In the busy RefugePoint program in Nairobi, Kenya, refugees often need basic commodities like rice or money to help pay their rent. The workers there also try hard to make sure to give those they serve something that they've taken to calling a DOB — a dose of benignity.
RefugePoint is a nonprofit organization serving refugees in many countries and the workers have always tried to be kind as they figure out what individuals and families need. But it would be easy to get harried managing so many cases that involve all sorts of dire need, from medicine to livelihood grants.
I was told about the program and the DOBs by Patrick Poulin, Pacific West regional director of the International Rescue Committee, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City. Last November, he was invited to spend a week with RefugePoint Nairobi evaluating their urban refugee case management program. As part of that, he talked to a lot of the refugees receiving commodities and services. One message stood apart, spontaneously repeated over and over
The food, the rent, the material support were crucial to the survival of the refugees. But they needed — and received — something that was just as vital: a sense of their own humanity. They got it because the staff took time to see those refugees as individuals. When time was short and there was a lot to do, they didn't treat people like cars to be run through a car wash, but spent a few minutes in real conversations, learning about what the people they served had gone through and listening to their dreams of the future, sympathizing and rooting for them on a personal level.
Poulin said it struck him that was a needed commodity as much as anything the program — really any program that tries to help those who struggle or suffer — could offer. And he suggested they add that attitude of caring to the list of commodities they routinely provide. Formalizing it, he said, means it happens every time.
I've seen this truth again and again in my decades reporting on the lives of the poor and the marginalized: Stigma attaches where it doesn't belong and it suffocates hope. When people are made to feel "less than" because of circumstance or disability or ethnicity or for any other reason, there's a sorrowing that occurs deep within that stifles progress and relationships and many other aspects of a fulfilling life.
It sometimes flames resentment. It always wounds.
In his proposal to the staff, which happily embraced DOBs as a commodity, Poulin wrote that the human connection was something they "are providing on their own, but it is something that can be better articulated and worth not taking for granted." Listening to staff and refugees, "it became clear that there is a transformative impact staff have on individuals that can easily be underestimated and perhaps even unnoticed."
An impact that must never go away.1 comment on this story
DOBs aren't just something for refugees. As he talked about the idea, it occurred to me it might be a way out of our current political climate and the rifts that are cropping up all over the place in America. Lots of people fight these days over political philosophies and religious beliefs. There are rifts between races. We see divisions based on socioeconomics. We can't agree how much to help the frail, the disenfranchised, the poor and when we talk about solutions to some of our enduring challenges, choosing the path forward feels very tricky.
What I don't see is a single case where treating someone like a human, where showing caring and concern on a person-by-person basis, has any downside.
When I was little, someone pointed out that smiling truly comes more easily than frowning. I believe love is easier to maintain than hate. And I know that fanning hope feels good.
So a "dose of benignity" is something I'd most joyfully buy and distribute and be more than grateful to receive.