I look at myself in the mirror, in the bathroom at the refugee centre where I help out. I’ve come in here to hide away a little, to step out of the fluster and hustle for a moment. As I dab at my sweat-smeared makeup, I think to myself that anger is a funny emotion.
We arrived this morning to an overwhelming scene of about 60 (mostly Syrian) women crowding the courtyard, all manner of children in tow. I am one of only two English–Arabic speakers on team today and after a morning of translating with my very limited Arabic, and repeatedly saying “I’m very sorry, but we can’t help you with anything else”, I’m quite a variety of angries.
I’m angry with the crowd for making me so overwhelmed. I’m angry with myself for getting flustered; for having money but not being able to hand it out to one and all. I’m frustrated with my limited Arabic, which drops in capacity the more stressed I become. I’m annoyed that all I’m thinking right now is how much I hate disappointing people … How is this suddenly about me?!
Sometimes I’d be caught in a sea of hands, tapping me on the shoulder or tugging on my arm, while I try to answer questions about when they might be seen, or whether we can provide more assistance, or would I please tell the manager about their seven children, and husband in prison in Syria? On this crazy day each month (the busiest day when new registrations are taken), the women crowd around the registration table, determined to be heard. “Please, sit down!”, the other translator urges, as eager faces lean in, wanting to make sure they are all getting fair treatment.
By the end of four or five hours I don’t want to talk to anyone, preferring to sit in a corner with my eyes tight shut. The last of the women have been assisted, as far as possible. When I got home later I spent a little while in the foetal position, then unwound over language homework and TV. And despite all of the flusters and splutters of the day, the thought I return to is not about anger, frustration, injustice or exhaustion. It’s about the sacredness in Arabic greetings.
Syrians in particular are a very polite people. At the end of virtually every interview with a refugee who was asking for assistance we couldn’t provide, they would stand and say “Thank you” or “Peace be with you”. And as they left, with frustration fading from their eyes, they would simply say, “God give you strength”. It’s a frequently used line, but each time it is said the words make the normal sacred and remind us both of the bigger picture. And as I respond with the set reply, the words teach us to offer grace to each other.
Some, understandably, will still leave angry or hopeless. But I’m comforted to remember that it’s God who gives strength, and God who loves more than I ever could. And I am humbled that these most vulnerable of people are the ones reminding me.
Hannah* is a recently-returned On Tracker who served in West Asia.
Name has been changed.
Images by R. Pessoa. Used with permission. Images are not directly related to the article.