Sharing enforced passivity or making a difference?

The experience of a Muslim Red Cross volunteer
Developing Just Leadership

Crescent International

Rabi' al-Thani 03, 1420 1999-07-16

Special Reports

by Crescent International (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1420)

Thousands of western aid workers flooded to Kosova and surrounding countries during the Serbs’ recent genocide of Kosovan Albanians. A Canadian Muslimah who worked at an International Red Cross refugee centre in Canada, and prefers to remain anonymous, contributed this account to Crescent International.

The genocide in Kosova has transformed many of the survivors from self-sufficient, productive people with a virtual shadow-government of their own into objects of charity. Although some Muslim agencies and individuals have strained their resources to offer aid to the Kosovars, the relief-work has been clearly dominated by western secular and Christian groups. Refugees from Kosova who have been airlifted to Canada were housed at seven military bases under the direction of the Red Cross, until they could be resettled. The Salvation Army, a Christian organization with years of experience in social work and disaster-relief, gave them clothes, while the Victorian Order of Nurses helped with health-care. Canadian Muslims wanting to help the refugees on these bases have had to do so as Red Cross volunteers.

I visited one of the bases with a group of Muslim student volunteers. Before meeting the refugees, we signed in and received a brief orientation. We were informed that the Red Cross is based on the principles of humanity, impartiality, and neutrality. This meant that we were not to discuss religion or politics; nor were we to make V-for-victory signs, as this would be interpreted as support for the Kosovars’ side of the war. We received hand-outs comparing western and Kosovan cultural ideals: Westerners, we learned, have a ‘problem-solving focus’, accept ‘challenging of authority’, and believe that ‘individuals control their destiny’; Kosovars tend to be ‘accepting of life’s difficulties’, ‘respect authority’, and ‘accept their destiny’. We were reminded that if our experiences caused us emotional distress, counselling was available.

On our way to the gym to sort donations of clothing and shoes, we met a number of refugees. Children and then adults clustered round. They read our name-tags and were delighted to find that some of our names were the same as theirs. Exchange of salaams progressed quickly to impromptu language-lessons, as some of us tried to communicate using the list of Albanian phrases that the Red Cross had provided. Our teachers were a couple of ten-year-old girls. Delighted by our attempts to speak their language, one asked: “Do you know Ina atainakl kosar?” That threw us momentarily. “Ah,” we clued in, “Inna aatainaak al-kawthar?” “Yes!” she cried, and enthusiastically began to recite short surahs and du’as in Arabic, asking whether we knew these too. Qur’anic Arabic is a universal language which can create instant rapport even among non-Arabic-speaking Muslims.

When we went to sort clothing and shoes, we asked the Red Cross if we could distribute the scarves that we had bought. Permission was granted, and we laid them out alongside the jeans and t-shirts donated by local businessmen. About twenty refugees at a time were allowed into the sweltering heat of the gym. Those who came early were generally able to find clothes and shoes that fit, although large sizes were in short supply. Some of the older women were frankly contemptuous. “Too tight,” one snorted, and chose a blue scarf. “They are picky,” a Red Cross volunteer sniffed as she watched Kosovars ignoring the cheap canvas shoes and trying to find leather shoes that fit. The canvas shoes given them several weeks ago were already very worn.

Refugees further back in line were less fortunate. “Me ven kech [sorry],” we apologised repeatedly, as person after person failed to find anything that fitted. When even the canvas shoes were gone, they eyed the box behind our table, which contained odd shoes. Our attempts to explain fell on deaf ears as women thronged round the box, searching desperately for the other halves that weren’t there. That sight, more than any other I saw that day, calls into question western relief-efforts and their relation to Muslims, whether as beneficiaries or as volunteers. There is no Islamic relief organisation remotely comparable to those existing in the west. The Red Cross has saved the lives of numerous Kosovars and others around the world. It is also evident that Kosovars lucky enough to be sent to Canada are at the luxury end of the refugee existence. But even the good food, accommodation and clothing cannot compensate for the loss of dignity and personal autonomy.

It is evident that the cultural definitions we encountered in orientation were not only attempts to sensitise volunteers to their own cultural biases, but are also fairly accurate descriptions of the relief worker-refugee relationship. Significant problem-solving and control are reserved for the relief-agencies and their workers; refugees have to address their problems within the secular, depoliticised framework already determined for them.

Muslim volunteers have an ambiguous status in this situation. Like other relief-workers, they are on the active, controlling side of the agency-refugee relationship. At the same time, their expressions of solidarity with the Kosovars are limited by Red Cross neutrality. As the hadith puts it, Muslims are one body; when one part is in pain, the whole feels it. The Red Cross answer to the deep personal pain experienced by Muslim volunteers is ‘counselling’, to help us be ‘accepting of life’s difficulties’. Can we Muslims help the Kosovars (or anyone) by sharing their experience of enforced passivity?

Nonetheless, despite Red Cross neutrality, we conveyed a message without ‘discussing religion or politics’. Our names, and the hijab of many of the sisters, silently but effectively affirmed that Muslims are one Ummah, and that Islam is the deen for all times and places, even a refugee-camp in North America. The refugees’ response to us made it clear that they ‘got’ the message.

The Islamic movement needs to consider how existing Muslim relief-agencies can avoid fragmentation of their efforts caused by ethnic nationalism and sectarianism, and the difficulties caused by a personalist style of leadership, which leads to a decline of the organisation when the leader dies or leaves. The majority of the world’s refugees are Muslim, persecuted for that very reason. Their plight should be a priority for all Islamic activists.

Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1999

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