by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
The news coming out of Afghanistan has been painful to witness. So many of these images of suffering—the cargo plane filled with refugees, and especially the image of the baby being passed over barbed wire to a solider—reminded me of my own family’s experience as refugees. Forty-nine years ago, they were forced to flee their home in Uganda along with 50,000 others, when a murderous dictator threatened them with genocide.
My parents didn’t have much notice. With their visas, my mom and dad and brother (who was just six months old) were given 48 hours to pack up and leave. There was no time to say goodbyes or get properly organized. Worse, my parents were robbed of the few belongings they carried on their way to the airport. The thieves took everything except for the clothes on their backs and my mother’s wedding jewelry, which she had hidden in my brother’s diaper. She later used it to open her first bank account in England.
I’ve heard many stories about my parents’ experience, as well as the many other countries where they had roots, over the years. My parents were actually British citizens because they had grown up in former British colonies; their parents had been brought to East Africa as laborers from India to help build the railroads across the desert. My late mother told me stories about her life growing up in a small town on the border between Kenya and Uganda. Even now, my father sometimes speaks of the experience with a sense of nostalgia, describing that time in their lives as a kind of adventure. He recently told me about when their plane landed in Ethiopia to refuel. He recalls not being able to disembark from the plane, but can’t quite remember why. I think that speaks to the chaos and confusion of evacuation, even the ones that go relatively well.
An interesting and poignant coda is that when I first moved to Jonesborough eight years ago, I met Scott Niswonger, a local businessman and philanthropist. When he asked about my background over coffee, I told him about my parents’ story. In response, he shared that at the time my parents fled, he was a cargo plane pilot who delivered food and supplies to refugees at the Ugandan border. I was stunned. Here I was, the new guy in town, shaking the hand of a man who had helped my people many years ago, thousands of miles away, before I was born. Today, Nikki Niswonger, his wife, serves on the ISC board, and their Niswonger Foundation has become one of the organization’s greatest partners and supporters.
It really is a small world! And acts of kindness, however large or small, reverberate through our lives in amazing, unexpected ways. I try to bear this in mind when I see people on the news who are in great distress. Among the stories of turmoil and chaos and fear, there are also stories of love and compassion and resilience.
It’s vital to ask how we, as individuals and as organizations, can help others in these moments of crisis. In graduate school, I studied shelters that housed people who needed a place to stay. Everyone who was there—veterans, former professionals, artists, and more—had never expected to find themselves in that situation. (Anything can happen. That’s perhaps the primary lesson I learned.) My thesis, “A Stone in the Brook,” took its title from an interview with one of the shelter’s clients, who described the shelter as a kind of stepping stone: “It’s just what you need to step on to get safely to the other side.” As caring members of society, we can help build such transitional tools and spaces to lend a hand to people who need safe passage from one stage of their lives to the next.
I’m not necessarily talking about grand gestures (though of course those are needed, too) so much as small actions we can take on an everyday basis. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I hope it’s a helpful start for anyone who’s looking for ideas about how to help.
Check in with Folks
One lesson that I think all of us have learned during the pandemic is to check in with your people. This is of course true in our personal lives, but it’s also relevant at the institutional level. In times of crisis, it’s all too easy for work to become siloed as we scramble in isolation. By staying aware of one another’s projects, efforts, and ideas, we can lend a hand when it’s needed, avoid redundancy, find inspiration, and promote one another’s work. With the simple act of a check-in, we constantly cultivate our networks, which helps them stay as healthy, vibrant, and useful as possible. Before you start your own initiative, consider if your resources would be better spent by contributing to someone else’s.
One of ISC’s partner organizations, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, has been compiling visa information and leads for the refugees of Afghanistan. I recently shared this resource with a friend of mine, a poet and arts administrator based in New York City, who had herself fled Afghanistan as a young girl. She has been trying to secure passage for artists and members of her extended family in Afghanistan. Pooling resources, especially in the face of a rapidly changing crisis, can help save time.
