Libraries. Tea. Opportunities.
Almost two years ago, I was sitting on the floor of a Palestinian refugee’s home. It was cold, as in bitter, stark, January cold. I had my jacket on, shoes off (removing shoes is customary when entering homes in the Middle East), and was propped up on large cushions placed on the floor draped with blankets. My host had purposely placed the propane heater closer to me and I had a cup of sweet, hot tea in my hands. The tea seemed endless. In fact, it was.
One thing I have learned, especially in Jordan, is that visits last hours. The conversation we were having lasted hours. Time is not money there. Time, in many senses, is a form of respect. Spending time -- what would be considered extremely large amounts of time in my country -- and visiting is the currency of relationship. It is how one honors the family and the person you have the relationship with. I have grown to love and appreciate this way of life. Don’t get me wrong; many times, it fights against my worldview and I get anxious because I think of the million of things I could be getting accomplished. But then (most of the time), I know the most important and valuable thing I am doing is being present to the person in front of me.
This conversation with a young refugee stands out in my mind. It was an “ah-ha” moment for me. He was talking about the dreams he had for his life. What wasn’t said was all of the obstacles that were blocking those dreams. He didn’t have to tell me. I knew all too well. When you have been born into permanent refugee status, the basic rights you and I take for granted are road blocks for Palestinian refugees. No citizenship means no passport, no access to social programs, no participation in social or political life in the host country, no path to citizenship. Legal employment is rare, and receiving adequate education and healthcare is almost impossible. All of that must be conquered before you can think about starting to chase after your dreams.
I remember distinctly thinking that, more than anything, what Palestinian refugees need is opportunity. The same opportunities available to me. Over the past 14 years, I have been involved in just about every sort of humanitarian relief work out there -- food distribution, clothing distribution, kid’s clubs, sponsorship programs, medical projects, war relief, after school programs…the list goes on. All of those are needed. But, as I sat there and drank my tea, I asked myself how I can create the same opportunities I was afforded in life to this young man sitting in front of me. How do I use the rights, privilege, and opportunities I have been given to impact the lives of others?
Many times, people participate in relief work for themselves, to make themselves feel good. At some point, we all have done this, including myself. After 14 years, the warm fuzzies have worn off for me and now it’s a question of commitment. Am I committed to the long haul? I have questioned if the work I do is more for me or for them. Is it what I want or what they need? Countless times, I have seen foreigners in refugee camps doing what they think will be best but having no idea what the needs of the community actually are. I must continually check myself, which is why I work entirely with nationals on the ground and do my best to meet their requests.
It’s relational, it’s equal, and it’s dignified. It’s partnership. It’s hard.
For myself, I will continue to focus on opportunities. The national organizations I work with are all focused on education. They do legit, hard work. They should be praised because they are “in it” with people in impossible situations. I have seen firsthand the impact of their work, which is why I assist them. I also believe the biggest opportunity in one’s life is education; it tends to be a great equalizer.
Fast forward to this August. I had just returned from the Middle East. I was at the Denver Central Public Library downtown. Ironically, I was there using their database for foundations, researching grants for a library in a refugee camp. Full circle. As usual, I was very aware of my surroundings -- always am when I return, until I get my American sea legs back, so to speak. What hit me was how diverse the crowd was. We were different races, different religions, different socio-economic levels. All of us had access to the same information; all of us had the same access! No one was given special privileges. No one was turned away. Homeless people were there taking a break from the streets, reading the paper and plugging in their phones. Students were doing homework. And a half-crazed, culture shocky woman was studying everyone around her. We were all safe, we were all at peace, and we all had the opportunity to learn, to have information at our fingertips.
“A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessities of life.” ~Henry Ward Beecher
What a great equalizer a library is! I was reminded just how important a library is to a community. Just what an important opportunity a library will be to the women of Gaza Palestinian Camp. I was there for a good four hours, researching grants for a library for refugees. Talk about context for your work! Libraries also build community; I saw the flyers for many seminars, all open to the public. I sat there and smiled, thinking of book clubs and seminars for the women in the camp in a safe place.
Hopes For Women asked for a library in their women’s center in Gaza camp. I am going to do everything in my power to help them. Not only because I grew up with libraries and know their value, but because I know this will create opportunity for refugee women. It will make education accessible and provide resources that have been unavailable. And that makes me excited -- not because it gives me warm fuzzies, but because it actually will make a difference.
And that’s what keeps me going—the thought that by working together, we can change someone’s life -- someone facing tremendous odds. “Together” is the key word; remember, it takes a village. We have the opportunity to have relationships that lift each other up and cheer each other on in a global community.
What an opportunity that is!