chosen your story, work through it in your head in your target language, identifying any words that you need to look up or learn.
Make a list of these words and find out what they are in the language you’re learning.
Then tell the story as best you can in your target language.
Write out the story in your target language. Read through it.
Then put away the text and tell it back to yourself without referring to your notes.
Then go back to your notes and re-read the story to see if there’s anything you missed out.
Once you’re confident that you’ve memorised your story, go and tell it to someone else. The pressure of an audience will help you to assess how well you really know the story.
This is where emersion can come in handy, but it’s not essential. The key is to do the ordinary, habitual things that you do, in your target language.
If you watch movies to unwind, switch to movies in your target language.
If you use Twitter, start an account in your target language and follow people in that language.
Like music? Find some artists in your target language. It doesn’t have a lot of words, but I’ve been enjoying this recently:
On Facebook? Add some people who only speak your target language as friends and start messaging them (it turns out this is way more normal and not at all as stalkerish here in Jordan than it is in the UK).
My wife and I have recently started using Arabic when we’re together at home for ordinary conversations. It’s been a challenge, and often frustrating, but the practice has paid off when we’re with our Arabic speaking friends.
For a while one of the things I found hardest to get was Arabic numbers. I just couldn’t seem to convince my brain to recognise a ٥ as a number 5 (not a 0), or a ٦ as a number 6 (and not a 7).
So one day I switched the time on my phone over to Arabic numbers. That way, if I was going to get to appointments on time, I was going to have to master Arabic numbers.
The first week was super frustrating, and I regularly mistook ٦:٥٥ for 7:00 (6:55) but after that, I became faster. With heavy exposure, my brain finally absorbed these new shaped numbers.
This might seem super obvious on paper, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to carry around some kind of recording device for the new words you’ll discover in your target language.
I take a belt-and-braces approach with my word collection and carry a paper notebook and have the Anki app on my phone for creating electronic flashcards.
Why the two? Several reasons:
Not everyone is good at spelling. In fact some people I come across can’t read and write. That doesn’t mean that I can’t learn new Arabic words from them, I just need to be cautious about creating a long-term record based on what they tell me. If I put the words straight into my phone, I’ll end up learning an incorrect spelling (and pronunciation) of the word.
There are local variations of how you say everything in Arabic. Even simple things like what people call their parents can be different between towns. I like to record what I’m told while on visits and double check with another person, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a friend, who help me filter what I’m learning.
Repetition. It’s actually really helpful to write the word down, as well as to type it. With Arabic, I’m learning a whole new alphabet, and writing right-to-left, which means that I can use all the practice I can get.
So I usually scribble down my best attempt at a spelling for the word, check it with someone else, add it to my electronic dictionary and regularly revisit my new words until they’re committed to memory.
At the moment the biggest change I’ve been going through is the transition from being a mono-and-a-half-lingual to bilingual.
I’ve spent the last year and eight months learning Arabic. Before this point I was a mediocre Swedish speaker. I’d picked up most of my Swedish by osmosis, living in the country, hanging out with my in-laws, watching Scandinavian crime dramas.
Learning Arabic was different. I’ve given it my all and was even able to press pause on my web business to throw everything into it.
Now that I’m approaching the end of my formal schooling in spoken Levantine Arabic (with some Modern Standard thrown in for good measure), I thought it might be nice to blog about things I’ve learned along the way.
Some of my tips will be best-case-scenarios: things I managed to do on the good weeks and might not have been so hot on in the weeks that involved juggling extreme amounts of homework, homesickness, culture shock, guests and more than 15 hours of home visits.
But they are sure fire ways that I’ve found to learn more.
Before I sign off on this brief intro to the next couple of posts I want you to know something: I’m no language learning whiz. Language learning doesn’t come as second nature to me, and I didn’t grow up in an environment that made it seem normal.
These tips are things that have helped me keep placing one foot consistently in front of the other. They are small, achievable activities that can be integrated into everyday life.