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Runa Khan Headshot

Value of Dignity in Refugee Camps

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In 2012 when the refugees from nearby Azad Kashmir entered Malakand, a city South of Peshawar in the northwest of Pakistan, the sight was totally heartrending. Refugees have a way of appearing like lost children who have suffered and can hardly move forward bearing the burden of that pain.

Food, medicine, and essentials were being distributed fairly generously by the people of the area, UN bodies, and NGOs like us -- like Friendship. We had also taken our mobile bus clinic and were giving quality medical aid camp after camp.

However, as one entered a camp -- life stood still. A man dignified with a face which showed power and gentleness, was sitting huddled with his family in a 2x2-meter space. Next to his wife and children with very different living habits, were poor horse cart pullers, street vendors and a cleaner with their families. This man whose aristocratic bearing reminded me so much of my father, seemed totally lost. In the tent, it seemed there was a kilometer of people huddled and not even looking at each other for there was no commonality between any of them.

In another faraway camp was another man; he had a book on philosophy next to his little 2x2-meter square looking as lost and desperate as the other man had looked.

There was no possible way they could reach each other. Their own camps were their source of life.

I deeply felt that food, medicine, clothes, and shelter were needed but a man's self-respect and habits also needed to be fed as much. These refugees were living day to day, for endless months, not having the spirit left to hope. Their spirits and self-respect was getting broken. They needed to be with like-minded people, they needed to feel security, they needed to have some semblance of their own normality so that they could breathe with hope again. This was not a time for us to teach them social equality and same living, they needed to be nurtured. They were broken people.

Friendship started tea shops.

We managed to explain to the Government of Luxembourg that to bring dignity and self-respect to the people were as important as food for their body. They understood. Four tea shops were made. Friendship staff would go around everyday giving slips of paper to like-minded people.

These people from different camps would come to the tea shop for their cup of tea and the one biscuit. And there, in that little oasis, they would find people, from different camps, with whom they could communicate and slowly they felt at ease and home. They could discuss their lives and habits and hearts and feeling with -- people of the same community and same background and thus they got strength from each other.

Waiting in line for a pillow, waiting in line for a little bread, had made dents in their self-respect and given them identity crises and the subsequent pains and suffering from that.
This one cup of seated tea and the biscuit seemed to bring back to them their dignity and thus hope for a future... someday.