“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” ― Charles Dickens

My heart has been particularly heavy these past few months, reading the news coming from the United States and Europe. Stories of xenophobia, bigotry and discrimination have been on the rise. Politicians have zeroed in on the “other” to create a mentality that binds people together with fear — with quite a lot of success, unfortunately.

Having spent most of my youth volunteering with the homeless in Baltimore, my many interactions with this particular group of marginalized people allowed me to learn a lot about what it means to be a victim of circumstance. That not everyone “deserves” to be in the situation that they’re in; sometimes people are just dealt a bad hand and simply do the best they can with what they’ve got.

I was fortunate to grow up with this understanding, which became even more crucial now that both my birth country (the U.S.) and my adoptive country (France) are faced with the biggest humanitarian crisis of my generation: what to do with the refugees and migrants who show up at our borders in search of a safer life.

When we’re not directly impacted by a particular situation, it’s easy to turn a blind eye and focus instead on our own daily trials — this is normal. But that doesn’t erase the crisis that’s happening at our borders, and in my case living in Paris, only a few blocks away from my doorstep. These refugees are here, today, and need support and solutions.

For the past year I’ve spent most Saturday nights volunteering for an organization that distributes food to the needy here in Paris. On average, we distribute between 200 and 300 meals to a pretty regular group of people. They’re mostly French, either homeless or close to it, and some clearly have psychological issues.

Since it’s basically the same kind of population I was used to interacting with back in Baltimore, working with the homeless has never been shocking or particularly hard for me. Except, I’ll admit, when it’s bitterly cold in winter — it never gets easier knowing that some people just don’t have a warm bed to go home to when the day is done. The point is, I thought I had been almost desensitized to the plight of the homeless; last night, however, I learned that it was not the case.

You see, for the past month, volunteers in Paris have banded together to add a special food distribution every night, intended for the refugees and migrants living in unofficial camps at the fringe of the city. Instead of the typical 200–300 meals we serve, this food distribution serves around 1,200 meals — but with approximately the same number of volunteers! Needless to say, it’s pretty hectic as we try to serve food as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Unofficial camp for refugees in northern Paris. © Gail Palethorpe.

The first time I participated in this special distribution, I was assigned to the “hot meal” station. It’s right at the beginning of the line and you basically don’t have a moment to spare. One person grabs a bowl and adds rice, the next person adds fish, and the third person delivers it. Pretty straightforward. I had tried a few times to look up and catch the eye of those passing through the line, but I noticed that their eyes were decidedly fixed on the food — they were truly hungry.

After the service was over, I stood nearby talking to my friend Grace, another volunteer. One young man, who looked to be around our age, heard us speaking in English and approached us. There was a slight language barrier but we eventually learned that he had arrived in France from Eritrea 10 days prior, and was living in the camp — which was actually just a haphazard collection of tents and mattresses underneath a bridge.

Polite but clearly frustrated, he asked us what was going to happen when the month was over and the nightly food service ended? Also, where could he take a shower? Grace and I exchanged helpless glances as we sadly shook our heads. We were sorry, we didn’t know, we were just there to deliver some food. He managed a half smile and walked away.

The next time I went back, last night, I decided to try a less stressful station that might allow me a bit more interaction with people. I ended up on orange juice duty, located all the way at the end of the line and mostly away from the rush. I decided to serve the cups one at a time so I could look at each person straight in the eyes and simply say “hello.” What happened next astounded me.

Almost every single person looked right back at me and said “hello” with a smile. And I’m not talking about the fake smile that servers and shopkeepers are supposed to have when you walk in the door (except in Paris, of course, but that’s a different story). No, these people smiled all the way to their eyes, sometimes even flashing their teeth and wrinkling their skin from ear to ear. They accepted my little gesture of kindness and repaid me tenfold.

These refugees are just like you and me, and didn’t do anything to deserve sub-human living conditions; they simply had the misfortune of being born into war-torn countries.

Each one of these men and women undoubtedly has a story to tell, a past filled with beauty and tragedy and above all, hope.

These people, who have so little, showed me more generosity and humanity than some people who have a lot more to be thankful for. They had every right to be angry about their current situation, though you’d never know it from their behavior.

