Some days ago, on my way to work, I was struck by a disturbing image on the top page of my local newspaper. A young man stranded in the middle of a flooded road, barefoot, clothes plastered to a soaked body, carrying a small child in his arms, trying to cradle him away from the massive downpour pounding on his head.
More and more such images are imposing into our consciousness these days as wave after wave of Syrian refugees land on European shores in search of safety from the ravages of civil war. Some countries have risen to the challenge, making conscious efforts to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees; others hasten to erect walls around their borders to stem the tide and keep “the problem” out of their backyard. It’s easy to pass judgement on these less than welcoming measures from behind the comfort of our lattes and laptops. After all, there is no point of reference to the daily reality of coping with the unstoppable influx of people in search of shelter when you and your neighbors are struggling to make ends meet and put some decent food on the table for your own family.
And then there is the age-old issue of race, ethnicity and religion. Uneasiness over how others dress, eat, pray and greet us has been a mainstay of human interaction across centuries and continents. How will communities react to the shaken up melting pot once the refugee crisis is over and people are asked to adjust to a different reality, in a strange land with foreign customs, odd weather patterns and unfamiliar routines, having to face suspicion, distrust and often downright hostility because your ‘Hello’ sounds different from mine.
It was only forty-one years to this day when a communist coup d’etat deposed Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, igniting civil war in Northern Africa, displacing lives and destroying livelihoods. The tragedy of uprooted existence, the naked fear of tomorrow, the heartbreak of families torn apart, the torment of waiting for news of the one you love, the desperate longing for the place you know you can never call home again – all these themes are captured poignantly by Camilla Gibbs in her Scotiabank Giller Prize nominated novel Sweetness in the Belly. A moving love story and a courageous stand against bigotry and violence, this is the tale of a white Muslim orphan girl growing up on the streets of Harare who teaches us that compassion, companionship and solidarity are what help us lay aside our differences and build a more welcoming tomorrow.
Lets replace the newspaper image of the tormented man and child in the rain with that of black, brown and white women sitting in a circle around a pot of stewing lentils, stirring in chili peppers, turmeric and pods of cardamom, breaking loaves of sourdough, eyes twinkling over the brim of a dark roasted, lightly salted cup of coffee.