Some moments in life change you.
To each one of us there is this second, that turn things upside down. The first day at school, the first time we fall in love, the first job we get.
Mine, happened when I first went to a field visit with UNHCR. Before joining the team in Beirut, I used to be a firm believer that life has no meaning. A lesson that I learned the hard way in my early 20’s after years of loss.
What changed it all, a little girl called Yasmine.
Part of my job with UNHCR, involves providing a platform for refugee families to share their stories and have their voices heard. I have never been able to get used to hearing stories of such suffering, yet at the same time to be greeted on every occasion by families who open their doors and hearts, and leave me with lessons to last a lifetime.
One story, in particular, has left its print on me, a recently widowed mother and her 2 daughters whose story I still carry with me. I’ll call them “Sarah” and “Yasmine”. Their story was similar in kind to the many other refugees’ families we visit; their current situation determined by a harsh reality, facing poverty, uncertainty and fear. Sarah, having lost her family during the war was forced to flee her home to find safety in Lebanon. Yet as a refugee in Lebanon, she was able to find happiness and love again, when she met her husband, married and they started their own family. This new found happiness was cut short when her husband suddenly died years later.
When I first entered her home, I was shocked. Out of nothing, this mother tried to build a home. The one-room house didn’t even have paint on the walls, a carpet or heating. Instead of a lightbulb, she hung a rope and a plastic chair in the ceiling, making for the girls their own little swing. The medicine which she purchased with UNHCR’s cash assistance was neatly organized on a side table.
I was hit by sadness while I sat on the floor, listening to her story and watching her expression. I could see in her eyes how much she missed the father of her children; I could see her throat swallowing the tears and the hesitation in her eyes to let it go in front of her baby girls.
And then the youngest one came laughing and sat on my lap, and she playfully asked me: “do you have a phone?” In my natural response, I said “Yes, tell me do you want to play a game?” because this is what every child is wondering these days.
“No, I want to call my dad; he went to heaven.”
This little girl was no longer little. She comprehended that her father is no longer with them. She saw her mom crying and tried, in her playful way, to console her. Even though this child did not grasp yet what it means to be a refugee, she was living it.
Perhaps what she doesn’t realise yet, but one day will, is that unlike other children, she has lost part of her childhood.
This kid already knows the meaning of hunger, of sadness and fear. She isn’t even 5 years old.
When we were leaving, the mother thanked UNHCR. She mentioned that the cash assistance she received, although it is not much, it is enough to keep her and her daughters safe.
The little girl came and hugged me and said, “Come back next time.”
I looked at my colleague, and we both left in silence.
On our way back, it hit me.
The world is an unfair place, and refugee mothers shouldn’t be left to build the future of their families alone. Many are forced to make hard decisions every day. Daily, they have to choose between buying a loaf of bread or their medicine or saving every penny to pay the rent. And their children have to learn about life’s challenges, the loss, grief, hunger, uncertainty, fear, lack of equality in their opportunities and life choices… way before they are adults.
But, we can do something about it. We can all help refugee mothers and children. I am committed to that.
Girls like Yasmine don’t have to grow up too soon. They can have a safe home, food on the table and can go to school.
On that road trip back, I found a new meaning to my life: dedicating everything to ease their suffering in any way that I can.
Together, all of us, whether we are UNHCR staff, individuals, governments or private companies, can make a difference, but we must act today because for these families, every second count. Every second might be the difference between sleeping safely or in fear.
Especially in Ramadan, we are able to come together and share blessings with families in need like at no other time. Every year, we are doing incredible things thanks to a shared commitment and joy in giving… This Ramadan, all it takes is a moment and a donation to give a child like Yasmine and a mother like Sarah a second chance. All it takes is few seconds to change the meaning of life from despair to hope in the eyes of an innocent child.