WHILE MANY OF us spent our summer sunning ourselves on some golden coast or interning at that prestigious hedge-fund in New York that we will not name, Alan Khaledi, a senior at Stanford, was living alongside refugees, chronicling the stories and faces of the children he met along the way.
“The narrative around refugees, especially in Europe, is very negative,”
“I wanted to raise some awareness, look at these people without the lens of race or religion.”
The project came to Alan out of nowhere, a burning light in the middle of the furious hunt for jobs that plagues campus in the months leading up to summer. “I wasn’t finding anything,” Alan says. “One day I was scrolling through my news feed and I saw a video of these drunk soccer fans in Madrid taunting refugees for fun, throwing coins and laughing while they fought to pick them up.” He knew he had to do something.
Over the course of two months, he traveled through fifteen camps in Kurdistan and Lebanon, interviewing and taking pictures, learning things that were often horrifying and always humbling. Living conditions varied drastically from camp to camp. Many Kurdish camps had security guards, ID checks, gated fences, while in Lebanon you could often drive right by the tents. One camp in Lebanon, owned by a Saudi Sheikh, had a huge mosque but no school. Countless others go unregistered.
For Alan, the emotional climax of the summer was in the Shingal Mountains in Kurdistan. The Yazidis live just on the other side of occupied ISIS territory, and refuse to live in a refugee camp because they reject this temporary solution.
"They love their land,” Alan says.
“And most kids I spoke to had seen an ISIS terrorist.”
The only thing that keeps these people out of harm’s way is that the mountain is extremely difficult to penetrate. The Yazidis protected themselves for about 6 weeks without food and water, but now the Kurdish Peshmerga are controlling and protecting the land. It was there that he heard the darkest stories. Stories of parents held captive by ISIS, kept starving in the dark, forced to eat the meat of their own children.
“Often we sit and compare our worst times with others’ highlights, because our lives are very similar,” Alan says. “These people are living in a completely different frequency. Coming back to Stanford and seeing everyone working towards the same thing, meeting the same deadlines, checking the same boxes, it’s a very big change.”
Alan was surprised at the disparate nature of opinions — and misconceptions — of the people he met along the way. “You’d be surprised how different people’s beliefs around you are,” Alan says. It is a situation reminiscent of our college campus, where it’s easy to forget that many Americans have views that your average liberal Stanford student would find unbelievable.
The question of immigration is of course a tangled one, but for Alan it’s no longer even about determining the right answer. “It’s less about whether or not it’s good or bad for these people to go to Europe,” Alan says.
“They’re in a crisis right now, a terrible one. As global communities we should stop looking at how we can avoid this with the least damage done to us, and tackle this challenge.”
Though Alan still believes that exposure is the best thing one can do to help, the entire project proved to be morally ambivalent in unexpected ways. “Are you really helping when you’re snapping the picture of the crying kid?” Alan says. Even though Alan grew up in Kurdistan and speaks Kurdish, Farsi and some Arabic, he still felt like an outsider, and the project left him with more questions than answers.
“I don’t think I have processed any of the stuff I’ve seen,” Alan admits. One thing he does know is that he certainly won’t be pursuing electrical engineering anymore.
By: Anne-Sophie Bine