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Alice Su: Our world needs people who know how to listen

Author:Alice Su Date:2015-12-17

Editor's note: This article is a revision of the transcript of the sharing Alice Su delivered at the lecture of Professor Yuan Ming on November 24,2015, and is published here with the consent of the author, the Yenching Academy student.

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My name is Alice Su and I’m 24 years old. I graduated in 2013 from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, then immediately moved to Amman, Jordan. I spent two years working as a freelance journalist, living in Jordan but reporting from Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, the West Bank and Gaza, focusing on refugee crises and youth extremism.

I’d like to share with you two changes that happened to me through the last two years: first, the way I see the world; and second, how I see people around me.

Two years ago, I left Princeton as a typical elite student: idealistic, confident and ready to save the world. For four years, our university told us “You’re special, you are great, you are going to be the leaders of the world!” So I ran toward the Middle East, groomed in policymaking, fluent in top-down change making and ready to save the world, as all my peers thought we were destined to do.

That changed when I got to the region. I lived in Jordan but reported for the last two years in Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, focusing on refugee crises and youth extremism. One year ago, I was reporting in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq on the Yezidis, a religious minority living on a mountain called Sinjar. When the Islamic State extremist group formed that summer, they had invaded Mount Sinjar, killing and driving tens of thousands of Yezidis down the mountain for asylum in Iraqi Kurdistan. Displaced people were everywhere; in official and unofficial camps, but also in parks, shopping malls, parking lots, churches, literally sleeping on the sidewalks.

I interviewed these people, who told me about how they’d woken up at 2 a.m. in their villages, heard that ISIS was coming and run for their lives with nothing but the clothing on their backs and children in their hands. They walked on the mountain for seven days without food or water, trying to reach safety at the bottom. Many didn’t survive, especially the elderly and children. The men who were caught were killed immediately; women were taken to be slaves.

I sat on the ground in tents or half-built houses, winter rain pouring outside as Yezidis told me their stories. One of them listed twenty names for me, all her family members who were missing: “This is my aunt, my sister, my cousin, my cousin’s wife, their 3-month old baby,” she’d said, counting out name after name with age and relation. She told me her names. I listened. I wrote them down. She told me more. I wrote. She started crying. I kept writing. I cried as well. She asked me, “What can you do?”

I didn’t have an answer. What could I do, write a story? Use these names for an article in an American magazine or newspaper? Then what? Would anything change? Could I guarantee that her family would be saved? Could I promise anything beyond a vague hope for a featherweight bit of pressure that might change the powers that could bring her loved ones back?

The first and deepest thing I learned in the Middle East was humility. In Iraq, as well as in refugee tents and homes across the region, I found the world’s darkness to be far deeper and bigger than myself.  I could not solve these problems on my own. I realized then that my work is not to save or rule the world. Our world doesn’t need more bosses, lords, big talkers and famous game changers. Our world needs people who know how to listen. We need problem solvers who will work hard and go straight without fear into complex, deep-rooted suffering, not to command change from top-down but to serve, humbly and steadily, from the bottom up.

The second change that happened was in how I see people. Professor Yuan is talking today about youth in “great nations.” I come from a great nation, America, and I know that great nations are prone to arrogance. In great nations, we often think that only great people matter. We glorify the big guys, the powerful and strong, and dismiss the less important, the poor and small and not-like-us. You all know about the Paris attacks last week, and some may have heard how American politicians are talking about refugees now. I hear much rhetoric of fear, derision, disdain and rejection. These refugees are unwanted, dirty, terrorists, unworthy – we don’t want them in our country, the politicians say.

These words hurt. They are painful and ironic, because when I lived in the Middle East, reporting day after day on wars and pain and dark beyond myself, the only people who inspired and encouraged me, saved me from helplessness and spurred me forward, were exactly those that Western nations are currently rejecting: refugees.

Jordan is situated in the middle of the Middle East, surrounded by conflicts, so all my close friends there were from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, or Sudan. They were refugees, displaced from their homes, fleeing war and genocide with nothing in their hands. But they were also the most active in helping one another. For all the friends I had working in UN agencies and NGOs, no one was more efficient in supporting refugee communities than refugees themselves. I’d report and follow them as they spent all day working informal labor, lifting bricks or washing windows for a few dollars a day, and then pooling their time and money at night to teach English to one another, cover hospital funds for the injured, provide blankets for newborn babies, or bail fellow refugees out of prison when Jordanian employers exploited them.

When I read the news, or wrote it myself, I’d often become paralyzed with despair. I felt the world was too dark and I had too little strength to change it. In those moments, I looked to and imitated my refugee friends. What good does it do to cry in my room at my Twitter feed? When I saw that, oh Lord, America is helping Saudi Arabia to strike Yemen, or Russia is bombing Syria, and civilians are dying, always civilians and children and women and fathers and grandfathers are dying – I’d call my Sudanese friends. I’d go teach English to adult asylum seekers. I’d visit the Syrian woman living alone next door, drink tea with her and hear her stories. I’d help her follow up on her UNHCR and IOM procedures. She’d tell me about another Syrian trying to get a scholarship for Canadian university, and I’d help him revise his application essay.

In those moments, the refugees taught me how to live.

I’ve spoken more than I meant to but just want to share my deep hope today, that young people in great powers will see the world from international perspectives, yes – but also that we will learn how to listen. Whether we are from China, America, whatever country it is, I hope more of us will not climb up toward great names and personal power, but go down, to the margins and low places where people don’t see, to listen to those that others don’t hear. I hope we listen to the “small people,” especially those who are different from us, who we think are strange and the world thinks are unimportant. They are much stronger than I am. They can teach us much that we do not know.



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