An absolute minimum

I would like to please ask you to first watch the clip I posted above, an ordinary CNN interview that gives one extraordinary shivers.

All done? Aren’t these girls adorable? When I saw this on TV, tears  were rolling down my face. But maybe that’s just me. I can relate.

My youngest daughter is about to celebrate her fifth birthday. I imagined a ‘what if ?’ as I was watching the little girl in the news story. I couldn’t stop shivering. The mere thought of my beloved young child being forced to live through what that real life, flesh and bones little girl has to live through every day – who herself represents millions of other little girls around the world- is too staggering for me to even  begin to consider imagining or to have as a subject of my nightmares.  I just can’t.  Can you? Can you imagine losing your baby boy to frost-the most preventable of causes? Can you imagine sending your kids to sleep huddled on a mat, screaming at them when they cry because of the horrible cramps in their young tummies brought on by unforgiving hunger? A basic need, food. Are you on a diet? I sometimes am. We all are, at one point or another in our privileged lives. We watch the Western World expand in size, eat itself to death, go to all you can eat buffets, super sizing, zapping channels on TV as it munches on chips, sipping soda and thinking of the next day’s battle with the Gods that control appetite.

We lounge about in our climate-controlled homes, zapping between comedies, talk shows of political opponents spewing hate at each other, when suddenly we are flashed news about those people in far away places living in misery, zap. Can’t stand the sight of them, can you? Oh Please, haven’t those agencies any other technique but getting us to feel guilty about our lives that we work hard for, that we pay taxes for, that we have democracy in. So what if we have good lives, social security and a government that protects our interests. How is it our fault that these people are always suffering? They are mostly lazy. If they had been hard working like us, they wouldn’t be in that condition. In some African and Asian countries, people are just like that, they have been like that since the dawn of time, you can’t let it affect you. They don’t mind if their people die, they kill each other, it is the dictators that control everything, they are corrupt and one can’t change the system. It has been like this for centuries and it will stay like this for centuries. It can never change. They are like that.

I should have put quotation marks around those past statements, but I chose not to. To do that would be to consider those people who declared these things to my face as human and worthy of being quoted. I don’t think they are. I am not being bitter, I am being honest. One of them is a diplomat I just met at a cocktail party in a capital recently. Another was the head of one of the world’s biggest humanitarian agencies, he came from the private sector- he liked to say that repeatedly.  The third is a racist bigot who happens to work for an agency tasked with saving lives of people he despises. The three were in positions of responsibility. Unfortunately, they are not isolated cases.

We all, at one point or another in our lives, considered that it is not our problem that others suffer. I am not saying that it is your problem. Nor is it mine. We are not governments, we are not in control of the World Bank, or the US treasury. We can all be safe in saying that, thinking that. But what about feeling that? Do you or I or anyone with the bare essential qualities that make us deserving of our humanity, those values that make our species have the higher emotions of love and honor and respect and hope and empathy, can any of us honestly say that we don’t feel that this is our problem? Our collective problem?

Can any of us honestly say that had our daughter or son, or loved child been in similar circumstances and put in the same predicament called daily life of that little Afghani girl and her one year old sister, having to go around a war zone, scavenging the streets in the bitter cold for trash to provide firewood for their family that live without proper walls? Had that been our own child and if that was our life, a life we didn’t choose but ended up with by the unlucky force of circumstances, would we be as apathetic and unmoved as we are at the unbelievable state of our world?

Would we stand idly by? Or would we do everything, absolutely anything in our power to change the status quo? What would our humanity oblige us to do? What would appease our human conscience? Is there an absolute minimum we as humans would insist that no other human go without? Do we as the privileged  tenants of this planet accept that a fellow human that shares this earth with us go below a certain minimum standard of the strict essential to stay alive and reproduce and breathe life into their progeny? What would you be able to live with, had it been you or your child? Would you aspire that they be treated as our privileged pet animals for example? Which by the way is much more than what these kids could ever dream of having.

