Wendy Pearlman is an associate professor who studies comparative politics of the Middle East. Pearlman has award-winning research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Lebanese diaspora and the Syrian Civil War. Pearlman’s most recent book, a narrative collection of her interviews with nearly 300 Syrian refugees, will be published in June. NBN caught up with her to talk activism, wellness, and the ongoing conflict in Syria.
NBN: What advice would you give to students leading movements on campus?
WP: Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to see results immediately. Think about the long term contribution you’re making – even if you don’t see the results you want, you’re leaving some sort of legacy for other students who come after you.
How have you maintained your own wellness throughout the work you’ve done?
The trick is to not be so cold and unemotional that you’re just treating it like material. But you also don’t want to be so emotionally overwhelmed by the horror of the material that you’re unable to work. I never want to think of the Syrians I talk to as data. There are absolutely times when I find I’ve broken down crying. There were times when I felt like I couldn’t do any work. You need to be attuned to your emotional state and protect your wellness, remembering that you’re no good to yourself or anybody else if you fail to protect yourself.
How can college students maintain that balance?
We all feel a lot of pressure, and I think, especially college students, act like they’ve got it all together. There’s not often a lot of space to show vulnerability and say you’re overwhelmed. The more open we are to talk about those vulnerabilities and experiences, the more we can have open dialogue and conversation in which people don’t feel so much pressure to put on this totally invincible, successful face to the world.
In today’s crowded market for attention, how do we get people to care about something so far away like the civil war in Syria?
When I talk to people about Syria, I [find] that a lot of ordinary Americans have a sense that Syria is really complicated, something is going on over there that’s really terrible, and, “My heart cries for those poor people, but I just don’t really get it.” Most Americans can get by without knowing, and without caring what happens in Syria. But, the degree of the absolute obliteration of human rights is so devastating that I hope we know and try to care. Those who have the sheer luck and good fortune to have been born in places where they’re safe and free have a duty to care about those who, by their luck, have been born without such privileges. There are many ways to talk about Syria, but the stories of Syrians themselves are most effective. The personal stories demonstrate the human dimension of how devastating this is for ordinary people who’ve been caught up in the crossfire. As a human who cares about people, it moves me, but as an academic and as a professor of politics, I also find that stories can help us understand politics in a deeper, helpful way.
Considering the events and conflicts you have researched, and everything you have studied, do you still believe in change?
I definitely believe in change. It can be difficult to be optimistic, but what gives me hope is that people are enormously resilient, and what I’ve seen with Syrians is that the Syrian refugees are so strong. They don’t give up. If people who suffered such enormous injustice can continue dreaming of change, then it’s almost like we shouldn’t have the luxury of giving up hope. If they have hope, then we have a duty to keep hoping and standing in solidarity with them.
*This interview has been edited & condensed for clarity.