“I’m Gautam.” The mix of low voice, Singaporean and Indian accents (with a touch of the American), and the relative strangeness of my name, means I almost inevitably get a blank look or a request to repeat my name again. I have learnt to add “like [Batman’s] Gotham City, but not quite…” over the years. I suspect my persistence with this cheesy line may have something to do with ‘The Dark Knight’ being among the guilty pleasures on my all-time favorites list. Having gotten this far, must I stop short of claiming as my twin superpowers, political science and economics? They are my majors.
On why all this talk about Batman may be related to my project: I like to think every good superhero story, has its moments of deep introspection when the protagonist must come to terms with his or her superpower. When he or she must take stock, look deep into herself to find meaning, ask why she must help, and what it means to help, especially when his or her own flaws and limitations are far too evident. I suspect the questions are similar for those who wish to make a cause and career out of helping others. My own aspirations of pursuing careers related to human rights and international development mean that I must face up to these questions.
In the coming weeks, I will be working in Cairo as a legal intern. The work involves listening to the stories of refugees seeking resettlement from Egypt and subsequently helping write up cases for submission to the UNHCR and other agencies. Below are some of the questions I will be grappling with, broadly categorized into two:
Ethics of Helping
- How do you reach out to those whose environments do not afford them the simplest dignities? How can they reclaim their dignity?
- How do you help without turning benefactor?
- Why do I really want to help? Why do I think I can be of help?
- How do you tell them they deserve better, without degrading their struggles and circumstances?
- What responsibilities do you have if you encourage them to dream, to see their world differently?
- What does it mean to be privy to knowledge (legal procedures, languages) that provides power that the refugees do not have? When must you recognize the limitations of that same knowledge?
Ethics of Retelling a Story
- What does it mean for a story to be re-told and re-interpreted by others so that it can be heard?
- How do I navigate, deal with stories that may have substantial personal meaning, but does not have legal significance?
- Does one prioritize the immediate legal consequences or the integrity of the story (and how do we know if the latter does not impact the former in the long run)?
- How may one’s responsibility as a provider of legal aid, differ from those as just another person listening to stories?
The past few days in Cairo, in the lead up to the presidential elections have been engaging and exciting, and I look forward to bringing interesting stories and reflections in the coming weeks.
A note about myself: Among my first loves are travel and writing. I have applied the passion for seeing places and understanding cultures that my parents brought to our family vacations, to my own travels – two backpacking trips, both over several thousand miles of North India and Western China, the latter with just a Mandarin phrase book in hand. My addiction to people and conversations (the political, the cultural, the philosophical, and almost everything else) far too often keep me away from the books I love, and what I wish to write. Yet it animates me and leaves me wanting for more. As far as other interesting experiences go, I served in Singapore’s conscript army as an infantry platoon commander before college, lived with tribal migrants over two months in different cities and villages of three North Indian states as part of my summer research, and studied abroad in India and China on a Duke program.
Finally here is a link to a video that was wonderful to re-watch, and came to mind while writing this. Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator on why it is worthwhile to keep hope and help