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Reflections: Interview with Rania Arabi, writer and YWCA program coordinator

Rania and I sat down in late October, on the eve of Halloween, in the warm comfort of her Plateau home. For some time we had been talking about filming an interview with her father, who had been forced to leave his home in Jaffa. And in the midst of negotiating all of our schedules we decided that the starting point was in fact Rania's story. So on this late October morning, with a bowl of fresh figs between us, we began what became a two hour life story interview.

I had met Rania because of her work at the YWCA, where Rania is in charge of researching and coordinating programs for immigrant women and their children in Montreal. As the co-coordinator of the Refugee Youth working group of the Life Stories project and the principle investigator of the collaborative media project, "Mapping Memories," I had contacted Rania to explore how we might collaborate on a future project. A philosophy of the Mapping Memories project is to form strategic collaborations with existing support groups for refugee youth to ensure the longevity of the project. Rania and I have been exploring ways to integrate media and digital storytelling into her ongoing work.

We had also decided that in order to understand both the potential of a creative collaboration or a life story, that Rania and the staff of the YWCA would benefit by experiencing first hand the kind of workshops we have been conducting in refugee shelters and with youth groups in Montreal. By actually going through the process of using new media to tell personal stories, the staff would have a better sense of how these techniques might work with their groups. Furthermore the staff would understand first hand the tranformative potential as well as the vulnerability a creative process like this entails. So before our day long training in digital storytelling with the YWCA staff, Rania and I conducted her life story interview. We discussed at length her identity as a Palestinian woman and her thoughts on the potential of oral history and personal stories to transcend tropes of victimization.

Rania herself grew up in Kuwait with her three brothers and both of her parents. She moved to Montreal with her family soon after the Gulf War. Rania's father was forced to leave his home in Raffa at the age of seven and during the interview I learned that Rania had also been marked by a traumatic event at the same age. " It was during the civil war - and the conflict between the Palestinians and the Lebanese. There were only two Palestinians at my school and we were made fun of. "You look like Arafat" they would scream ... I stayed in that school for ten years and I never asked to be taken out. I don't know why - for some reason I just swallowed it and said - ok, I am going to stand here alone - its there anything wrong with being Palestinian?" Rania explained that despite the 300,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait she still most often felt like an outsider in the country.

Rania's first opportunity to visit Palestine, came for her as a young adult. Interested in the concept of "Homeland" Rania interviewed PLO officials, who had spent years living in exile in Tunisia and were now returning to Palestine. Her research was part of her master's degree in anthropology. During her field work she encouraged her father to return to Palestine. Together they visited the home he had abruptly left as a child. "It was like being with a 7 year old again. He started crying. He was hugging me and my cousins." Rani and her father conspired to bring a piece of his home back with them - the actual window of his childhood bedroom. In discussing the meaning of this encounter, Rania explained. "He had the priviledge of going back and seeing his home and not many people have that. I feel that whenever you go back to a wound or a rupture you face it. Its good that he cried - he is still angry and has things to deal with." In discussing the impact of the visit, she explained that now her father now has a new set of memories connected to the first place he would call home.

I asked Rania about her relationship to her father's anger and the notion of inheriting trauma. She explained "I had a very close and uncomfortable relationship to my father's anger - its rage - its beyond anger - its a cry from the heart that this should not be - how come this is happening - that noone is caring - and I picked it up. ... But my duty, my responsibility is to take this and to tranform it so that my child doesn't have to carry it. ... "

She went on to explain her notion of a "sacred wound" that has resonated with me ever since our interview. "Sometimes what we do with our wounds is hide it and live our lives like victims .. but I feel that this is my wound, that I inherited it, and it became a part of me and now what do I do with this wound? Do I scratch it? Do I play with it? Do I try to open it again? Do I tell its story - because it is fun to tell the story - and someone says - oh my god you went through this - confirming the drama and the vicitmhood or maybe there is a chance to heal to transform - I am going to use this wound and make a contribution - show the world that wounds can heal."

A few days later during the workshop with the YWCA staff, Rania used the memory of her visit with her father as the inspiration for her digital story, which she told in the form of a letter to her son. Its powerful and inspiring, much like Rania and the work she does at the YWCA.

Interview Conducted: Friday, October 30th, 2009
Interviewer: Liz Miller
Videographer: Liz Miller