Stories from the field

month August 2016

Sidney Moss – Blog 4: Breaking Bread Part I

I have been feeling somewhat defeated about the divisions that exist in the world today between borders, cultures, and people in general. I have noticed that in spending too much energy on focussing on the differences that exist in the world, there is a feeling of cultivating a social “Self” and “Other”, disconnecting people from each other and misinterpreting the unknown for the unrelated. I admit to have experienced feelings of discomfort and loneliness while living in a more rural area of India. However, rather than yielding to these feelings, I have turned my focus to a sense of familiar curiosity in the food culture of my surrounding area. I have therefore chosen to dedicate this post to the language of food – something that we are all familiar with in one way or another. The ingredients, cooking strategies, traditions, and the ways in which we eat undoubtedly vary, but the basic practice of coming together to enjoy food and nourish our bodies remains fluid. I have a keen interest in food and the way we as people connect with such, so it made sense to spend some time exploring and pondering the topic of food and its use as a point of connection with the beautiful people and culture that I am immersed in.  


Kim Copeland – Blog 4: Interview with Ghasem: English Education Coordinator at MSRI

Ghasem is a twenty two year old refugee from Afghanistan and the English Education Coordinator at the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI). He is also one of my good friends here in Kuala Lumpur and absolutely hilarious. Here is our interview surrounding his personal and professional thoughts on education; his experiences in Afghanistan learning English; and how life has come full-circle for him, teaching English at MSRI.



Claire Horwood – Blog 5: Interview with Hadi (Student at MSRI’s school)

As I have mentioned in each of my previous blog posts, one my goals during my internship is to examine the many ways that language, with all of its nuances and all of its layers, impacts the people who work at MSRI and the refugees who access essential services. My hope is that this information will help to shine some light on one of the most prominent invisible barriers that refugees and service providers face, both in facilitating integration into host countries, and during the re-settlement process.

I chose to do an interview with a young man named Hadi, because he is (a) a wonderfully special human being and (b) a student at the MSRI school and an unaccompanied minor (which means he represents two youth-focused programs operating at MSRI).

I thought Hadi was an excellent candidate for this podcast because when he arrived in Kuala Lumpur two years ago, he didn’t speak any English or any of Malaysia’s local languages. After one year at MSRI’s school, he is fluent in English, and can therefore provide some insight into how difficult it is to arrive in a country without knowing the language, how challenging it is to learn a new language, and how much language really matters in the refugee context.

At one point, as we spoke about his experiences getting around the city without any English, Hadi said, “it was so difficult… If you don’t know English, you are like… blind.” I think this really speaks to the hardships that refugees have to endure as a result of being thrust into a country with another language, where they cannot get around, cannot advocate for themselves, and cannot participate fully in society until they are able to acquire the appropriate language skills.

I loved every minute of this interview, and am so thankful that Hadi was able to participate.


Elena Lopez – Blog 4: Fieldwork

In this blog post, I delve into the challenges and rewards of doing fieldwork. This is my second time doing fieldwork, and while I am still a relative novice, I can provide some guidance and advice for others who are thinking about incorporating fieldwork into their studies. I discuss fieldwork as practice, praxis, and provocation, and I share some excerpts of my fieldnotes to provide a glimpse of what it’s like to be in the field. 

Katherine Gust – Blog 1: Introduction Interview

Below is Part 1 of a convertstaion between Zahura Ahmed and myself. Within this podcast we introduce ourselves, and in Part 2 we explain who we are working with and what we hope to achieve from this time. Please view Zahuras blog for Part 2 of this conversation.

Joel Toorenburgh – Blog 3: The Difference a Day Makes

**Disclaimer: The following is personal blog based on my individual experience in Bangladesh.**

When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost. 

