As someone who travels internationally in my job with an international refugee organization, I like to see myself as moderately knowledgeable about the rest of the world. After all, I’ve been to almost 50 countries in my 50+ years, so that should count for something! Yet time and time again I arrive in a new place and am surprised by all that I don’t know, and I’m reminded of the challenges of geography and understanding and human connection in a digital world.
Inevitably, however, (if I allow myself) I begin to engage with the people of that place, the human beings who call it home, to hear their stories and relate to them on a person level. I learn so much more when I actually visit a country, or engage with the people who live there. Suddenly a whole new level of understanding appears in what can otherwise feel like just a far away place with little consequence to me personally. And suddenly I am connected.
The organization I work with, the International Rescue Committee, has offices in Yemen, and has since 2012. As you may have read in the news recently, Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world, a country plagued by conflict and natural disasters in recent years. It is currently estimated that 2/3 of the population of this country is at risk of starvation. That’s over 17 million people, one of the largest humanitarian crises ever. The entire population of the country has been enduring internal and external hostilities and steady economic decline for over three years now. Every five minutes a child in Yemen dies from conflict or disease.
If you’re like me, these numbers are almost too staggering to even relate to. The thought of 5000+ people hungry and on the streets of Toronto, some of whom I see each day, is enough to overwhelm me. Yet each one of those 17,000,000 in Yemen is a person – a person with a mother, a father, with dreams and hopes just like most of us, like me.
Recently I traveled to Ethiopia where I spent nine days with a group of our staff who live and work in Yemen. Because I could not get a visa to visit their country, a small team of 15 Yemenis came to Africa to meet with us instead. Our goal was to support them to develop their capacity to respond to the emergency in their country in some way. Some are health professionals, some work with vulnerable women to protect them from the particular risks they face, some are logisticians trying to get medical and other supplies to the places and people most in need. Over the course of my time with these 15 people, they became more than just colleagues. I listened daily to their stories of missiles soaring through the skies at night while they tried to sleep. Of not being able to see or check on their own families because they cannot move from one part of the country to another. Of listening to the pain of their fellow Yemenis while wondering if they, too, will be safe and ever see a time of peace again. They want for the same things I do: to have food and clean water, decent jobs and good schools to send their children to, to be safe. The barriers that initially separated us – geography and religion and language – were soon gone as we shared stories of these similar hopes and dreams. And suddenly 17+ million people in Yemen became one Yemeni doctor, and one Yemeni mother, and one Yemeni, and one Yemeni teacher, and, well, you get the picture.
I was excited to support to be able to support our team in a difficult situation, to learn more about their daily lives and work, and to try to understand what is happening in Yemen and why. I’m not sure how much more I now really understand about the political challenges there except that they are VERY complicated (and that unfortunately my own country, like others, plays a part in the problems there.) What I did get from the the people I met there was much more than I offered to them, though. A reality
check. A sense of gratitude for the little part I can play in supporting these people do good work and make a difference for their fellow Yemenis. An incredible respect for the resilience of these people, and a dream that someday they will gain back what they have lost, and once again live in peace and not go hungry.
In preparation for my trip I had read a book entitled "The Fox Hunt" by Mohammed Al-Samawi, a story of a young Yemeni man’s personal escape from the civil war in Yemen in 2015. He was (and is) an interfaith advocate, searching for a way to connect meaningfully to those who are different from him. That search has cost him a lot, including the ability to return to Yemen, at least for now. I learned so much about the history of this amazing country as I read his book, and about what it is like to live in such difficult circumstances. I was so moved by his story that I was able to arrange (with the help of others) for Mohammed to be the speaker at the Amy Family Lecture in 2019. This event is a series of lectures held each year to honour the interfaith work and legacy of my parents at their church in Westerville, Ohio.* I’m excited that through that event, I and others will learn even more about what is happening in this far away place. And I hope to be reminded that the only thing that truly separates us from each other on this planet is the ability to share our personal stories, to try to connect on a human level, and just a digital or political one.
*For more information on the Amy Lectures 2019 please go to http://www.chmaster.org/missions/amy-lecture-series/.
Geography separates us
Technology connects us
At least at the level of words
But what do I really know of YOU?
Of your life, your home, your family
Of the challenges you face every day just to survive and
to experience moments of happiness not overshadowed by fear
It is simple to dismiss our different ways of dressing
Our different facial features
Our different preferences at the dinner table
Even our different religions
"We are the same…"
You dream for your family
You hope for something better, something safer
You think about having what you need each day
And maybe enjoying special moments of joy with your loved ones
You pursue learning and new challenges, you want to "get ahead"
You laugh with your children.
But missiles do not fly overhead and disturb my sleep at night
Loud noises and sirens do not cause me to flinch
And my country is not in a war with so many sides it makes your head spin
Yes, there can be long waits at hospitals here.
But at least there are hospitals.
And my fate is not at the mercy of nameless faces and countries
Who think they know what’s best for me.
What is your story? How did your life turn come to this?
Where is your hope? What pulls you from your slumber every morning?
To be able to see you…not on a screen but face to face
to listen to you side by side… not through a machine
to be amazed by your commitment and your resilience
There is where my heart is touched
There is the power of true connection.
So this is what brushes my heart.
This is what stirs me from my ambivalence.
This is where we are the same.
And this is what changes my world. The World.