Humanitarian workers see people at their most vulnerable. Our job is to help them get on their feet—but how much help is enough? When do you need to let go? I struggled with those questions several years ago as I worked to build a home and a new beginning for a young girl named Goharic.
In December 1988, Armenia was struck by an earthquake. Buildings collapsed, dust filled the air, and 25,000 people died. The town of Gyumri was especially hard-hit. “Gyumri looked like a cemetery,” one survivor said. Humanitarian help arrived from all over the world, including drab Soviet cargo containers brought in as temporary housing. What was meant as temporary, however, became permanent. With thin, poorly insulated walls, the containers were hot in summer, cold in winter, and leaked when it rained. They were a harsh place to call home.
I arrived in the winter of 1994 as part of a humanitarian team to build new homes. Though six years had passed, the skeletal remains of damaged buildings still littered the landscape. Despair hung oppressively in the air. Thousands of people remained in limbo in their “temporary” metal shacks. One was a girl named Goharic.
An only child about ten, Goharic was shy with dark, intelligent eyes. She watched as her single mother warmly welcomed us into her bleak, humble home. She watched as we sat together at her kitchen table, bundled in our coats and mittens. She watched as, with the help of a translator, her mom energetically talked about life before and after the earthquake.
As my colleague and the confident mother chatted, I tried to catch Goharic’s eye. With winks and smiles and glances, we carried on a non-verbal conversation of our own. Something about her pulled at my heart. As the conversations ended, I slipped off my mittens and offered them to her. Without a word, we had become friends.
Months later I returned to Gyumri to survey the progress. We had received the requested funding and begun construction of new homes. As we drove into Goharic’s community, it seemed a different place. The cold, colorless winter had been replaced by warmth and energy. It was not just the weather, though, that had been transformed. In moments, there she was, running toward me. Exuberance covered her face as she threw her arms around me. Was this the same Goharic?
We walked around the community, hand in hand, admiring the new homes emerging from ruins. There was a fragrance of hope in the air. Many displaced people, including Goharic, would soon have a real home.
Over the next months I returned from time to time to survey the progress, always stopping to see her. On my last visit, sturdy homes had been built, grateful families were resettled, and new neighborhoods had emerged. The program was a success—but not for Goharic. Her confident mother had a new boyfriend and chose him over her daughter. Goharic was living with nearby relatives; another trauma had shaken her young life. My heart broke for her as I felt the limitations of our work. A sturdy home was not enough to make a sturdy family.
All these years later, I still think of Goharic. I have a picture of Goharic on my refrigerator. We are holding hands, and she is wearing the mittens I gave her. What is her life like now? Did she get what she needed? Did she know that she was loved? Should I have done more? Was it enough help?
© 2013 Thrive.
Question to Consider: How to you do you know when to do more and when your help is enough?