June 18th, 2009
05:00 PM ET

World Refugee Day: Honoring resilience and generosity

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/06/18/art.wrd.d290.jpg caption="Saima, age 12, carrying her 10-month-old sister Sana. They walked 20 kms across mountain paths to escape fighting in their village."]

Program Note: Tune in tonight for special coverage of World Refugee Day tonight at 10 p.m. ET. And learn more about how you can help by visiting Impact Your World.

Chris Webster
World Vision

In the past year alone, I’ve worked among displaced people in Myanmar, eastern Congo and Pakistan. While the role of aid agencies and the public to raise awareness and funds is absolutely critical, I continue to be humbled by the strength and generosity of host communities caring for their neighbors.

I am currently in Pakistan helping support relief efforts for World Vision as we attempt to provide aid to just some of the 2 million people who have been displaced.

Wherever I’ve been, whether people are displaced by conflict or natural disaster, I have always been witness to glimpses of extraordinary generosity and resilience by both the refugees and the host communities.

I left Myanmar a year ago today. I had been deployed to work on World Vision’s response to Cyclone Nargis, the massive storm which left 2.4 million people severely affected. Even as I left, I took heart in having seen the resiliency of the people. Communities and villages banded together and began rebuilding immediately after the storm. There was no self-pity.

There was no waiting for help. Despite their immeasurable grief and loss, I witnessed the resolve of a people who refused to let themselves be overcome.

In eastern Congo, when thousands were suddenly forced from their homes in late 2008 due to violence, I saw women join together to protect each other and provide emotional support. "Many women in the camp are being raped," said one woman, whom I’ll call Suzanne. "But they don't say anything because they're afraid their husbands will leave them.” Instead of living in fear, Suzanne had been working with other women in the camp to organize groups who would go collect firewood together, reducing the risks facing women venturing out alone.

Each situation is characterized by its own unique challenges and successes; however, I have never seen anything like what is happening in Pakistan.

Thousands of families have opened their homes to millions of displaced people. At the risk of being crowded out of their own homes and displaced themselves, families are opening their doors and selling their land and supplies to provide for their “guests.”

More than two million people are out of sight, absorbed into homes with up to 25 people in one room. Many are suffering under 100 degree heat with no access to clean water, shelter, food or health care.

I met a 12-year-old girl named Saima, who, along with 30 members of her extended family, walked more than 12 miles to flee the frontlines. All 30 of them were taken in by Rizwan, a complete stranger. Rizwan has already sold a portion of his land in order to afford the increased burden on his finances. He even paid for the truck to rescue Saima and her family.

As a result of sharing everything, Rizwan now fears he and his family may soon face extreme poverty, or even displacement themselves.

"I'm exhausted," he says. "We have to play so many roles, host, provider, security, breadwinner."

Families taking in the displaced now face a desperate situation where their hospitality puts their own livelihoods and survival on the brink. Or they have to ask their guests to leave.

"It will be easier to die than to ask displaced people to leave our homes," says Rizwan.

This is the generosity of hosts here in Pakistan. A cultural and deeply rooted code that means you share everything you have with those in need, whoever they are.

I think I had romanticized this ideal before I saw it for myself in Pakistan's northwest villages. This is hospitality that hurts. It is gritty, sacrificial and hard. It is etched in the faces of those we meet.

The root of the word 'compassion' means to 'suffer with.' Pakistan's hosts are truly suffering with those displaced. They are enduring daily turmoil to provide for others.

The circumstances that have led to millions of people becoming refugees or displaced within their own country vary considerably. The resulting fear, upheaval and longing for home are universal. Whether you are fleeing violence, caught in the cross-fire of a civil conflict, or your village has been flattened by an earthquake or cyclone, the chaos, dislocation and stress on your family and community is unimaginable. It’s a testimony to the human spirit when these people find hope and common ground amid their suffering.

Editor's Note: World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. World Vision serves all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender.

Filed under: 360° Radar • 360º Follow • Global 360° • Impact Your World
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