For example, amidst the rush and chaos of the distribution, people were attempting to walk while simultaneously holding their bowl of food and bread, as well as cups of milk, coffee, and orange juice. At one point, a man accidently bumped into another guy, spilling his cup of milk all over his clothes, bag, shoes — everywhere. To be clear, these are the clothes this man will likely sleep in and live in, as he has no access to a washing machine (or shower).

I had glanced up from pouring orange juice when it happened, only to see the man who was covered in milk simply keep walking. He didn’t curse at the other man or look at him with anger and disgust. He just held onto his food and kept walking. I felt a lump rise in my throat, but continued pouring.

Volunteers distribute food to refugees in northern Paris. © Solidarité Migrants Wilson

Later on, as the empty orange juice boxes quickly piled up on my small table, one of the guests took it upon himself to be my helper. He approached me and without even asking, started to clean and organize my station. He tossed the empty boxes in the garbage, grabbed the extra cups and started unstacking them on the table in front of me. I gladly accepted his help and thanked him, and although we didn’t share any language in common, we stood quietly side-by-side and worked together… much more efficiently than when I was doing it alone, I might add!

For the next hour, we worked in unison, pouring and serving and cleaning. At one point, the wind suddenly picked up, and we laughed as a cup of orange juice spilled over and covered the table (and our shoes a bit as well). And when it was all over, he simply disappeared back into the masses without waiting around for a “thank you” or any recognition at all. He just helped for the sake of helping. And in the process, he renewed a bit of my faith in humanity.

I was so moved to see such generosity of spirit despite the unspeakable hardship he has certainly experienced in his life. He had nothing — and yet was still capable of giving me this priceless gift. I was humbled and thankful for being taught this important lesson that I will not soon forget.

I sat alone in the metro afterwards, decompressing and digesting all that had just taken place. I was on my way to have a late sushi dinner with friends. That’s right, sushi. Tears stung my eyes as I thought of the man covered in milk, and I felt ashamed at the absurdity of this situation.

I know none of it is my fault, but that doesn’t change the fact that one of us is sleeping under a bridge, while the other is enjoying sushi and wine with friends.

Right now in the U.S. and in Europe, a large (and increasingly vocal) part of the population would like to simply slam the door shut on migrants and refugees and throw away the key. After all, “it’s not our fault they decided to show up illegally and drain our resources, take our jobs, etc.” They should go back to where they came from and stay there.

But here’s the thing — I’m willing to bet everything that none of them wanted or asked to be put into that position in the first place. Looking around at the tents and mattresses beneath the overpass, I think to myself, how can this possibly be better than where they were before? But deep down, of course I know why they risked their lives for those tents. Coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria…the choice was made for them.

And that leads us to the here and now. They managed to make it here, and now it’s up to us — each and every one of us, if you feel so inclined — to participate in finding solutions. In the short term, how to provide access to basic needs and keep the conversation going, and in the long term, how to encourage policymakers to better handle international humanitarian crises. In the meantime, there are people who really need our help.

Messages of solidarity hang near a food distribution by Solidarité Migrants Wilson. © Anne Paq

For me, here’s what it all comes down to: I just looked at more than a thousand of the world’s most indigent people in the eyes and watched them smile.

In a situation like that, how can you look at them in the eyes and fear them? How can you look at them in the eyes and hate them? How can you look at them in the eyes and tell them they don’t deserve to have what you have?

You can’t, is the answer. Which is why I think more people need to look at them in the eyes.

Taking it a step further, I believe this applies to all forms of hatred and discrimination that exist in the world. We must actively reject the fear-mongering created by politicians and media — this is a false narrative.

Instead, by opening ourselves to the “other,” by looking at our neighbors with just a little more empathy and compassion, I am hopeful that ignorance, hatred and fear can eventually be unlearned.

And so, in response, this is my own little protest. Interacting with and showing love to those whom I’m expected to fear — this will forever and always be my protest.

Finally, to all who believe that refugees deserve to be shipped back to wherever they came from, my message is this: I hope that should you ever need to escape your city, or state, or country because your life depends on it, you’ll encounter people who show you kindness. People who won’t slam the door in your face or treat you like animals, but who embrace you without reserve. And maybe, just maybe, when you need it the most — those people will pour you a glass of orange juice.

*A version of this article was originally published on 17 August 2017

Sharing stories of humanity, family and my journey working with marginalized groups. Hoping to help conquer xenophobia with radical compassion.

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