What Would You Take to Your New Life in a Refugee Camp?


When we lived overseas, we were encouraged to make lists of items we would need to grab in case of an evacuation. First there was the list for what to collect if we had only fifteen minutes to leave. Then there were lists for an evacuation in an hour, in 24 hours, and so on.

While a swift departure from our apartment in Taipei was a possibility, it didn’t loom over our heads as it does for many in other countries . . . so we never made a formal list. Rather, we had a cluster of absolutely-most-important-things kept in the same room: my laptop, our passports, extra credit cards, a printout of important contact information, a first-aid kit.

We never tackled listing the irreplaceable items, those with sentimental value. Like writing a will, it was hard to think about and too easy to put off.

If you had to leave your home in a hurry, what would you take? What if you had to escape your country, as well? And what if you knew it would probably be nearly 20 years before you were able to create a new home?

Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, knows a lot about people who flee their homes and about what they lose and what they take with them. She knows a lot because she meets refugees and talks with them.

In her TED Talk, “Let’s Help Refugees Thrive, Not Just Survive,” she tells her motivation for what she does:

So I started working with refugees because I wanted to make a difference, and making a difference starts with telling their stories. So when I meet refugees, I always ask them questions. Who bombed your house? Who killed your son? Did the rest of your family make it out alive? How are you coping in your life in exile? But there’s one question that always seems to me to be most revealing, and that is: What did you take? What was that most important thing that you had to take with you when the bombs were exploding in your town, and the armed gangs were approaching your house?

She then shares the story of Hany, a young Syrian refugee who knew exactly what he would take when his family was forced to flee to Lebanon. “I took my high school diploma,” he said, “because my life depended on it.” He had risked his life in war-torn Syria to earn it, and he saw his education as his hope for the future.

Fleming goes on to tell more stories of refugees and to recount some sobering statistics, including these (I’ve added some additional numbers from “UNHCR: Facts and Figures about Refugees“):

  • The approximately 50 million forcibly displaced people at the end of 2013 is the highest number since World War II.
  • Each day last year, an average of 32,000 more people were forced from their homes.
  • 33 million of the displaced people remain in their own country. 16.7 million flee to other countries, making them refugees.
  • 86% of the world’s refugees are living in the developing world.
  • On average, a refugee will be displaced for 17 years.
  • The war in Syria has produced 6.5 million displaced people, about half its population. More than 3 million of them have entered neighboring countries.
  • Lebanon, a country of 4 million, is home to 1 million Syrian refugees.
  • Half of the Syrian refugees are children, and only 20% of those in Lebanon are in school.

Below is Fleming’s full TED Talk, followed by a video message from Hany, produced by the UNCHR.

The last video is “Lebanon: Through the Eyes of a Refugee,” featuring Hany’s photographs from his participation in the UNHCR workshop Do You See What I See? The two-week class on photography and writing was led by photojournalist Brendan Bannon.

[photo: “TG14_100814_DD5A2115_1920,” by James Duncan Davidson/TED, used under a Creative Commons license]


Pico Iyer on Home, Travel, and Stillness (plus, Have You Seen the TED Commandments?)

161335960_3c30374d20_nPico Iyer, best-selling author on the topic of crossing cultures, finds the concept of “home” difficult to describe. It’s no wonder. His parents are Indian. He was born in England. At the age of eight he moved with his family to California. And currently, between his many travels, he lives with his Japanese wife in Japan.

In a TED Talk from 3 months ago, Iyer “meditates on the meaning of home, the joy of traveling and the serenity of standing still.”

Some great writers are not great speakers, but Iyer expresses his thoughts with eloquence in both forms. Here are a few of those thoughts:

On multi-cultural children:
“[T[heir whole life will be spent taking pieces of many different places and putting them together into a stained-glass whole.”

On traveling:
“The real voyage of discovery, as Marcel Proust famously said, consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes. And of course, once you have new eyes, even the old sights, even your home become something different.”

On the concept of home:
“[H]ome, we know, is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.”

On collecting 1 million miles on a frequent-flyer program:
“You all know that crazy system, six days in hell, you get the seventh day free.”

And on spending three days in silence at a monastery:
“I began to think that something in me had really been crying out for stillness, but of course I couldn’t hear it because I was running around so much.”

Following the TED Commandments

I’ve watched several TED Talks, and I’m always impressed with how the speakers seem to present their thoughts articulately and effortlessly. I’ve always wondered if they use teleprompters. I found my answer at Jimmy Guterman’s blog. Guterman, a TED Talk presenter, wrote that the TED Talk stage includes “confidence monitors.” These floor-mounted monitors show the slides used in the presentation, to which presenter notes can be added. He added these notes, but regretted it later, as he was distracted by the monitors and felt that he looked down at them too often.

Guterman goes on to list the “TED Commandments” that TED sends to every speaker. It’s a great list of advice, and most of it applies to even casual conversations:

I. Thou shalt not steal time.
II. Thou shalt not sell from the stage.
III. Thou shalt not flaunt thine ego.
IV. Thou shalt not commit obfuscation.
V. Thou shalt not murder PowerPoint.
VI. Thou shalt shine a light.
VII. Thou shalt tell a story.
VIII. Thou shalt honor emotion.
IX. Thou shalt bravely bare thy soul.
X. Thou shalt prepare for impact.

