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Refugees Show Simple Acts of Kindness Despite Trauma, Loss

"They Whipped Us," One Young Refugee Said. Then He Showed Me His Own Generosity.

Published in: USA Today
Migrants, mainly from Afghanistan, queue for lunch at a deportation center in the city of Van, eastern Turkey, near the border with Iran. August 22, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Emrah Gürel

Small acts of kindness in the overwhelming face of uncontrolled violence and disaster are an essential reaffirmation of humanity when it feels most eclipsed by cruelty and hatred. Those of us who have worked, served or lived amid or close to war and persecution often find remarkable and unexpected expressions of kindness, beauty amid ugliness and glimmers of hope in situations of despair.

When I visit with refugees, often still traumatized by recent losses and in conditions of need, I am struck by the number of times they have shown me, a stranger in their midst, simple acts of kindness: in places where everyone sits on earthen floors, rummaging for something approximating a chair for the elderly man interviewing them to sit on, guiding me to a safer place, or sharing their food, when they are surviving on rations.

Last year, I found a rudimentary “tea shop,” a rickety table and plastic stools, in an alley of a slum of Istanbul, Turkey, where I was interviewing undocumented young men from Afghanistan. I asked about their journeys, especially about recent, brutal pushbacks from Turkey to Iran and from Greece to Turkey.

I remember one young man, a member of the persecuted Hazara minority of Afghanistan, who had been in constant danger and hardship after fleeing his country four months previously.

"We ate grass, we were so hungry"

He waited to the side much of the day as I conducted long interviews with others, and then came to tell me his story. He had been interrogated by an ISIS-affiliated militia when he crossed from Iran to Pakistan, a group targeting Hazaras for attack. Iranian police shot at his group as they crossed the mountainous border from Pakistan.

“We ate grass, we were so hungry, crossing the mountains on foot,” he told me.

After he crossed the barbed wire fences and trenches on the border separating Iran and Turkey, Turkish border police caught him and about 50 people he was traveling with and took them to a base about five minutes from the border fence.

"At the base they stripped us of our clothes and our belongings, set them on fire, and beat and kicked us," he said. "They used police batons and wooden sticks to beat us, about 2 inches in diameter. They also whipped us with their belts. They hit me on my arms and knees with a wooden stick. I tried to protect my head with my hands, which is why my arms got beaten. … Some people were taken away and I never saw them again."

Only a couple of nights before talking to me, he tried going to Greece, he said, “but the police caught me, stripped me and sent me back.”

Beaten and stripped, the young refugee continued his journey.

This young man, brutalized and literally stripped multiple times, had nothing but the clothes he could scrounge to cover his nakedness. The last thing he said was: “Tomorrow, I will try to cross into Greece again. The whole journey has been really hard. I have only survived by my parents’ prayers.”

The young Hazara man disappeared in the shadows. I went on to the last interview of the day. I never saw or heard from him again.

At the end of the day after my last interview, I gathered my things and went to the shopkeeper to settle the bill for the tea the refugees and I had been drinking for most of the day. He waved his hands, shook his head, and said no need. The young Hazara man had paid for the tea.

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