By Khalil Guliwala
One day, while visiting my paternal grandparents in India, my grandfather took me to the local ice cream parlour. There were a few children begging right outside the parlour, and I noticed a couple buy a loaf of sliced bread and hand it to them. I watched as those children, about 4 or 5 of them, pounced on the bag and tore it open; bread slices fell into the mud below, only to be picked up and eaten while still encrusted with mud.
What I remember being struck by was the feeling of how similar we looked: we had the same skin tone, the same features, and we understood the same language. Yet, they were the ones “there” eating muddy bread while I was “here” feasting on ice cream.
This division of those “there” vs “here” was blurred even further in Dubai, the city where I was born and bred. With 90% of the population being expatriates, there was a sense of disassociation – as though we were trying to separate ourselves from the wars or famines that ravaged our countries of origin. Yet that separation always felt a bit forced.
I started volunteering for ACF in 2014, nine years after I moved to Canada for the simple reason that I wanted to help in some way. I figured that with my multicultural upbringing (Middle Eastern, Indian), and my past proximity to regions currently in crisis (Central African Republic, the Philippines, Syria), that I was already something of an expert.
However, as I started going through the reports, and photos, and field stories from staff, I quickly realised how little I actually knew about hunger and these regions. These are just a few of the things I was surprised to learn:
- In emergency situations such as civil war, hunger is not always the very first priority. Security, clean water and hygiene sometimes come first to ensure safety and prevent the spread of disease. Sickness can be a precursor to malnutrition and maintaining the health of a community is a part of ACF’s emergency response.
- For refugees, like those fleeing Syria or the Central African Republic, or those who have endured a natural disaster such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, hunger is paired with exhaustion, grief and other psychological trauma. Psycho-social response is another part of ACF’s work.
- In cases of severe acute malnutrition, children’s digestive systems can shut down. They can no longer eat regular food and their survival often depends on a therapeutic milk formula that is fed intravenously.
- Beneficiaries play an active role. ACF programs often integrate education, provide tools, and integrate longer-term programs to help communities rebuild their society.
At times it is not easy to look at the photographs or to read accounts of hardships that leave me drained. However, volunteering ensures that I am not complacent; it keeps me aware of what hardships others are facing. Being confronted by true challenges in other parts of the world, it helps prevent me from taking things in my own life for granted. I watch my tone when I talk to loved ones as I do not know what calamity can snatch them away from me. I keep my anger in check when someone is being rude to me, because there are far worse things that need my attention.
I am left hopeful. As more and more people help those overseas, I wait for the day, far into the future, when the distinction between “here” and “there” collapses, when there is no citizen and no stranger, when there is only us, one people as far as the eye can see.
Khalil Guliwala has volunteered for ACF since 2014. He works for an international non-profit and his areas of responsibility include communications-marketing as well as the collection of data on the global bleeding disorders community. He resides in Montréal, Canada with his fiancée and three cats.