March 28, 2017
How to humanise the refugee crisis that has seen a record 65.3 million people displaced? World Vision CEO Chris Clarke did so by portraying the tale of 12 year old Syrian refugee Adel, who he met in a makeshift Lebanon refugee camp with his widowed mother and five younger sisters.
At 12, he was digging potatoes for 12 hours a day to pay back the farmer for the pocket handkerchief of land they had built their leaking plywood and plastic shelter on. When they met, he had 75 more days to clear the debt. His sisters were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Nightmares of gun toting soldiers they had seen back home had one sister often run from their paltry shelter in the middle of the night, screaming and terrified. It was Adel who had to chase after her, bring her back, comfort her till she could sleep again.
But, Chris said, rather than raise his fist in anger at their lot in life, Adel wanted to pay back the money then earn enough to build a real home for his family. His long-term dream was to become a doctor. Rather than ask for gifts or money, he asked only that Chris not forget him.
Some weeks later, when World Vision staff tried to find Adel to give him the photograph Chris had sent them, Adel and his family had disappeared – too embarrassed by the huge debt incurred in escaping Syria to remain. They chose to go back to the maelstrom – and, Chris said, have disappeared off the radar.
Closer to New Zealand, a couple of hours’ flight from Auckland, extreme poverty has led to some children not being able to even recognise themselves in photographs because of arrested brain development through stunting.
Chris spoke of his experiences in Vanuatu’s Tanna Island, where World Vision had worked with a village to bring sanitation and water supplies pre-Cyclone Pam. They returned two years later and discovered that not only had the locals fixed their devastated toilets and water systems, but planted marigolds and other flowers through their village.
Most refugees just wanted their land to be safe enough to go home to, Chris said, and those in poverty most wanted to have the resources to help themselves.
Both stories illustrated Chris’s point that such stories can be told in two ways – to engender guilt or pity, which dehumanises them, or to honour them, leading to a response built on a sense of respect, solidarity and justice for all.
Advocacy – persuading the government to put money where it’s needed – volunteering through organisations like VSA and donating were ways that people could help, he said.
(Door donations of $174.40 taken from this Catalyst Trust event were split evenly between World Vision’s work in Syria and the Pacific.)