Thursday, November 26, 2015

The road to a UN refugee camp is paved with good intentions

I am convinced, more than ever, that charity begins at home! Let me explain.

On Wednesday, we drove about 90 minutes towards the Tanzanian border. Our goal was to visit a United Nations refugee camp, catering for what we later learned to be a popuation of more than 5000. The back of the van was stacked with those striped bags you find in discount shops, each of them crammed full of knitted blankets, jumpers and dolls.

Our hope was that, during our brief sojourn to this spartan environment, we would be able to sit and dialogue with some of the people who have been forced to call the mud-brick buildings home. We wanted to hand out the donated items - the fruit of many hours of pain-staking love and devotion from faithful people back home - and let them know they were not alone. Somebody did indeed care! It was meant to be an experience where we would attempt to shine a little bit of love and compassion into an environment we had heard was characterised by darkness and despair.

We were wrong! Or maybe it was just that we were naive. It was not only the crafty creations that we were laden up with but also perhaps the expectations of well-meaning people back home.

When people have been forced to flee their homes and end up living in rows of makeshift dwellings, with only dirt for a verandah and paddocks for a landscape, something has to give. When you are reliant on a local constabulary to tell you when you can eat and how much you can consume, your dignity must shrivel and wither, like a piece of fruit lacking sunlight.

Most of you reading this will likely be from countries where the plight of refugees is often a headline to be alarmed by, a cause to be fought for or a slogan to be delivered in a sound-bite. We can so easily forget that they are human beings, each with a story to tell and a voice to be heard. We really don't know the circumstances that force them to flee their place of birth but I suspect, after that slow drive past people sitting in dirt, with a distant look in their eyes, that we may not be able to fully stomach it even if we did.

Our little party, myself included, thought these people would line up in neat rows to help facilitate the distribution process. We thought the police would be more supportive and constructive. At a personal level, the journalist in me hoped I would be able to sit down with some of them and discover more about where had come from, why they had fled and what hopes and dreams they still had.

Instead, what we experienced were people grasping and groping, pushing and pulling, jostling and
pleading. In those frenzied moments, an image that came to mind was of seagulls fighting for the discarded food scraps or a few cold chips. We wanted to restore some of their dignity; instead, we provoked desperate people to become even more so.

Our hearts were already open to these fellow human beings. That's why we were there. It's just that our heads had to catch up. Now that we know more, my commitment is not to expect people who have nothing to be somehow be grateful to simply be given something. Instead, I need to alert people as to how they can truly make a difference. If that means sometimes putting down the knitting needles, and finding another way to show support, then that is a windmill I am willing to tilt at. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing about this, David. I am sure it was heart-breaking and confronting. There, but for the grace of God and the luck of birth....