With thumb and forefinger she wipes the tears welling up in her eyes. . .
“I miss the family gatherings with my grandmother, my husband. . .” Abruptly her voice stops. Hawa’s grief and pain have squeezed off her words.
She looks so lonely as she sits on the floor cushions across the room of the refugee shack. Gingerly I pick up my tiny tea glass from the carpet in front of me. Trying not to spill the steaming liquid, I stand up and cross the room to sit on the cushion next to her.
I slide my hand into hers and hold on solidly as if trying to infuse more strength into Hawa through our joined hands.
It’s a hot day, and I’m already sweating into my clothes. I choose not to care that our hands are getting sticky.
I am realizing that her present needs outweigh my own fleeting concerns. With my tangible, palpable presence I let her feel that she is not alone at this moment.
Fitting with local culture I’m seated immediately next to her - the side of my body against hers, one of my crossed legs against hers. Our clothes soak up our mutual sweat.
Hawa seems to gain strength.
“Then my sister was killed, then my brother…”
“The celebrations are nothing like they used to be. They never will be the same again.”
Hawa is talking freely now. She is a granddaughter, a daughter, a widow, a mother, a grandmother. War destroyed her home in Syria. In her current refugee country Hawa lives gratefully in a shack. Her younger children can only get a few years of schooling. Her adult children struggle for their own families’ survival. They belong to no country. She feels no hope for anyone’s future.
Still, Hawa has to be the strong one. Now she is the grandmother, the pillar of her family. She is the one who holds the remains of her family together. Everyone is looking to her.
I am reminded of how important our simple attentive presence is to the marginalized. To not be alone, to be with someone in sorrow counters the sense of loss and emptiness. Being present with another alleviates the pressure a bit and creates room inside a person to carry others a few weeks longer. Because that’s the life of a refugee - a few weeks at a time.
Hawa continues, “Some people are being sent back. We don’t know when they might send us back. There is nothing to go back to.”
“What do you remember about your grandmother?” I ask.
“She loved us.” Hawa responds.
“How did you know that she loved you?”
“After my husband was killed in the war, and there was not enough food for me and my children, she used to hide food in her clothes and bring to me. That is how I know she loved us.”
Being with Hawa in that moment reminded me of how love is often expressed by being present and attentive to another’s suffering. How can you be in the moment with someone today? Maybe we can all try for just one short unselfish moment to be totally present to someone for their sake, for their benefit, for the love of the stranger.
About the Author: Christine is an IDEAS Associate and community health professional in Lebanon, working among refugee communities. Read more of Christine's work here: Why It Is Important to Be a Good Cheek Kisser.