This is Thanksgiving week. Those of you who have been around this blog for a while know that this week’s message always takes a break from the business leadership themes and takes a look at more foundational thinking…at least for me.
I have six major blessings in my life.
1. My faith
2. My wife
3-6. My four children. They have truly been a source of profound joy and learning. Not only are they friends, they are teachers. Our youngest, Emma, age 22, has taken opportunity after opportunity to learn of other cultures. From Santiago, Chile to Moscow, Russia, she has spent over two years abroad, mostly in service capacities. This summer she spent six weeks with FoodKIND, a NGO organization in Greece, that ministers to persons in refugee camps. Her experiences were profound. I rarely walked away from a conversation with her, while she was there, without being sobered and thankful, by what she was seeing and relating.
For our Thanksgiving message this year, I have asked her to share some of her experiences, in the hope that you, also, will have a perspective that will amplify your feelings of Thanksgiving.
Here are some of her thoughts:
I suppose I was searching. I felt like I was taking one semester after another to find out what I wanted to do. So I decided to take a gap semester. Through a series of events I found myself in Greece working with two organizations: Team Banana and FoodKIND. Both European organizations. I was there for six weeks.
The first thing to hit was the heat. It felt like someone had decided a whole country should enter a wet, humid oven. As we traveled by train to the top of Greece, the train had no air conditioning and felt like a sauna. We only slept for a couple hours each night, the heat making your body just stick to even your sheets. Our first assignment was to deliver bananas to a refugee camp outside of Thessaloniki. I expected to see lines of tents, but it was explained to me that after the record winter of the previous year that caused many to freeze to death, they had to move everyone into a shelter. In this case a massive abandoned warehouse. If it was an oven outside, my heart sunk as I walked into the furnace inside the warehouse. Children ran between wooden wall dividers that served as rooms for hundreds of refugees and their families. Two boxes of bananas was all we had that day. Working off of a list, we would go from one make shift apartment to the next. Only able to give one banana per person. Children eagerly grabbed their small banana. Mothers took them gratefully, and fathers stared at yet another donation that would only carry their family to that night. Men who had once been professional chefs, bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers now watched a group of volunteers – ever changing – providing what they couldn’t. Leaving a humiliating sense of dependency that only a provider for a family can truly feel. Families would often move in without our knowing, and without enough bananas to give to them as well, we watched as people gave up their small banana offering to give to another family who also had nothing. At this point the feeling of hunger was much like the feeling of being tired, always present. What was one banana? One banana was possibly everything for that day.
On the outskirts of Thessaloniki lay eight abandoned buildings. Concrete ruins – burnt and crumbled by a fire years earlier. In the very back of this row of buildings live eleven men. Pakistani refugees. Four of them professional chefs. They live on the second floor, a massive cement warehouse with a few blankets and tarps to protect from chilling nights. Garbage lines the buildings, leaving rotting histories of previous inhabitants. The striking revelation was realizing these eleven amazing men came here because it was better than where they were coming from. That alone held enough gravity to sober all of us volunteers. Cinder blocks and dried wood held the one charred pot they owned. There was one young man, about twenty years old. His name was Eftihar, a muscular five foot figure, with a light in his eyes that made you realize this burnt building was but a period of his life that would shape him but not define him. He didn’t eat much – there was never much to eat. However, we called him the milk man. He knew two words in english: hello, and milk. His eyes lit up whenever we brought a liter of milk for him and the other men. Six tablespoons each. One liter of milk for eleven men. Men that cooked beautiful meals when given ingredients, eating little themselves and piling the plates of people like us. People who went home to full fridges, and went even further away to warm homes and our own beds. It became very clear that these men were not defined by their experience, but I was defined and changed by knowing them. And seeing a light that can’t be extinguished by circumstance.
In the mornings we distributed breakfast at abandoned buildings around the city. These buildings provided some kind of shelter to hundreds of refugees who hadn’t slept but a few hours due to the relentless waves of mosquitos attacking every exposed inch of skin.
Two pieces of white bread with Nutella spread and a cup of black tea. Almost everyday we would run out of food. A day came when upon distributing all our supplies, a pregnant woman came up to me. Not speaking one word of English, she held up her hands to hold up how many children she had. Seven. A devastating number. We had nothing. No bread, no tea, no fruit. I reached into my pocket handing her all I had. Maybe a dollars worth of change. I looked into her broken eyes. Knowing truly that she had nothing, and that this was just one of many days that she had gone home to her expectant family with nothing.
I’d seen hunger in Russia. I’d seen desperation in people’s eyes. But it was the look of this pregnant mother, and the look of many others, holding up their fingers, and you being their only hope that day. Watching them hold up sometimes ten fingers and having only enough to give them five.
I may face social pressures, I may face academic deadlines, but I’ve never had to deal with the nausea and exhaustion of a continuous empty stomach, and have to face seven others every night.
The problems of others are often time easily glazed over, “We’ll always have refugees” or “They’ll always be struggling with that – they’re past help.”
It doesn’t take going overseas to become an advocate for the lost – a last hope for the people who are too weak to help themselves. I have much to give thanks for, but giving thanks for what I have is no longer enough. My father asked me to share my experiences with you in this Thanksgiving blog post. But they are all for not if they didn’t change me – they have. I hope that in reading this each of you will find within yourselves a deeper resolve to be the first or last hope for the people around you – be it the homeless or the people in your own home. We search for deeper purpose and meaning in life and there are many ways to find this meaning. However, I have never in my life found a more direct line to this purpose than when I have been that hope for others. So this holiday season, let yourself be changed. It is the greatest possible gift you can give to yourself and to others.