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Life on the border: Stanford researcher seeks to help Syrian refugees

Laila Soudi, head of the Stanford Refugee Research Project, will spend the next five weeks visiting the Jordan-Syria and Lebanon-Syria borders.

I have a hard time navigating the two worlds I find myself occupying. On the one hand, I occupy a world within Stanford University, amidst seemingly infinite, almost palpable, resources, opportunities, and an unspoken sense of security. On the other hand, I occupy a world within the border of Syria, amidst an acute shortage of even the most basic human necessities and a nagging reminder of the brevity and unpredictability of life. I’ve been doing this for years, yet I still have a hard time understanding the vast discrepancies in security and access to resources for the two populations inhabiting these worlds, 7,500 miles away from each other.

I first started working in complex humanitarian emergencies as a child. Growing up in Jordan to a Syrian father and a Palestinian refugee mother, I was exposed to the disparities in access to education, employment, and health services for refugees. During my first visit to a refugee camp when I was 11, I listened as Alia, a 15-year-old wife and mother, expressed her yearning to go back to a time when she was not married to a 53-year-old man and exposed to debilitating rape on a regular basis. Fearing the stigma and the risk of reprisal, Alia says only, “Atfali bihtajooni oo lazem adeer bali a’lehom. Hada naseebi” (“My children need me, and I must support them. This is my fate”).

Almost more than a decade and a half later, I am now at Stanford, thousands of miles away from Alia, but her story remains with me and is at the core of our work. I now serve as the project lead for the Stanford Refugee Research Project, a project funded by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, and Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, to examine the role of Stanford in the ongoing, worsening global displacement crisis.

Our particular focus for this project is currently on the Syrian refugee crisis on the borders of Jordan-Syria and Lebanon-Syria. For the next five weeks, I’ll be traveling to these two border areas to assess the feasibility of a few engagement opportunities we hope to launch in the fall, enabling members of the Stanford community to directly help empower Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Throughout this journey, and in every destination on the way, I’ll share with you my experience in working on these border areas. More importantly, I’ll tell the stories of those inhabiting the other world — those who do live on the border — and their experiences with torture, trauma, loss, coping, and hope. And, in telling these stories, in describing our shared yearning for security and opportunity, I hope we all realize there are not two worlds after all.

Laila Soudi is the project lead for the Stanford Refugee Research Project. Originally from Syria, Laila has been working with refugee populations across Europe and the Middle East. This piece is the first in a series called "Life on the border" on her trip to the Jordan-Syria and Lebanon-Syria borders.

Photo courtesy of Laila Soudi

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