By Matt Cairns
There are currently almost 23 million refugees in the world – that’s almost the population of Australia! These are people who have had to flee their country due to wars, famines, and other life-threatening issues. They are part of the 66 million people who are currently classed as displaced from their homes. And many of these refugees currently live in camps as they wait to try and find a new life somewhere safe. Some camps house more than 100,000 refugees in difficult conditions.
Over the last week my family and I have been doing the Act for Peace Ration Challenge in which we attempt to live off the rations that a refugee living in one of these camps would receive. In doing so, we raised funds to help Act for Peace supply food, healthcare, and other supports to those refugees living in camps.
This has been an incredibly hard but thought-provoking week, and I’ve learnt several lessons from it:
As someone who loves food – I eat out at least once a week, enjoying the company of good friends and good food – the main challenge for me has been food boredom!
Yes the hunger sets in and is hard, but somewhat sadly I’ve discovered that your body adapts to a certain level of hunger. That pit of the stomach feeling I know as hunger just becomes normal and it saddens me that so many people live with this feeling ‘just as normal’. Imagine living with hunger as normal… The UN estimates about 780 million people go hungry every day.
But the main struggle I had was with complete boredom with the small portions of food we could have – there are only so many ways one can cook rice – and they all still taste like rice…
My day to day food is filled with flavours from around the globe – garlic, chilli, salt, pepper, soy sauce, Indian flavours, Thai flavours, Italian flavours, and just about any other delicious flavour you can think of! But in a refugee camp your flavour choices are severely limited. Some refugees earn a little money so they can purchase extra food resources such as spices, but it is limited to the basics. I can’t imagine eating basically the same meal every day, with perhaps a basic spice like paprika to liven it up. With food playing such a social and enjoyable part of my life, having this taken away has been quite shocking for me.
As my wife Kristen put it:
“The stark difference between ‘surviving’ and ‘thriving’ has shocked me. I had never thought in these terms before. You can have enough food to survive… lots of boiled rice, some lentils, chick peas and sardines. But the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and other fresh produce has become depressing – literally. Even the enjoyment of a meal together is a challenge, when your meal has no variety, little texture and is quite bland in terms of flavour. It’s difficult to feel ‘healthy’, harder to concentrate, and generally low energy levels make doing ‘normal’ things more difficult. We are surviving, but not thriving.
How privileged we are – I knew this before… but even I, with all of my social awareness and justice attitude didn’t really know it.”
And surviving but not thriving means fatigue sets in early – the lack of substantial food results in depleted energy quite early on in the day. The fatigue means I feel quite poorly for the majority of the day and this again impacts upon my desire to be sociable which impacts upon my mood as a whole. I’m even struggling to write sentences here that make sense!
One interesting outcome is that you really do notice food, particularly our abundance of it. Food is everywhere – obviously in the fridge and pantry, but as I’ve noticed the more I’ve become hungry I’ve noticed it on people’s work desks, carried by colleagues as they walk past my desk, sitting in people’s cars as I walk past them… it is everywhere and so freely accessible. This has led me to the biggest realisation from this week, and it is about my place of privilege in the world.
Yes I’m hungry and fatigued and having a few health issues with this 7 day long experiment – but it is just that – an experiment, and my privileged place in the world means that at any time I want I can literally walk 2 metres and access food to end my hunger and fatigue and so on.
I can end my hunger – a refugee in a camp living of these meagre rations cannot.
I can eat to combat my fatigue – a refugee cannot and must push on regardless.
I can access medical care to help my health – a refugee has little to no access to healthcare.
I can do almost everything in need to ensure my family does not suffer from this week of malnourishment – it breaks my heart to know that right now in a camp, a father is trying his best to do the same, but cannot.
This week is almost over – but the words of Jesus will forever ring true – “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Matthew 25)
Those of us privileged enough to have plenty of food and shelter and resources are called to care for those who do not. It is the call of scripture – a non-negotiable aspect of justice – a part of playing our part in the Kingdom of God.
*You can find out more about the Ration Challenge here.