Service to Palestine refugees: Honesty, courage and other lessons
Valley Forge Military Academy Chapel; 21 October, 2007
I come to you from Gaza where I head the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. While the United Nations performs many different roles across the globe (political, economic, humanitarian, developmental, standard setting), there is a common thread running though all these missions, and that is to promote world peace and understanding and to make the world a more just, secure and healthier place. My agency’s particular task is to care for those who fled from conflict in Palestine fifty-nine years ago. Since then, Palestine refugees have lived as guests in many other countries, yearning for a solution to their condition of exile. And while they wait, we help them to lead their lives as normally and as independently as possible.
I hope that some of you have read the documents my office sent some weeks ago to your library. You will know that my agency, which goes by the unpronounceable acronym of "UNRWA", works in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory (more commonly known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). We run schools for Palestine refugee children, many of whom are your age and have the same dreams and hopes as you do. We take care of the health needs of refugees and give special attention to the poorest and most vulnerable among them. We build and help to repair refugee homes, and we offer credit and financial assistance to refugees with small businesses.
To help us reflect on the themes of honesty and courage this morning, I would like to draw from some of the lessons that my staff and I have learned over the years. Most of these are learned in hard times, times that are out of the ordinary, times of stress, sorrow, hardship and war. Very often, it is from such times that the richest gems of life’s lessons are uncovered. These lessons have given direction and strength to our mission to serve Palestine refugees and to seek their well-being at all times. I trust that you will find in them a measure of motivation and encouragement for your personal development here at Valley Forge and in your future endeavors.
One of the first lessons those of us in the humanitarian field learn is the deep fulfillment that comes from service to others. After 26 years of working with refugees, I harbour no doubt that to render support to those in crisis or need is a rewarding path to pursue. Why is this so? The adjective "humanitarian" says it all. To be sensitive to human suffering and to be motivated to serve others is to realize the essence of what we mean by "humanitarian". This kind of service resonates with the universally recognized advice to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. And it is a sure way to give expression to the tenets of love and compassion that is shared by all faiths.
Humanitarian service is at its best and the rewards of service to others are brightest when we keep in view the individuality of those "others". The lesson here is one that goes to the very heart of rights and freedoms on which this country was founded. UNRWA serves a population of some 4.4 million Palestine refugees. Elsewhere in the world, there are another nine million refugees and over 23 million persons displaced inside their own countries. The true challenge of humanitarian work is to see the names and faces behind these staggering numbers. We must continually recognize the individuality of those we serve, for it is from that individuality that human dignity and entitlements to rights and freedoms flow. Acknowledging this human distinctiveness guides us towards the affirmation of certain important truths. It reminds us that the people we serve are women, men and children in their own right and therefore worthy of our respect; and that far from being a favour to be patronizingly given, true service to humanity is a privilege.
Most importantly, recognizing the humanity of the people we serve goes hand-in-hand with acknowledging the sanctity of every human life. This is the essence and ultimate lesson of humanitarian work – a lesson that reverberates through every dimension of human endeavor. The time will soon come when you graduate and go forward to find your place in the current of life. Many of you will become leaders in your chosen fields.
You will find that your lives are driven by powerful and competing forces. You will see that contests for power, influence, wealth, territory and other desires dominate the attention of individuals as well as nations. You will observe that when in the pursuit of our desires we override considerations of humanity or disregard the sanctity of human life, a high price in human suffering is not the only consequence. We also pay a price in frustration of our plans and failure to reach our goals. Compassion and humanity are central to who we are and should be a part of everything we do. These attributes must govern our material pursuits and constrain our exercise of power wherever we find ourselves in life, if our efforts – as individuals and as nations - are to work to the greater good.
I wish to share with you one more lesson – perhaps the most obvious one - from the experience of Palestine refugees. This is the lesson of perseverance. I mentioned earlier that for fifty-nine years, Palestine refugees have been waiting for the creation of a state they can call their own and to which they can return. I think we have something to learn from their determination never to give up their dream in spite of all the hardships, obstacles and frustrations they have experienced over the years. The strength of Palestinian resolve is a reminder to us all that when things do not go according to plan, when hopes and prayers seem to go unfulfilled and unanswered, these are the times when we must remain steadfast, holding on to our aspirations and never allowing our faith to flag.
The themes of honesty and courage run through the lessons I have shared with you this morning. Honesty means knowing yourself and being true to your desires. If at some point in your life, you feel a call to serve others, be true to yourself and heed that call. I believe you will experience in that service deep satisfaction.
It takes courage to recognize the inherent frailty of human existence; to understand that we share this frailty with all of humankind; and to draw humility of service from that understanding. It also takes courage to place considerations of humanity above all else. Remember what the scripture said: "No one can be the slave of two masters; he will hate one and love the other; he will be loyal to one and despise the other". Life confronts us with hard choices. Whichever path you choose to take, I pray that you will have the courage and honesty to allow compassion and humanity to guide you along the way.
May God bless you all.