It was the summer of 2014. I was sitting in the living room of my mother’s childhood home in the West Bank of Palestine, playing cards and drinking tea with my cousins. The news was playing in the background, but we were not paying much attention. Our TV was always on, haunting us with videos of the Israeli bombings in Gaza and lists of the names of the dead. We were trying to distract ourselves, distantly listening to the names in case we were to recognize one.
Then we did.
Nadeem Nawara. This is the name that caused my cousin to drop her cards and point to the TV. The news anchors were talking about a court case currently unfolding and showing a clip of the murder of 17-year-old Nadeem by an Israeli soldier, which had happened two months earlier. Nadeem had been my cousin’s childhood friend.
The video of Nadeem’s death was followed by that of another death, then another and another, as the images on the TV rotated through the 1,462 Palestinian civilian deaths from the bombings that summer. But Nadeem’s story, like those of others killed since the start of the conflict, failed to puncture the global consciousness, lost in a list of names that scrolled across a screen.
Two centuries earlier, in the fall of 1832, Maryland Jesuits sold 272 slaves to help keep Georgetown financially afloat. These 272 names were listed in the Georgetown archives, left untouched and unnoticed for nearly two centuries until 2015, when the resurfacing of these events spurred national outcry. These events eventually led to the creation of the Georgetown Memory Project in 2016, a group dedicated to chronicling the living descendants of the 272.
Cornelius Hawkins. This is the name that Louisiana native Maxine Crump was told over the phone as she drove home one day last February. On the other end of the line was Richard Cellini (CAS ’84, LAW ’88), the founder of the Georgetown Memory Project. Hawkins was about 13 years old when, in 1832, he was forced onto a slave ship and sold by Maryland Jesuits to a plantation just a few miles from where Crump grew up. He was her great-great-grandfather.
Nadeem and Cornelius lived in different times and faced different injustices, but they share at least one thing to this day: They are both among the many oft-forgotten names whose stories go untold due to institutional oppression. Aside from those who are personally connected to them, very few fight to preserve the voices of people like Nadeem and Cornelius. Few pay mind to the stories of the oppressed.
We tend to see those who are institutionally marginalized not as individuals but rather as a collective — a group with no composition outside of whatever shared characteristic has led to its degradation. The lists that our divisive political and social climate produce — whether of the dead, the attacked, the deported or the oppressed — are adopted as singular, impersonal collectives.
When disconnected from an issue, it is easy for us to talk about the innocent lives lost in terms of buzzwords and numbers. The “Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” “The 272.” In doing so, we support a system that mutes the voices of the forgotten and robs the silenced of their stories.
But these names have faces. Their unheard voices tell stories that are just as entitled to be part of the grand narrative of our world as your story and mine. Their story is part of our story. Yet, the narrative that we are exposed to in our daily life is monopolized by the stories of the privileged, which, whether intentional or not, produces an inherent disconnect between “us” and “them,” the favored and the forgotten.
This disconnect leads to an absence of empathy on the part of those whose voices are heard. For many, there is no link between them and the names on these lists. As a result, these names remain no more than words on paper, and the stories behind these names remain untold. Their struggles have been erased from our consciousness as we continue to live comfortably in the confines of our safe, protected bubble.
We are far too comfortable in our privilege, so comfortable that we have turned a blind eye to the very-real plights of others who do not have the same luxury of comfort. This is especially evident at Georgetown, where many students come from particularly privileged backgrounds; 20.8 percent of Georgetown students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale.
Students always talk about breaking the “Georgetown bubble,” but this bubble is not confined to just the Hilltop. Although we are not always aware of it, this bubble extends as far as we allow. The responsibility falls upon us to break the bubble by paying attention to the human side of issues that we typically see as black and white, facts and figures and concepts and generalities.
Pay attention to the names.
Nadeem. Cornelius. Their names have faces. Their unheard voices tell stories that now you know — but so few others do, just as so few others in situations similar to theirs are allowed a voice.
It is our job to seek the stories of those whose voices are silenced.
And it is our job to listen.
Yasmeen El-Hasan is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service.