It Takes a Gunshot to Raise to a Conscience

Last week a very good friend of mine was shot and critically injured in a failed carjacking in Nairobi. At the time I was working in a refugee settlement in rural Uganda. A mutual friend telephoned me to tell me what had happened. My concern must have been immediately evident, plainly and painfully visible on my face and in my erratic, distracted gestures. Refugees who I do not know respectfully approached me to ask, as though we were friends, if I was alright. A small number who do know me, and who know my daily routine, did my work for me. Their compassion and helpfulness allowed me the time to make some more phone calls, and to learn that though my friend was badly wounded, she was stable.

Ten days later she was out of the hospital and we were able to arrange a time to talk to by telephone. Her courage and humor were amazing. While I searched for euphemisms – “when you went to the hospital” – she used honest language – “you mean when I got shot.” She explained that the hushed tone and grave concern of all of her visitors were so awkward and depressing that she herself became the clown, adding lightness and comedy in the same way that I remember my father doing when he was hospitalized with leukemia. She so bolstered my spirits – not the other way around as I had anticipated – that I relaxed enough to joke with her, telling her that many times I had wanted to shoot her but that I never would have done it.

It was only while talking to her that I realized something obvious I had overlooked. It is likely that many of the refugees who were so sympathetic that day in the settlement had themselves been shot in the past, and that some had been brutalized in ways even more invasive and scarring.

I talk to refugees for my job. Whether I listen to them is another matter. Understandably, I do not feel the same sense of concern for a refugee I do not know as I did for my friend. What is less acceptable is my businesslike detachment, my lack of sympathy and compassion, when hearing the stories and problems of refugees. Though it is hard to do when confronted by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people recounting similar stories, it is important to remember that each refugee survived a moment at least as frightening as what my friend had to experience that night in Nairobi.

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