A Story From The ‘Other’ Side Of Being a Refugee

I grew up in the UK in a family where my mother was always ‘helping others’. She had a strong but practical Christian faith. For my ‘Mum’ you practiced your beliefs through social action.  As a child I remember lonely, depressed people I didn’t know always at the dinner table and my father trying hard to make conversation and encouraging them to ‘have some more food’. After I left home and university and started work, I would often go home and be caught back up in my family’s latest ‘project’.

In the early 80s, my parent’s church had taken over support to refugees from SE Asia who were being temporarily accommodated in a disused army  airbase (left over from the Second World War). It was clean, warm and dry but miserable when I visited with my mother in a cold, dark and wet November.  Mum had the bright idea (she always did!) that we should show our welcome with a ‘traditional’ Christmas Dinner.  I was of a younger generation and was doubtful that this might not be to SE Asian tastes but you couldn’t argue with Mum and her helpers when they got an idea!

I remember the Christmas dinner so well. Sad, haunted eyes old and young sitting at tables surrounded by decorations they had never seen,  putting Western food into their mouths-now I know it must have tasted awful.  BUT, as the meal was eaten or pushed around the plate the sheer energy of people cooking food and eating together led to warmth, smiles, tears, handshakes and hugs. Without a shared language, the welcome and the importance of just being human and families eating together was so close in the air you could touch it.  

Since that time I have worked with refugees and IDPs in Kenya, Gaza, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh,  Sri Lanka, Bosnia and visited Kachin camps in Myanmar.   The look of those who are displaced or on the move has not changed, nor has their hope and resilience …and the welcome from people you don’t read about in the media.

Oh, and thanks to being able to work here in Cambodia I now know why I would rather eat khmer food anyday!