Israel. India. Afghanistan. Sierra Leone. East Timor.
Every day, it seems there's another "hot spot" somewhere in the world; people in some faraway location in a crisis that barely touches our lives. I used to think that, too, until 1993, when I deployed, as an Army chaplain, to Somalia.
The medical group I was with was sent to Mogadishu, the once-elegant capital city of Somalia. By then, many houses sat empty or ruined, but it didn't take much imagination to see how handsome the architecture was, how once it must have been a charming coastal city with a Mediterranean flair.
On the main road that ran in front of our heavily guarded compound was a large refugee camp and feeding center. Although it was only half a block away, it took quite an effort for us to get there. The streets were alive with gangs, vandals, and sniper fire, so we couldn't go anywhere without full regalia, including flack jackets and helmets--not the outfit of choice in 90-degree heat!
Tall walls surrounded the feeding center. On my first visit there, I noticed that somehow it managed to be an island of sanity in the midst of a world gone berserk. I would soon discover that the physical and mental health of the people here was due to the director, a woman known only as Amina.
The first time I met her, she responded to my introduction with a smile. After that, I was always greeted with a hug. She was a large-boned, dark-skinned woman, maybe 5'4". But what you first noticed about her was the love and concern she had for each person in her camp. The second thing you noticed was her authority. She treated the inhabitants like her extended family, and they in turn gave her great respect. She might have technically been the camp's director, but in fact she was the matriarch of a large clan, one formed by circumstance. Amina was friendly with everyone, but somehow she and I formed a special bond, even though we had to speak to each other through an interpreter, or in broken foreign words and phrases. Maybe part of it was a sisterhood, the coming together of two women trying to help hold lives together in the midst of chaos.
Amina wore brightly colored scarves, as did all the women in the camp, and her hands and arms always had pictures painted on them. The pictures were intricate, made with stains of berries, like temporary tattoos. They were a sign of respect and affection by the native artists who drew them.
Shortly after arrival, we were taken back to see the refugee camp section, where families lived together in row after row of igloo-shaped dwellings fashioned out of large sticks covered with anything available: cardboard, corrugated metal, plastic tarps, even basketball hoops fastened down sideways.
I wondered how I--how any of us--would feel if our comfortable world collapsed overnight and we were left living in cardboard, unable to even provide food for our children. But Amina did not allow a spirit of bitterness in her camp. I saw this in the four overcrowded schoolrooms. The children, crammed three or four to a desk, had no books or notebooks. There were no pencils or chalk, so the teachers taught by having the children recite out loud--English, Arabic, and math. Yet there was an eagerness to learn. We soldiers could tell what the week's English lesson had been because, as soon as we entered the camp, we would be greeted with the day's new phrase: "What's your name?" "Where do you live?" The week they asked, "How old are you?" I was chagrined to discover they didn't understand my answer. I guess they hadn't learned to count that high in English!
But most memorable for me was how the children loved to dance. Their lives had been shattered, their homes, toys, and clothes taken away, but somehow they all seemed to share Amina's spirit of gratitude: Just to be alive with food and water was enough.
By the second or third time I entered the compound, two little girls were bold enough to come up to me. Because I was a woman, they wanted to show me a girls' folk dance. It started with shouts of "Yupa! Yupa! Yupa!" and the shaking of the shoulders. When the older girls heard it, they circled around, clapping or shaking empty water bottles, which had become maracas. When I began to dance with them, they whooped with delight. I couldn't believe it. We were in the middle of a war zone--and the children were teaching me to dance.
Then one day, there was a small incident that could have become a crisis. After a couple of buddies and I safely reached the feeding-center compound and the doors were shut behind us, I took off my helmet and reached into my back pocket for my cap. It was missing. An Army cap would be a real prize to kids who had nothing. I knew that anything stolen on the streets of Mogadishu would never be seen again, guaranteed. But I also knew that Amina made sure we were treated as honored guests in the compound. And in civilized Somalia, honored guests are protected, not pickpocketed. It was even more important to Amina to teach these children values than it was to teach them to read or do math. The whole camp would feel its honor had been slighted if I accused anyone of taking my cap.
So I waited until I was off to one side with one of the teachers. "My cap may have fallen out of my pocket," I said. "If anyone finds one laying around, it's probably mine." I smiled and went on with the visit.
The very next time we came back, the same teacher wordlessly handed me the cap. Even though we never talked about it, I knew that word had gone through the camp that someone had taken something belonging to a guest, and this was not to be tolerated. It had been returned right away.
In March, near the time when our unit's tour of duty was over, I returned to the camp for the last time. The little girls saw us immediately. "Yupa! Yupa! Yupa!" came the immediate invitation to the dance.
Amina saw me too and came over. She and I knew that I would soon be leaving, going back to a soft bed, a television, and grocery stores with shelves stocked full of food. She, on the other hand, would stay here with the families and children she claimed as her own. Who knew what the future held for her, for the children in the camp? For her, this was not somewhere to come for three months to try to help. This was her home. It would be so easy to resent my going, I thought.
But that was not Amina's way. She came over to where I danced with the youngest girls, a smile on her face, tears in her eyes. And as the older girls gathered closer, chanting and clapping, she joined me in the middle of the circle, shaking her shoulders, squatting and jumping with all her might, with a powerful joy.
The other girls stopped dancing and stepped back, squealing with delight and clapping in time as Amina and I did a final dance of celebration--for how good it is to have friends, to love God, and for the sheer privilege of being alive.
Chances are good that I'll never see Amina again. After we left, the fighting in Mogadishu at times intensified to the point that I'm not even sure if the feeding compound still stands.
But for me, Amina put a face on the war. Now I know that most of the people affected by war aren't the warlords or generals or even the soldiers. They are people not much different from us, trying to feed their families, to teach their children right from wrong. And sometimes, even when there seems nothing to celebrate, they can teach us to dance.