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The value of dignity in refugee camps

  • Published at 07:18 pm August 25th, 2015
The value of dignity in refugee camps

In 2012, when the refugees from nearby Azad Kashmir entered Malakand, a city south of Peshawar in the north-west of Pakistan, the sight was totally heart-rending. Refugees have a way of appearing like lost children who have suffered and can hardly move forward bearing the burden of that pain.

Food, medicine, and essentials were being distributed fairly generously by the people of the area, UN bodies, and NGOs like Friendship. We had also taken our mobile bus clinic and were giving quality medical aid camp after camp.

However, life inside the camps seems to be at a standstill. A man, dignified with a face that showed power and gentleness, was sitting huddled with his family in a two square-metre space. Next to his wife and children with very different living habits were poor horse-cart pullers, street vendors, and others from various steps of life with their families.

This man, whose aristocratic bearing reminded me so much of my father, seemed totally lost. In the tent, it seemed there was a kilometre of people huddled and not even looking at each other for there was no commonality between any of them.

In another faraway camp was another man; he had a book on philosophy next to his little two square-metre space, looking just as lost and desperate as the other man had looked. There was no possible way they could reach each other. Their own camps were their source of life.

I deeply felt that food, medicine, clothes, and shelters were needed, but a man’s self-respect and habits also needed to be tended to. These refugees were living day to day, for endless months, not having the spirit left to hope. Their spirits and self-respect were broken.

They needed to be with like-minded people, they needed to feel secure, and they needed to have some resemblance of their own normality so that they could breathe with hope again. This was not a time for us to teach them social equality; they needed to be nurtured. They were broken people.

Friendship started tea-stalls. We managed to explain to the government of Luxembourg that to bring dignity and self-respect to the people was as important as food for their body. They understood. Four tea-stalls were made. The Friendship staff would go around every day giving slips of paper to like-minded people.

These people from different camps would come to the stall for their cup of tea and the one biscuit. And there, in that little oasis, they would find people from different camps, with whom they could communicate, and slowly they felt at ease and at home. They could discuss their lives with people with similar experiences. They derived strength from each other.

Waiting in line for a pillow, or a little bread, had made dents in their self-respect and given them identity crises and subsequent pains and suffering from that. This one cup of tea and a biscuit in a communal space seemed to bring back to them their dignity and thus, hope for a future ... someday.