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Hospitality That Hurts

June 2, 2009
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Saimi, 12, with her 10-month old sister. They are two of 37 displaced and living in Riswan Ali's home

Chris Webster, a friend of Breathe, writes, “I am in Pakistan’s northwest, where some of the poorest communities on earth are opening their doors to more than two million people fleeing fighting across Swat Valley.

At times up to 100,000 have been uprooted each day, most of them taking refuge with extended family or local people desperate to help.  And, as fighting goes on, the exodus continues.

This is one of the largest and quickest displacements of people the world has ever seen. Only we haven’t really seen it.

More than two million people are out of sight, absorbed into homes with up to 25 people in one room. Many are suffering under 40 degree heat with no access to clean water, shelter, food or healthcare.

The numbers are so hard to comprehend that part of me dismissed it. Another part of me was afraid to comprehend it. It is impossible to dismiss the children and families I met.

“It was scary when we ran,” says 12-year-old Saima. “It was like my heart was beating in my feet. There was a time I couldn’t go another inch because of ulcers under my feet… but the fear kept us going somehow.”

Saima and more than 30 members of her family and relatives walked 20 kilometres across rugged mountain paths leading away from the frontlines. They were eventually collected by a truck and taken to a village in Buner where they found refuge in the home of Rizwan Ali, a complete stranger.

Rizwan Ali’s daughter-in-law died in child-birth so he now looks after the new-born boy as well as Saima and her family and relatives. Rizwan, 59, 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 them.

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

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Riswan Ali, 59, looking after 37 strangers in his home along with his newborn grandson whose mother died in childbirth

“I’m exhausted,” he says. “We have to play so many roles, host, provider, security, breadwinner.”

Families taking in hundreds of thousands 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 romanticised 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 as their assets are sold at a reduced price. They are giving out of their impoverishment. If we only give of our excess we will not know what it is to suffer with, or to show compassion.

I think compassion fatigue is a condition only the wealthy can afford to suffer.

World Vision is in Pakistan and is reaching out to hosts and those displaced in the region. But it is not enough. If we are not able to do more for Pakistan’s displaced millions, the hosts look set to join them.

The world is going through a monumental economic downturn, our means to give financially are dwindling. Yet we must all shoulder the burden, the international community must fully fund the appeals.

Could we too consider the example of Pakistan’s hosts and other poor communities on the frontline against poverty? Let’s share some of their compassion.”

(Pictures courtesy of World Vision)

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