To this, Guterman adds a number eleven: Trust thyself. (In other words, Don’t use monitors.)

If you’re thinking about brushing up your public-speaking skills and want to imitate that TED Talk style, you might want to take a look at this “Onion Talk,” produced by the folks at The Onion. It’s called “Ducks Go Quack, Chickens Say Cluck” . . . sort of a lesson on cross-cultural communication.

(Jimmy Guterman, “How to Give a TED Talk (and How Not To),” Jimmy Guterman’s blog, March 12, 2002)

[photo: “Loneliness,” by David Jakes, used under a Creative Commons license]

Chris Jodan’s Art Helps Us “Feel” Some “Enormous Statistics”

Chris Jordan produces some really big artwork to represent some really big numbers. For example, this first piece below “depicts 92,500 agricultural plant seeds, equal to one hundredth of one percent of the number of people in the world today who suffer from malnutrition.”

This next one “depicts 240,000 plastic bags, equal to the estimated number of plastic bags consumed around the world every ten seconds.”

And this one “depicts 270,000 fossilized shark teeth, equal to the estimated number of sharks of all species killed around the world every day for their fins.”

All are part of the collection “Running the Numbers II: Portraits of Global Mass Culture.” Click on the thumbnails above and you’ll go to Jordan’s site, where you can see what makes these images so interesting. By clicking on the selected photos there, you’ll zoom all the way in to see the tiny parts—the seeds, the plastic bags, the shark teeth—that make up the larger whole.

In the TED Talk below, Jordan discusses the motivation behind his work, as he talks specifically about his earlier “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait,” which looks at excesses and issues in US culture, such as personal bankruptcy, deaths caused by smoking, and the country’s high rate of incarceration.

“Now I want to emphasize that these are just examples,” Jordan tells the TED audience. “I’m not holding these out as being the biggest issues. They’re just examples. And the reason that I do this . . . it’s because I have this fear that we aren’t feeling enough as a culture right now. There’s this kind of anesthesia in America at the moment.”

Using his creative talents, Jordan’s goal is, as he says, to take “gigantic numbers” and “enormous statistics” and “translate them into a more universal visual language that can be felt.”

It makes me think about what numbers I’d like to see shown in this way, such as those representing worldwide refugees and displaced people, abortions, human trafficking, and child soldiers, to name a few. I’m sure that we each have our own list of statistics that we believe need to be heard, seen . . . and felt.

And finally, we can see Jordan’s ability to challenge and educate using more traditional images in Ushirikiano: Building a Sustainable Future in Kenya’s Northern Rangelands. This book chronicles, in words and photographs, “the Nakuprat-Gotu Conservancy in Northern Kenya, an initiative led by tribal Elders, which aims to bring peace and prosperity to a region ravaged by violence and climate change.” Go here to see over 70 stunning photos from the collection, including many beautiful portraits of Kenya’s Turkana, Samburu, Borana, and Meru people.

[all images are by Chris Jordan, used under a Creative Commons license]

Can There Be Too Much Choice? It’s a Cultural Thing

I recently wrote about the trials of choosing cereal at Wal-Mart, and friend and fellow blogger MaDonna followed up with her own post calling the cereal aisle “one of the top 5 places expats hate to visit in the US.”

Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University and leading expert on choice, understands our pain. She writes in her book The Art of Choosing,

In 1994, the year I had my first inkling that there might be such a thing as too much choice, over 500,000 different consumer goods were already available in the United States. By 2003, the number had increased to nearly 700,000, an upward trend that shows no signs of letting up. Technological advances frequently introduce new categories of products into our lives. Some of them—cell phones, computers, digital cameras—become indispensable, and soon enough the options proliferate. Just as importantly, not only are there more goods on the market, there are more ways to get at them. The typical supermarket, which carried 3,750 different items in 1949, now boasts some 45,000 items. Walmart and other “big-box” retailers offer smorgasbords of over 100,000 products to Americans in just about every part of the country. And if you don’t find what you’re looking for within a few blocks, you’ll certainly find it with a few clicks. The Internet extends your reach well beyond local venues, providing access to the 100,000 DVDs on Netflix.com, 24 million books (and millions of other products) on Amazon.com, and 15 million singles on Match.com.

Following is a fascinating TedGlobal talk by Iyangar in which she discusses cultural differences in the valuing of choice. In her introduction to the video on her website, she says,

In America, choice is sacred. We believe in its limitless power and we worship it for the possibilities it offers. For Americans, choice is liberty, which is subordinate only to life itself in the Declaration of Independence. So it can be almost impossible to accept that not only are there countries and cultures that do not subscribe to the American ideal of choice, but that they wouldn’t necessarily be better off if more choice suddenly became available to them. I explore the great variation across the globe in beliefs about who should choose and when, how much choice should be available, and when choice is a burden rather than a pleasure.

Iyangar starts her presentation with an experience she had in a Japanese restaurant and ends in the US with a story of how her blindness affected how she chose the right fingernail polish. In between she shares research and anecdotes from around the world. Enjoy.

[photo: “Fi,” by Michael Hopkinsii, used under a Creative Commons license]