Offer Multiple Forms of Support
We often think of emotional support as lending an ear when someone needs to talk, but it can take many other forms. Think outside the box with regard to the forms of support you are in a position to offer, including financial and material efforts. If you feel unsure about the best way to provide assistance, a good first step is to simply ask someone what they need.
As I have watched the crisis unfold in Afghanistan, I found myself thinking back to my dad’s experience as a refugee in England. His new employers let him use work resources and office time to contact the family in Uganda who he had been forced to leave behind, including his parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews, so he could help arrange their visas. I often think about that act of empathy and how that small gesture meant so much in my dad’s life. In the small English town where my parents settled, many other people were welcoming, too, offering them everything from food to record albums. They taught my family about Christmas and Easter, Sunday roasts, and fish and chips. These were small but powerful acts of kindness, swift actions and welcoming spirits that helped my parents overcome their grief and the challenges they faced as they settled in a new place.
Recently, with my dad’s bosses’ example in mind, I touched base with a member of my staff who formerly served in the military in Afghanistan. (Refugees are not the only people who are affected by these crises; with Afghanistan, for instance, it’s a difficult time for anyone who has a connection to that part of the world.) I encouraged him to use office time if he needed to connect with some of his former colleagues—fellow veterans or active servicepeople. Sometimes the best way to support someone is to facilitate other connections and conversations.
Preserve and Share Stories
As we welcome displaced people into our communities, it’s important to hold space for their stories and their traditions. (I always remember how my parents used masala spices on our fish and chips.) Diversity and multiculturalism are not just important values, but also cultural treasure troves. In the United States, the cross-pollination of traditions and ideas continue to be one of our greatest cultural assets.
But there are communities whose stories are suppressed. Domestically, we’ve seen this dynamic challenged by movements like Black Lives Matter, which has brought unheard (or under-heard) stories into mainstream media. Abroad, there are journalists and citizens working hard to challenge government regimes that suppress marginalized people’s stories. The opportunity to share and hear these stories is a sacred human right. It’s also a tool that helps us build connections and better understand the world and our place in it.
In 2015, I received an email from the storyteller Noa Baum, a Jewish immigrant from Israel who has made America her home. At the National Storytelling Festival, after she had shared a story from her tradition, Baum was approached by an older woman who was a Holocaust survivor who said, “Isn’t it great that we don’t have to hide our stories anymore?” At ISC, it is our duty and our privilege to protect people’s stories from around the world—a responsibility that we can all carry into our daily lives, as we meet new people and learn about where they’ve been.
Strengthen Your Community
Times of crisis can be incredible opportunities not just to help other people, but also to strengthen our existing communities. As we come together to help political refugees, victims of natural disasters, those who have been harmed by the pandemic, and people who have been displaced by the housing crisis, we enrich our own lives, our shared culture, and our personal and professional networks.
I had one such experience a number of years ago, when I worked with a friend of mine to coordinate an online platform to help people who were fleeing Hurricane Irma. (We recently reactivated this group to help the Hurricane Ida evacuees.) At the time, evacuees were streaming from Florida into our region, often without their belongings or a place to stay. More than 150 people offered their homes, campgrounds, RVs, food, supplies, and financial aid to help thousands of displaced and traumatized people. But their generosity wasn’t just a one-way street; it became the basis for new relationships, including friendships that remain in place to this day. In Jonesborough, ISC offered complimentary tickets to newcomers to attend events, make connections, and find relief and comfort in a welcoming community (and other arts and cultural organizations across the region did the same). One evacuee, a musician, found a gig in Jonesborough. The job helped him survive, but it also expanded and enriched our local arts scene—a win-win situation.
Serving a stranger can have a positive ripple effect through generations to come, and change your life as an individual in ways you can’t predict or expect. I want to challenge you to think of other ways that you can serve as a stone in the brook. Even the smallest act of kindness may be the one that helps someone who’s struggling make it to the other side.