I work for a humanitarian agency, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency – UNHCR, that tries to provide that essential minimum to refugees. If you are talking destitute, you can’t have worse than being a refugee and losing it all, your home, your belongings, a roof over your head, even your identity, your you. What is the minimum amount of dignity  you need to be able to wake up every morning and face your day and your family? Minimum protection? Privacy? Food? Drink? Hygienic needs? Safety? What about education? Hope? Faith in tomorrow? Belief in humanity? Self Esteem? I know, I am talking about the absolute minimum, self esteem has no place in that scenario. But it does.

At the end of this post, I have posted a link to the story of a newly-elected Swedish Member of Parliament, a 23-year-old who himself was a child refugee, and is now helping in dealing with child refugees in Sweden. Madeleine Albright was a refugee, she became US Secretary of State; And there’s Marlene Dietrich, a famous star and previous refugee. Heard of this Albert Einstein person? Also a former refugee. Success stories are few and far between in terms of famous former refugees, but they are still there.  Nothing is impossible.

So what am I asking you or me to do? Just one thing. Voice the unacceptable. If we think the existing bare minimum we are asking our less privileged fellow humans to contend to live with is not even close to our acceptable level of the very essential minimum we are prepared to live with if forced to, then we should yell that to everyone who would listen, especially our policy makers. We cannot as humans afford to think individually, nationally, regionally, based on color, religion, or ethnicity.  If we do that, we would no longer deserve the label of humans, we would be like those three people above who speak with no quotation marks.

We are humans, we belong to that big mass of intelligent compassionate proud creatures collectively called humanity.  That same humanity that is now avidly trying to blast out of our solar system and will soon commence commercial space travel. Our species that invented the internet and all the medical, artistic, cultural, scientific and engineering marvels in our world and throughout our history. We, the people who can make a difference if we put our minds to it. We, the lucky part of humanity who are mostly well fed and well lodged and well equipped to succeed and voice our opinions.  We should find it absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances that two very young angelic looking children in our world have to rub their cracking bleeding hands together in freezing cold to scavenge plastic garbage for their widow mother.  Fullstop.

What is your absolute minimum? Think about it. Then tell people. Tell me, I’ll even quote you “like this”.

“Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” Napoleon Bonaparte

This entry was posted in Current affairs commentary, Human Relationships, love, Politics, Reflections, Refugees, United Nations and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to An absolute minimum

  1. Selma AL Makzomy says:

    Brigitte, this is one of the most beautiful things i have ever read. You are a wonderful person…I wish there is more people like you, with your mindset and your actions. God Bless you!

  2. Zein says:

    Ladies…what more can one say? You’ve said it all! God bless you both.

  3. Tina says:

    Damn it, Brigitte! I am a tough, bad ass surgeon and try hard to keep up that façade. And here I am, just as you had been, with tears rolling down my cheeks. I cannot, and never will, understand how people are able to harm one other and turn a blind eye to this “problem.” How it is that they do not feel compelled to do something, anything?

    If my uncle ever passes through Dubai, the two of you must meet. I’ve shared this post on his FB page. He travels extensively, operating in other countries and started his own non-profit, Foundation for Freedom ( In the year that I was in research, I operated with him in 3 others countries (he had gone to many more in that time, including Haiti) and while it’s great being able to help, I always leave with the same depressing thought – we haven’t done enough, we haven’t helped enough people, and there’s never enough time. During those moments, I have to remind myself of the story of the starfish by Loren Eiseley:

    “Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

    One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

    As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

    He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

    The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

    “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

    To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

    Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

    At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “I made a difference to that one!”

    If only everyone would realize that helping just one person makes a difference, imagine how different the world would be! Meanwhile, I will keep doing what I can with the limited resources and time I have. And, again, I am proud to be able to call you my friend. A post long time coming but well worth the wait. Bravi, bravi, bravissimi!!!

    • Brigitte says:

      Tina, sorry, there was a bug in the system, I just got notification of your comments. Thank you so much for the starfish story, I will surely use it in workshops and when I need to illustrate that every small deed helps. I am proud to call you my friend, Doc. Keep saving lives and being the amazing surgeon I know you are. Thanks again.

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