Imagine you are in the home of a refugee, discussing the horrors they have lived through, when they serve you the only food they have as a sign of honour. What would you do?
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Imagine you are in the home of a refugee, discussing the horrors they have lived through, when they serve you the only food they have as a sign of honour.

What would you do?

It is a conundrum faced regularly by those of us who work in humanitarian aid in Turkey. It is a fine art to balance our desire to help those facing such hardships with the need to also respect the custom of hospitality of the Syrian refugees that we work with and support.

Syrian traditions of honouring a guest is a huge part of their identity, and their dignity is an integral part of their ability to stand strong in the face of experiences of immense loss and suffering. These customs are also an unbreakable link to their past, forever linking them to their homeland and ancestors. But by accepting this generosity means less for them and for their families, for those whose need will inevitably outweigh ours.

This is a balance I wrestled with when I recently visited one of our healthcare centres funded by humanitarian aid from the European Union in the southern Turkish city of Nizip. There I was welcomed by some Syrian members of the International Medical Corps team, including Khadija, a soft spoken woman in her mid-thirties who had bought a gift of Syrian Baklava especially for the meeting. This is an important tradition shared by Syrians and Turks alike - to 'eat sweet and talk sweet words'.

Although the sweets were placed in front of me, Khadija would get up and hand me one each time she saw I had finished the last. This was her way of honouring me as a guest and to refuse would be a significant sign of disrespect. The high honour that they showed me was not only surprising but humbling at the same time.

The delicacy around tradition became clear again later as we visited the home of a Syrian family that I was to work with for a media story.

In traditional circumstances, as a guest I would never go empty handed: like Khadija I would be expected to have bought sweets as a gift. However, I was advised not to take any presents as it could create a sense of false hope or worse - my gesture could be misinterpreted as favouritism. Not only was I uncomfortable going against my own Turkish traditions - I was also uncomfortable to be unable to honour their cultural traditions, but I was sure that the advice of my colleagues should be followed.

After listening to the family's experiences of fleeing their homeland, our conversation turned to the subject of Syrian culture and food. Realising how much I liked their regional cuisine, they insisted that we stay for lunch - proud that they could make me more comfortable in their new home. We accepted their generosity while fully aware of the family's financial struggles, and I suspected with a heavy heart that we would be eating food that had been intended for them.

In their culture the food is prepared solely for the guests and the members of the family don't participate in the feast. To refuse would be offensive - but I tried to eat little to prevent their scarce provisions being stretched too far. However, whenever I paused, one of the family would take the spoon from me, refill it with the best part of the pilau dish and gently feed me as is customary.

Their kindness, their warmth and generosity was humbling especially after hearing of the extreme difficulties that this family had suffered. It left me speechless. As we departed, the eldest son assured us that 'this is your home now, you are welcome anytime'.

As we made our way back to our headquarters I felt grateful that war had not been able to erase this aspect of their culture - an aspect that is so human and so beautiful. I only wish that the professional boundaries under which we operate could have been different, that I could have repaid them with a gift to equally honour them. Should I ever find myself in their difficult situation, I can only hope that I would be as kind and generous.

At the end of the day all I can hope is that humility might be a strong force towards empathy and kindness, and these small acts of kindness and generosity can turn ugly situations into a state of hope for the future.


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