I used to believe the fundamental premise of charity and compassion was material, that those who have more wealth than others share with those who lack. That we who are born into affluence, or inside functioning and privileged social structures, with opportunities to prosper, share with those who don’t have the same chances. The rich give to the poor; the powerful give to the powerless.
Refugees and displaced people have obliterated this misconception.
In December 2019, I was in Al-Hasakah, in northeastern Syria, while the Turkish Armed Forces and their proxies continued an invasion of Kurdish Syria that had begun on October 9. Kurdish, Arab, and Armenian villages and cities along the border of Turkey were attacked, and people killed. Survivors fled into the desert or drove away in haste while roads were still unobstructed.
From that October until January 2020, my team and hundreds of volunteers fed and provided for up to 27,000 people per day. The setting for all the aid we did was in primary schools and public buildings that were closed by the local administration to serve as temporary shelters until displacement camps could be established.
I visited one of those schools and went to a classroom where, I heard, a woman had just given birth to a beautiful girl. I was met at the door by a man with a big smile, earthy demeanor, farmer’s hands. “I’m Mahmood,” he said softly, employing the Middle Eastern gesture of smiling sincerely while resting his right hand over his heart. He pulled me into the classroom to join his wife and four children, including their newborn daughter, Loreen.
In a big circle on the floor, the family passed around a fragrant curry, rice, chili peppers, and flatbread. The best of every bowl was served onto my plate. Once everyone was served, through giggled whispers to each other, they gestured that I should begin my meal. With pantomime and the occasional translations of a friend, we heard their story as we shared a simple meal.
Mahmood, now grave, looked down at the floor as his kids cleared dishes. “We had just purchased doors and windows to finish our home. It’s all gone.” He strained to tell me that he and his family had saved for twenty years, building a home, piece by piece, as they could afford to from the meager income they earned as farmers.
Mahmood made space at his table for me, a stranger. He shared his family’s food with me, selecting the best parts they had, filling my plate.
His welcome – and his family’s – was endearing and genuine, like that at so many meals I’ve shared with people in the Middle East.
I’ve learned from refugees and displaced people like Mahmood that charity isn’t the responsibility or privilege of the wealthy alone, but all people, regardless of social or financial status, and it isn’t practiced among the wealthiest people I know nearly as strikingly as with those I’ve known who are living in a state of material poverty and insecurity. For twenty-six years, I’ve been attempting to outdo victims of war with generosity, and so far, I’ve failed.
Do you want to experience hospitality? Go to any refugee camp or hide site for IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the world and be invited into the shack or tent of a family displaced by war, reduced to a few threadbare clothes, and some simple sentimental possessions like a wedding picture. You enter and a rush of activity ensues: water is boiled to make sweet tea. A meal is prepared. The table is wiped; a pillow is placed at the small of your back as they say, “Recline here. You must be so tired.”
Material wealth may make generosity abundantly clear. But wealth is not required for generosity. One may be wealthy and generous but one may also be poor and generous. Wealth is a tool, and may as easily be employed falsely as altruistically.
In order to keep a lifeline of loving support working for families displaced by war, my team at Partners Relief & Development has had to be more creative and tenacious this year than ever before. With the challenges of bank failures, border closures, and all the new complexities created by the pandemic, some continue to press on with the imperative of loving action.
Those of us who have done this work for many years will tell you this: we learned the most important lessons of our labor from the people we set out to help. No matter the level of sacrifice or generosity, we will never outdo displaced families when it comes to intention, loving community, and sacrifice. We, like them, are learning to love by loving.