Every time I walk into our Kenya office, I am greeted with two words from my local colleagues: “My friend!” I wish we had this custom in the U.S. because that warm, welcoming greeting alone is enough to start my day off on the right foot!
Now as I enter my eighth and final week in the Horn of Africa, I can’t help but look back and reflect on all that I experienced, learned and witnessed. I struggle to articulate the one thing that changed me the most.
I’ve realized that every relief worker walks away from these deployments with their own personal story … none of us are ever impacted the same way but each of us are forever changed. For some, this deployment was spent almost entirely in Nairobi … a city removed from the front-lines but the critical nerve center for our regional operations. For others, the field proved to be a sea of despair as countless Somalis needing food, water and medicine arrived in camps, needing our help.
For me, I spent the past few months straddling two worlds as I made trips back and forth between Nairobi and the field.
At our headquarters, I became a sponge absorbing as much knowledge from my colleagues as I could. As a “grasshopper” to relief work, nothing is more fascinating than hearing seasoned relief workers debate next-steps and use their expertise to craft short and long-term drought strategies. I’ve made many new friends and I have a long list of new heroes. It’s tough saying goodbye when I love spending hours picking their brains about everything from relief work to religious expression.
In the field, I met people I will never forget and who reflected love, joy, compassion and sorrow. Their faces are now on our Facebook page, but they are also permanently etched on my heart.
There’s 13-year-old Abdillahi, the Somali refugee in Dadaab who spoke perfect English and articulately advocated for all refugee children to get school access. He was such a joy and inspiration to be around.
There’s the spunky 24-year-old Dibey who I met at a transit camp along the border, who was wary of me until we talked … then she followed me around until I made sure to take her picture. I admired her determination and charm!
There’s 76-year-old Mohamed, a grandmother of eight who walked weeks to find food. Tough as nails, smart and determined. And another 80-year-old man in Somalia who was sporting sunglasses when we met … and a witty sense of humor.
I met two little boys in Kenya who had the sweetest smiles, and another man who taught me it’s possible to pop off coke bottle tops with a walking stick. I met mothers who were grieving, fathers who were struggling, and children who were hungry … all faces I won’t forget.
But I miss most 12-year-old Fatimah. I met her in Puntland, Somalia on my last trip there. Dozens of children were swarming me and pushing in as a crowd so I decided to sing to calm them down. It worked. But Fatimah’s smile was radiant. She just couldn’t get close enough and wanted to make sure I saw her. What I saw was this brave, little girl squinting with a horrible eye infection and tears coming down her face as she pushed her way toward me … still smiling.
This child reflected so many Somalis I have met. Hurting yet hopeful. Crying yet smiling. Hungry yet happy. She followed me the rest of the day, and each time I simply turned around to smile at her, she lit up … although slightly embarrassed her infected eyes were so weepy.
I couldn’t help but hug this child and get a translator to tell her before I left: YOU are MY friend! (She smiled as I left her in the hands of my World Vision colleagues.)
My friends have changed me the most.