Three days ago I met Evelyn. I was sitting in the sunshine at the bus stop at Portage and Colony in Winnipeg. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman come to the area and begin talking to the people waiting. I stuck my nose further into my book and hoped that maybe I would turn invisible, but no such luck. She came up to me and asked for some coins to fund two bus fares- one to her destination and then back again. I took a look in my wallet and then apologized that I had only two dimes. I asked her name and told her mine. Then she moved on.
I had just gone back to my sunshine and good book. when I realised that I had 10 bus tickets in my wallet. That would have been so much more helpful to her. So I looked for the grey shorts and t-shirt but they had disappeared. I knew that she could not have gone far, and I had 15 minutes until my appointment, so I headed down Portage looking for Evelyn. A block later I saw her sitting on the side of the concrete flower planter. I ripped off a bus ticket, drew near for her to acknowledge my presence and then handed her the tiny piece of paper. She looked at me in surprise, "Did you come all the way from the bus stop?" I nodded yes. She said, "Thank you so much, Kathy".
It felt good. I seemed to me that maybe this interaction with a person asking for money had worked. I was able to help her and she received a portion of what she needed. But it took my head back to a situation in Iraqi Kurdistan that felt more like a failure.
During my previous 6 stints in Iraqi Kurdistan with Christian Peacemaker Teams I have enjoyed walking the 25 minutes to the city centre bazaar. I love the colour and beauty and hubbub of the sellers and buyers. However, this January, I found that I had to steel myself to walk the narrow lanes and streets. I definitely do stand out as a foreigner and thus I appear wealthy. I could not pass by the shops without women, often with a small child, coming up to me, holding a laminated piece of paper informing the reader of her status as a Syrian refugee. “Please, Mrs, Mrs, Mrs… for food for food .for food”.
I soon learned to have a few small bills of Iraqi dinars easily accessible. But when these were gone I had to say, “no, biburre, I’m sorry.” Sometimes she would grab my arm and cry out pleadingly. She did not know of the money I had distributed already and probably would not care. I continued my words, “na, na”.
One evening I headed down the main street just as dusk fell. The shoppers were dispersing, taking home food for the evening meal. As I came to the gate of the bazaar I saw a Syrian woman sitting on the ground with a small baby sleeping in her arms. The woman did not plead- she barely even looked. Her eyes were heavy and dark. In her wordlessness she seemed in even more despair than all the others. I stopped, found another small dinar bill and placed it on the cloth in front of her. Then I squatted down to make contact and touched her child’s hand. The mother looked at me and then tucked the hand closer. “Zor sarde- so cold”. “Bale/yes” I replied.
It was all I could do and her face stayed in my head all the way home. I suppose I did more than some people, at least I tried to make some contact. But she remains with me and I think maybe I could have run to the closing shops to buy a blanket, or given her my sweater or emptied my wallet.
I can not save all the people who ask me for something. Despite the fact that I look like I am wealthy my CPT stipend does not stretch very far. But the Syrian woman taught me to think again. I am also trying to learn that when I can't do enough or anything, I am not a bad person.