Serving the Victims of War
UTS graduate Tom Philips (‘92) reports from Russia.
From May 23 to 30, IRFF Russia held its first program within the Russian
Federation in Narzan, Ingushetya. We chose to locate our first project
in Ingushetya because the conflict in the neighboring republic of Chechenya
has seriously affected living conditions; due to the war, one out of every
four people living in Ingushetya is a refugee. Another reason for choosing
this location was the friendly relationship we have developed with Islamic
leaders in Ingushetya through the Inter-Religious Federation for World
Peace. The mufti arranged for us to stay in his sister’s home during our
stay. She welcomed all fourteen members of our team into her home even
though she herself is widowed with six children! We were inspired to live
in a home with such a high spiritual atmosphere; we could hear the prayers
of the family at 5 each morning and at 11 in the evening.
One of our work sites was a refugee camp only ten kilometers from the Chechenian border and we could feel the tremors from bombs being dropped by Russian forces on a nearby Chechenian village. In the camp, we found mothers complaining that their children were living on tea and bread three times a day and the food storage tent remained practically empty during our stay. The food products which we bought locally were quickly consumed each time. We did not see any signs of malnutrition but people were clearly hungry. We shared a lunch of tea and bread with the refugees and directly witnessed the severity of their situation.
Even though they are living in a very fertile area, we recognized their problems were not only lack of resources. They have been uprooted from the daily routine of their lives and are suffering from a sense of helplessness. We therefore designed our programs to empower people to solve their own problems.
Our team was very international with representatives from America, Russia, Ukraine, Africa and Japan. Three Japanese doctors, an African and a Russian doctor concentrated on giving medical consultations and taking note of especially difficult situations. After taking photos about specific cases, IRFF is looking for sponsors to support their medical care. Another team built a volley ball court at the camp and played volley ball with the young people. Many of the children have not been to school for two years, and many of the younger children could not speak Russian. The opportunity to play sports and make friends with people from other countries and share about their troubles helped them to begin to deal with their feelings about the war.
There is a lot of resentment among the Chechenian refugees towards Russians and many Russians hold a stereotype of Chechenians as being criminals connected with the mafia. Russian members of our IRFF team made effort to take a parental heart, digesting the Chechenians’ anger and frustration with the Russian government. It was significant that some of the strongest bonds between participants and the people were made between Chechenians, Ingushetyans and Russians.
Although our organization is a new arrival, people found things that excited them about our work. One television broadcaster, who came to do a three minute spot on the local news, was so captivated she spent the whole day and created a thirty minute program. One of the things that impressed people was our approach, living and working closely together with the people, because many organizations have little direct contact with people. Also, our emphasis was not only to give material support, but to recognize people’s spiritual needs, to also give friendship and personal concern for their well being. When meeting with one government official, this struck him and he said, “Yes, what we need is not only material but also friendship and understanding. Our people need people to believe in them and help them to develop their resources.”
Another project which inspired people was a computer skills course taught by one Ukrainian brother. One community center had computers donated, but there was no one who could teach people how to use them. People were inspired about such a program because it showed that we were interested in investing in people.
Both the citizens and the refugees have seen other groups coming and taking pictures and going never to hear from them again. They asked if we would be any different. For those who shared the experience of seeing the hunger in the eyes of the children living in refugee camps, watching children lying comatose only receiving IVs because there was no money to do any tests, it would be difficult to forget and do nothing. At this time, we are organizing an RYS project for next year. We met with the minister of Civil Services and he is prepared to help guide protein fish powder into the country. We are working to find sponsors for families with special needs. There are many other humanitarian organizations concentrated in this small republic but IRFF has a special contribution to make in helping people to find ways of working together towards a common goal and in bringing together those who were once enemies in a reconciliation of peace and love.
Tom Philips firstname.lastname@example.org