Rotary Peace Fellow reflects on Afghanistan, helping others in crisis

Kiran Sirah Singh at the International Storyelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, USA.

By Kiran Singh Sirah, a 2011-13 Rotary Peace Fellow and president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, USA

The news coming out of Afghanistan has been painful to watch. So many of these images of suffering — the cargo plane filled with refugees, and especially the image of the baby being passed over barbed wire to a soldier — reminded me of my own family’s experience as refugees. Forty-nine years ago, they were forced to flee their home in Uganda along with 50,000 others, when a murderous dictator threatened them with genocide.

My parents didn’t have much notice. With their visas, my mom and dad and brother (who was just six months old) were given 48 hours to pack up and leave. There was no time to say goodbyes or get properly organized. Worse, my parents were robbed of the few belongings they carried on their way to the airport. The thieves took everything except for the clothes on their backs and my mother’s wedding jewelry, which she had hidden in my brother’s diaper. She later used it to open her first bank account in England.

Sirah's parents at the equator in the 1970s
Kiran Singh Sirah’s parents at the equator in Uganda in the 1970s before they were forced to flee a dictator.

When I first moved to Jonesborough eight years ago, I met Scott Niswonger, a local businessman and philanthropist. When he asked about my background over coffee, I told him about my parents’ story. In response, he shared that at the time my parents fled, he was a cargo plane pilot who delivered food and supplies to refugees at the Ugandan border. I was stunned. Here I was, the new guy in town, shaking the hand of a man who had helped my people many years ago, thousands of miles away, before I was born.

Today, Nikki Niswonger, his wife, serves on the ISC board, and their Niswonger Foundation has become one of the International Storytelling Center’s greatest partners and supporters. It really is a small world!

Acts of kindness, however large or small, reverberate through our lives in amazing, unexpected ways. I try to bear this in mind when I see people on the news who are in great distress. Among the stories of turmoil and chaos and fear, there are also stories of love and compassion and resilience.

It’s vital to ask how we, as individuals and as organizations, can help others in these moments of crisis. I am not talking about grand gestures as much as small actions. I’ve put together this list which I hope can be a starting place for anyone seeking ideas.

Check in with folks

One lesson that I think all of us have learned during the pandemic is to check in with your people. This is of course true in our personal lives, but it’s also relevant at the institutional level. In times of crisis, it’s all too easy for work to become siloed as we scramble in isolation. By staying aware of one another’s projects, efforts, and ideas, we can lend a hand when it’s needed, avoid redundancy, find inspiration, and promote one another’s work.

Offer multiple forms of support

We often think of emotional support as lending an ear when someone needs to talk, but it can take many other forms. If you feel unsure about the best way to provide assistance, a good first step is to simply ask someone what they need.

As I have watched the crisis unfold in Afghanistan, I found myself thinking back to my dad’s experience as a refugee in England. His new employers let him use work resources and office time to contact the family in Uganda who he had been forced to leave behind, including his parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews, so he could help arrange their visas. I often think about that act of empathy and how that small gesture meant so much in my dad’s life.

Preserve and share stories

As we welcome displaced people into our communities, it’s important to hold space for their stories and their traditions. Diversity and multiculturalism are not just important values, but also cultural treasure troves. In the United States, the cross-pollination of traditions and ideas continue to be one of our greatest cultural assets.

Strengthen your community

Times of crisis can be incredible opportunities not just to help other people, but also to strengthen our existing communities. As we come together to help political refugees, victims of natural disasters, those who have been harmed by the pandemic, and people who have been displaced by the housing crisis, we enrich our own lives, our shared culture, and our personal and professional networks.

Serving a stranger can have a positive ripple effect through generations to come, and change your life as an individual in ways you can’t predict or expect. I want to challenge you to think of other ways that you can serve as a stone in the brook. Even the smallest act of kindness may be the one that helps someone who’s struggling make it to the other side.

Abridged and run with permission from ISC. Read the full post here.

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