– Billy Graham

Sometimes, things happen in life that we don’t understand. Once upon a time, Zach and I came to a sudden and horrid realization: we had neglected to take our shared backpack along with us. It had been left behind in a CNG taxi. The backpack contained both of our laptops including some invaluable files (pictures, stories, personal work) and other items. This fateful moment ushered in a panic that can only be described as “fight or flight.” Indeed, we fought and we ran hoping to find the CNG and reclaim our belongings. Such a state – where one loses all self-awareness – is fleeting. After some time in said stupor, we realized that we had to come to terms with the inevitable. With more two hundred thousands CNGs in the city, it was most likely that we would never see these things again. 

Fighting all desire to crawl into a ball and cry like a school-aged child, we decided that it would be best to go to the police station and make a report. In all honesty, the process was frustrating and long. The loss we felt was significant and my patience was lower than ever. We did our best to be polite, but we really just wanted to go in, make the report, and leave. Things don’t always go the way we want them to. 

Once we returned home, I entered into an unproductive mental state, feeling anger, depression, and frustration. We did what we could to keep ourselves distracted, but the evenings alone made it painstakingly clear what was missing. The WiFi went out that week and we were left disconnected, depressed and most devastatingly, without any distraction from reality. 


Time heals all wounds, unless you pick at them.

– Shaun Alexander


It’s perhaps cliché to say it, but in my experience, the idea that time heals all wounds has rung true. The pain feels acute and unbearable at first, but with time we come to terms with it, we find other things to think about, we adapt and move on. Perhaps, it’s inherently wired in us as humans to do this. It keeps us moving forward and looking ahead. With time upon us, our lives moved on. We made up the lost work. We found new distractions. We tried to make the past the past.


Out of difficulties, grow miracles 

– Jean de la Bruyère 


Weeks later, we found ourselves struggling to understand a voice on the other end of the phone. Eventually, we understood. It was the police. The police? Why?! We called a friend and asked them to speak with the officer for us. Eventually, and amazingly, it was confirmed that our laptops had supposedly been brought to the station. Afraid of more emotional damage, we cautioned ourselves to stay calm and manage our expectations. The next day, we would go and see what they had found. 

We entered into the police station greeting the investigating officer and the head of the department. They kindly seated us. We identified ourselves, and re-described the items we had lost. Eventually, a man emerged from a backroom with the backpack in hand. My soul danced. We examined the contents and everything was as it should be. The items were returned thanks to the tremendous kindness of the CNG driver  – a stranger – who went out of his way to return the items to us. The police seized his CNG for a day depriving him a day’s wages. 

Humans are capable of both terrible and terrific things. Everyday, we are bombarded with stories and realities of both. Once and a while, some one does something so wonderful that it overpowers all the terrible for just a moment. 

I find myself in that moment. I hope it lasts. 


No one has ever become poor by giving.

– Anne Frank 


Charli Mohammed – Blog 3: The emotions in the field

Hello friends,


I have now been in Singapore for two months. The joys of fieldwork have now kicked in and I have formed many wonderful friendships. The struggle I now deal with is realizing that I may never again see some of the participants whom I have become quite close with. Since my research delves into deep issues and explores the layered and rich experiences of domestic helpers from an emotional perspective, it is only natural that close bonds develop between my participants and myself. I struggle with not being able to help them in a direct way, as well as with the fact that I will be very far away and I know that it is likely that I may not see them again. I have found myself lying to both my participants and myself about when I will be coming next, simply because I do not want to face the reality that this might be the last time we see each other.


The emotional fear of my departure is a good experience for me to have, as these women have to face this all the time, and with people who they are much closer with, such as their children and parents. One of the way in which I have not been able to relate with the women in a direct way is the pain of having to leave their children. I experienced this with my little brother, but since I do not actually have children of my own, I really do not know how hard it is for these women to leave their children to work in a foreign country. I made a small trip last week and met an 8-month-old child who I instantly became attached with while waiting in transit. When my bus came, I was very sad because I knew that I would never see the child again. Although I only knew this child for a short period of time, I was crying for a large portion of my bus ride. I then thought, “How do foreign domestic helpers do this with their own children?” The age of the child I met was around the same age as the children of the helpers are when they migrate for work. This experience allowed me to realize how strong these women truly are. And not only do they leave their children to get themselves out of poverty, but they also become breadwinner for their entire families, including parents and siblings. Many of the women have paid the school fees for all of their siblings and have built homes for their family memebrs. As well, many have saved up enough money to start a business back in Indonesia, and are actually maintaining their businesses back home, while they are working in Singapore!


