One of our Sponsorship Assistants reflects on the winter and her role in securing vital lifelines for children in need.
It is mid-winter and the cold is the only thing on my mind. Before I make a start on my work for the day I notice an unusual flush creeping over my complexion. The hint of heat on my cheeks thaws my cold hands so I cradle my face for a few minutes. I stop typing, I stop working and I start thinking.
I work in Interpal’s sponsorship department, processing requests and donations and delivering feedback from our projects in the field. In a nutshell, my role entails helping thousands of Palestinian children and their families to secure much needed aid. From my perspective, I see the donations process in its entirety, mediating between donors, staff in the field offices and our beneficiaries.
In amongst the administrative duties and everyday office tasks I have the unique privilege of hearing the stories of extraordinary children and their families. Even though I do not physically meet them, I am privy to intimate details about their lives. I know what they look like, (now and how they have changed and matured over the years), what they study at school, their aspirations and dreams for the future. But I also know of their difficulties. I see them grow up and vicariously experience their every joy and hardship from the distance of our office in London as they live through one of the most shameful periods in contemporary history; the Palestinian refugee crisis. Extraordinary children in extraordinary circumstances. The protracted displacement of the Palestinians is the longest running refugee crisis of our era and has now spilled over into the complications of other conflicts in the region, further muddying the waters until the international community finds it increasingly difficult to separate one set of causes from the effects of another.
Winter in London is a familiar visitor but one I cannot quite get used to. Of course, it has its moments of beauty, moments I enjoy best in my house, under the bed covers, tucked up in flannel pyjamas and drinking a steaming cup of hot chocolate. The long winter months seem to stretch out forever and it strikes me that despite any discomfort I may face, every year thousands of lives at home and abroad are lost because of vulnerability and our failure to act swiftly and humanely.
The winter is also a time of reflection, celebration and thankfulness. Year in year out, I am reminded of my many privileges. The list is endless, including in it the many inalienable social, political and economic freedoms we enjoy, but on a cold winter day like today, and even more on colder nights, I find myself ironically adding to my mental list the freedom from having to make the hard choices between feeding myself and my family and freezing to death.
Most people don’t realise just how cold it can get in the Middle East. The idea that people can freeze to death in a place that is so often characterised by desert heat and the image of a burning sun seems unimaginable. However, winters in Palestine are as harsh as ours if not more so, as our planet’s changing climate brings with it unexpected new weather patterns, catching people unprepared and thus engineering a catastrophe.
Other than the superficial comparisons my imagination can muster, I cannot comprehend the realities enough to authentically feel their emotions. I get first hand reports from our field offices, trawl through figures and statistics, listen to anecdotes, scroll through pictures and sometimes even videos. But what are facts to a distant and disconnected mind? Our minds can crunch numbers and register emotions, but even the power of empathy cannot fully feel what it is like to be a Palestinian refugee.
Many of the families I deal with directly do not have means of heating themselves or their property. Still more cannot afford winter clothing and do not even possess enough clothes to be able to layer up – one of the main winter safety tips offered by the NHS. Others are without shelter due to lasting damage or destruction from successive shelling and war. Food is also scarce and in the winter an empty stomach can increase the likelihood of death. Moreover, the healthcare facilities in the region are under-equipped due to the tight restrictions on what is allowed in and out of the territory. Social security is almost non-existent and many people are trapped in legal and political quagmires. This is an over-simplification of their struggle, of course, just know that the odds are not stacked in their favour.
This is why I cannot help but pay attention to the cold creeping over me. The shivering, the shuddering, and the stiff discomfort all strike me as stark reminders of my privilege. What about those living in the crowded refugee camps of Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan, and in the occupied territories of the West Bank? What about their parents, grandparents, their friends, their communities, all of whom are fighting to survive the cold amidst all of their other daily struggles?
My thoughts are interrupted once more by the incessant creeping of the cold. I, unlike Palestinian children and family, am well equipped to fight the winter and its blues. Almost without thinking, I flick the switch on the electric heater stationed neatly under my desk and take a long sip of my hot cup of tea, a British tradition I proudly claim during the winter months.
As I write this, I reflect on the ways in which we should not feel guilty for the privilege of warmth and wealth, but instead put these comforts to good use. Let us warm the hands and hearts of those who are struggling to survive the winter, and revive another great British tradition in this festive season, that of generously giving and caring about those in need.