01-10-2011 - Traces, n. 9

stronger than darkness

The Refugees, a Poem, and the Braids in Her Hair
Famine and war, and people unsure of how they will reach tomorrow, but Victoria knows why it is worth staying there.

by Paola Ronconi

Here, like in no other place on earth, the word “precarious” is doubly tied to the word “future”–future in the very short term. We are in the Horn of Africa, in the height of the greatest famine in the past 60 years: 80,000 dead in the past four months, with three million people asking themselves how they will reach tomorrow. Victoria works in Nairobi, Kenya, where she coordinates the educational activities of AVSI (Association for Volunteers in International Service) at Dadaab, one hour’s flight away, on the Somali border, a refugee camp that is now bigger than the city of Milan. She came to Africa in 2007, during her studies in Educational Science in Italy, thanks to a three-month placing with AVSI. After four years she is still there. Over the past three months, 100,000 hopeless people have arrived, 90% of them Somali, escaping from hunger, drought, war, and epidemics, most of them after facing a journey of scores of miles on foot through the desert and often after losing wife and children to death by exhaustion or by attack of wild animals. “We are organizing formation courses for teachers, and building schools in the camp,” Victoria explains. People are dying of hunger and you talk of education? “How often have I asked my bosses why we bother! How often have I been tempted to go back to Italy! There are a thousand problems and those eyes that ask you for everything... Then you spend some time with the refugees. You realize what it is that they need, apart from the primary necessities. Mothers ask for their children to learn to read and write, and for a safe place where the children can stay during the day, because the alternative is for them to go along with the adults to fetch water or to play in the desert.
What they are asking for is the chance for a future, for hope, so that they and their children can one day leave Dadaab and build a life for themselves. “You understand that their hearts are just like your own,” Victoria goes on. “In July, as I walked through this ocean of tents and huts, all at once I heard someone speaking in Italian. It was a Somali, a former teacher, who had learned Italian from his grandfather. He was reciting the poem by Leopardi, “To Silvia.” So, while distant in terms of history, culture, and geography, we had something in common: the need for happiness and beauty, for good. Everyone can call it what he likes, but it is the same need.” Then there are those women, curious about Victoria. One of them comes up and braids her hair perfectly. The women laugh: “Now we can see you face.” “Perhaps I will never see them again, among the thousand refugees,” Victoria comments, “but no one will ever take away their smiles from my mind.” They have nothing, they need everything, but they know there can be something different. “And I have seen this ‘something different.’ For me the certainty of something good has the face of Christ, whom I met years ago through concrete people. Now I see Him in those who accompany me every day to rediscover more and more my own needs, and therefore to desire that the refugees can be reawakened by these questions. But you have to be sure that nothing is a complete disaster; only He can satisfy human need, and at times He uses us.”

Recognizing something else.We are not here to save these people, even if we were able to solve all their problems. But this is not a consolation in the face of all their misery. In Dadaab, you stay with them and you don’t despair. ‘So what can we do?’ you ask yourself. You listen to what they want, what they need. You build schools in the camp, you build them of bricks instead of iron sheets, and you paint them. It costs little, but when someone sees something nice, he recognizes it. And this is nothing less than what has been done for me. And it’s always a challenge, having to recognize Christ present every day, above all when you feel like sending everything to be damned.”
Bulle is a student on the training course; he must be 50 years old. He came to Dadaab from Somalia 15 years ago. Now he has three wives and many children. He was a primary school teacher for most of the other students on the course. So almost all respect him, but they pull his leg because he behaves like a child. “One day, I visited their class,” Victoria tells us. “I was there with some Kenyan teachers. Bulle drew attention to himself and instead of shutting him up I asked him to speak. He thanked us wholeheartedly for what we are doing and for the hope we a bringing to them and their children. Of one thing I am certain: it is worth it.”