One of the ways in which migrant workers overcome the pain of leaving their families behind is through forming new bonds with other migrant workers and engaging in group activities, such as playing music. Tuesday was National Day in Singapore and I attended a migrant worker’s showcase, where male and female migrant workers showed off their musical talents. A choir made up of Indonesian domestic workers sung about their experiences in Singapore and a band made up of Bangladeshi construction and marine workers performed beautiful Bangladeshi songs in honour of Singapore’s birthday. The male workers had a band of about 11 members, each one with an instrument in hand, and the two singers were unbelievably good. I could not believe how talented these guys were…if I hadn’t known, I would have thought they were professionals. The women had beautiful, angelic voice, but filled with depth and soul. Both performers wrote their own songs and poems, which were better than anything I have heard on the radio in the last coupleof decades. The passion was bursting out of these performers, in a rich and beautiful way. I had not heard such passion from a performer in a very long time. I was in so much awe that I cried after the performances! The amazing thing about how talented these performers were is that the workers are only able to practice on a Sunday and many have other activities that they are involved in on Sundays as well, so their time to practice is very limited. Many of the workers actually end up working on their day off as well, so many will only practice once a month. They all had been through some very rough times, and are very far away from their families, including their own children, and somehow that pain is transformed into pure, soulful art. One man said that playing music is a way for them to relieve the stress of working so hard and the sadness of being far away from his family. Both foreign domestic workers and migrant construction and marine workers work extremely hard and for long hours, doing the jobs that most people would not to do if they had a choice. Yet they do it with pride, strength, and perseverance. Though both the men and women voiced that they have a very hard life and experience sadness, they demonstrated that they are very proud to be able to support their families. The showcase was a way to give voice to these workers, which was really important for a day like National Day.

There are a few organizations around town which also aim to provide foreign domestic workers with the platform to express themselves through art. One of the ways in which art becomes an apparent way to relieve the stress of living in a foreign country is through dance. Many domestic helpers take dance classes or teach each other how to dance on their day off. One NGO provides a “dance studio” for the women to practice for free, and many other organizations provide dance classes for these women for a small fee. Around the public spaces on Sundays, one can see the domestic workers practicing their choreography, dancing a varied range of styles, from traditional Indonesian dance to Bollywood. Many of these women also learn how to play musical instruments and sing. The women have told me that dance and music are really important for them while they are in Singapore. Not only do they feel happier when they are engaging in these activities, but the community atmosphere also brings joy to their lives.

I hope that my work will be another platform for some migrant workers to voice their experiences.


Alright, until next time, Selamat tinggal!


Danae Zachari – Blog 3 (Part 3/3): Interview with Gloria Martinez – senior program manager at MSRI

In this final section of my interview with Gloria Martinez, Gloria discusses the complexities of reporting a perpetrator, especially in an asylum and refugee context. She also explains how the course of action varies from one case to another and the possible drawbacks a legal case can have for refugees.

I feel very fortunate to be learning about a topic that is not only important in the work I am currently doing but also for any future engagements in my personal and professional life. I have been learning to go past my good intentions, of how I think my actions may benefit someone, and to explore the actual effect they have on individuals. The environment and experiences children are exposed to, shape them and it is thus critical to pay attention to the long-term impact of our actions rather than short-term benefits.

Danae Zachari – Blog 3 (Part 2/3): Interview with Gloria Martinez – senior program manager at MSRI

Children’s Rights

In this second section, Gloria Martinez talks about the UN convention on the rights of the child, which articulates the rights of children and recognizes their agency and evolving capacities. She explains what it means when countries, such as Malaysia, entered reservations on articles of the convention when they ratified it. This podcast ends with a discussion on the child protection policy introduced at MSRI and the training that has begun to take place. 

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 3: One Week In Late July

(Disclaimer: the following is a post centered around my own personal experiences and reflections. Any definitive statements are only worded as such because they save space, and may thus be treated as entirely anecdotal and subjective)

What the readership must know before reading the Blog:

I am Zachary, and I am interning with an organization called RMMRU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.


Welcome back, dear readership!

Here’s a thing I think about sometimes: why do people do awful things? Imagine the most awful things done by people. Now try to imagine the thoughts that they used to propel those actions. Maybe each of them had a few ‘crossroads moments,’ or points in time when a certain thought – of empathy, of sympathy, of humanity – might have turned them around from their destructive or abusive path.

The reason I bring this topic up is not to provide a general answer or explanation. In fact, I don’t believe anyone will ever be capable of performing such a feat in this case – the  question at hand is far too abstract, and one would have a difficult time addressing the myriad specific contexts in which people have done despicable things (see: every human context we know about). As well, despite numerous human endeavours, the minds of other people remain a ‘final frontier’ of sorts, a vast unexplored territory that we can only wonder and speculate about.

So, what we’ve got – what this blog is about – is a big, abstract, and silly question that I cannot answer in any general sort of way. However, because I have (at least partial) access to one mind (my own), I think I can distill the question down to a level that might be an interesting starting point for a discussion I believe is quite important. Maybe, hearing my story, you (the readers) might be able to compare my struggles and lessons with some that happened in your own lives. All I’m going to say “here is how I relate to the question,” and hopefully everybody reading this (I’m looking at you, mom) will traipse off on their own wonderful thought-journeys of self-exploration. Or, perhaps more likely, you will view this blog as evidence of the combined negative effects of too much coffee and too little beer. I surrender to either judgement.

Ok, so lengthy preamble concluded – check. Now that we’ve lost half our readership (still looking at you, mom), I will relate the tale of fateful misfortunes that began for me on 28 July 2016.


Trauma #1 – I Lose Our Laptops (July 28)

Here’s the gist: I lose both mine and Joel’s laptops in a CNG. It’s my fault, I hate myself, and I can’t do anything about it, because they’re long gone. Furthermore, I lose a bunch of documents that we’d been working on for our host organization, RMMRU, erasing completely about a week’s worth of work (side-lesson: dropbox is our friend).

Response – Reflections from the Fetal Position (July 28-31)

One needs to have a couch when they are depressed. A variation of prone environments becomes highly desirable, as reclining pitifully in bed all day makes sleep somewhat less attractive. As a result, the (decidedly abrasive) wooden couch in our apartment took on a bigger role in my life.

“It’s going to be OK,” I tell myself during these days. “In thirteen months, I will be busy with other things and I will not think about this all that often.”

As I deal with the hard stuff, I noticeably lose patience with my surroundings. I feel less able to handle the challenges of Dhaka City, and I empathize/sympathize less with the people I encounter in daily life. Objectively speaking, there’s no good reason for this. Dhaka is the same as it was when I was maintaining a positive/hopeful attitude, and the people around me are certainly no less interesting or worthy of my attention than they were before. And yet, there’s this obvious power that fear holds over our perceptions; it taints everything. I feel threatened; therefore, I have no energy for anybody else’s problems. I’m sure we’ve all had this experience. I think it’s a natural, ‘fight-or-flight’ response to an unfriendly environment. The funny thing is that, by this process, in order to address an unfriendly environment, I myself become unfriendly. This is where a little bit of reflection came in handy for me.

I want to be clear, here. I was not Mr. Reflective right away when this realization hit me. My condition of  curled-up, self-hugging sadness instead made me more like Mr. Reflexive: weak, easily frustrated, and unwilling to self-examine.


Trauma #2 – Trip to do RMMRU Fieldwork Goes Awry (Aug 1-3)

Now, take the mental state that I described above, mix in a 12-hour overnight bus ride to Teknaf, a town in Bangladesh’s southeastern corner, and finish it off with a heavy dose of being told we’re not allowed to be there and must return to Dhaka at once, via another 12-hour night bus.

The above ellipsis is the only thing I can make with my keyboard that comes close to describing the potency of this moment.

To be honest, I’m not sure of the local officials’ exact reasoning for rejecting our right to stay and work in Teknaf, but it’s not really relevant to this discussion. What matters is that I was angry – angry at them, angry at Bangladesh, and just angry at the world in the abstract. Again, Mr. Reflexive needs neither reason nor self-examination.


Response – Losing My Sense of Beauty

This is one of those ‘crossroads moments’ that I described before. This was my chance: if I ever was going to hate my surroundings, this was it. All of the beauty I had witnessed in the prior two months – and all of the complexity that eludes my perception – I was going to lose this to a self-centered reaction to frustration and discomfort. This would represent tragic loss of perspective for me, but I shudder to think of the long-term effect this could have upon my words and actions.

Full disclosure: I did lose my sense of beauty for a few days. I lost a lot of my empathy, too, and I stopped caring about the nuanced, complicated picture of the real Bangladesh. It became very easy to simplify my surroundings to easy quarter-truths that matched my angry narrative. I don’t think this type of reaction is unnatural or avoidable. I’m also not saying it’s natural or unavoidable either, I simply state that it happened; it was something I was forced to deal with. High levels of emotion overwhelmed my sensual and intellectual capacities. These were times when it seemed somehow easier to project my frustration onto my surroundings, and, in so doing, put space between others and myself.

These moments are what led me to ask the question at the start of this blog. In this space of horrid self-centeredness, I had this thought: these are the kinds of headspaces that allow people to do bad, destructive things. I became emotional – afraid, frustrated, despairing – and my own need for emotional resolution threatened to outweigh the needs of those around me.

In this way, I wonder, do people transition from bewildered frustration into reductive simplifications that make the pain easier, and from there logically proceed to something worse? Again, I don’t have the answer, but it sure felt like it could have gone that way for me had I not taken time to reflect what it was my thoughts were actually doing.


Final Thoughts and Hindsight

I’m being a little dramatic again. I never hated my surroundings, and, while I harbored some resentment for the world around me, I think I was able to re-stabilize and get back my perspective before anything bad happened. That being said, this emotional low-point underlined what I think will be one of the key lessons of my time in Bangladesh: it tested my capacity and commitment to love.

My background – my personal set of ideals and assumptions – centers around a sort of liberal humanism (don’t worry, I’m not fully certain of what that means either). Who I want to be, and how I want to respond to the world, is generally based on the assumption that we (humans, earthlings, etc.) are all in this together, that we’re responsible for each other, that everybody – of all sexual orientations, creeds, genders, and ethnicities – deserves equal and just treatment.

But those views do not work without a commitment to actively loving other people, and that commitment can be challenged when one feels disorientated, alone, and afraid, as I often felt during the week of laptop and bus-ride troubles. I lost a little bit of my capacity to love, even if only temporarily. All kinds of dangerous and harmful attitudes threatened to come into my life.

The way out, for me, was to block out some of the noise and reduce the inner turmoil to a bunch of simple decisions all based around the same question: do I want to go in the direction of hate and fear, or do I want to go where I think healing, love, and acceptance might be?

It took a few days, but it ended up giving me some peace of mind. Of course, there was never any doubt that I would recover. It was a lost laptop, and a three-day trip gone wrong. These are not things that were ever going to derail my life. But what was illuminating about the experience was the glimpse I got of that ‘crossroads moment,’ of that time where resentment, selfishness, and negativity seem to be more feasible alternatives than they normally would be.

 My goal in sharing this experience was, as honestly as possible, to share the internal tumult that I underwent, along with the things that helped me get past it, so that anyone reading this might reflect on similar ‘crossroads moments’ in their own lives. As well, anyone who might be headed to – or engaged in – similar cross-borders experiences might, I hope, use my little tale as a launching point for their own reflections.

That’s all. 

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