She Is My Sister, and Yours: Listening to the Periphery

By: Kristine Kalanges

November 30, 2021

Creating a Culture of Encounter

The week took an unexpectedly frightening turn, as I read the international headlines. Several people in a conflict zone had been arrested, seemingly because of their ethnic identity. I reached out to a friend of mine living in the affected city. She, too, shares the increasingly criminalized ethnic identity, and I wondered if she had been taken. Not yet, it turned out, but as we conversed across time zones on Zoom, an extraordinary story emerged.

Elizabeth (not her real name) is a disabled woman living in the Global South. Like countless others, she contracted polio as a child, which left her without the use of her legs. In her culture, disability is considered a sin. Additionally, as with many developing countries, parents may lack financial resources, medical assistance, or specialized services to care for their disabled children. Often, they are left at orphanages. That was the case for Elizabeth, who was raised by nuns until war came to their doors. The military took over her orphanage, and because she lacked the physical ability to flee, she was left behind. The commander of the military unit used to beat her, but she was also somewhat protected by a Good Samaritan—another member of the military unit, of a different ethnic background, who used improvised sign language to communicate with her. 

Concerned for her safety, I asked whether she had a plan to get out. She does, but increasingly, she does not think she will go. Why not? 

Eventually, Elizabeth was adopted by foreigners, and through an amazing journey that she believes cannot be explained by hard work alone, she completed school. After, she returned to her home country to be an advocate for the disabled. Currently, Elizabeth works for a high-profile policy organization, which has not shielded her from persistent discrimination based on her disability and lack of family prestige or connections. Now, as conflict returns to her region, there is something else “wrong” with her—her ethnicity—and this could cost Elizabeth her freedom or even her life. Concerned for her safety, I asked whether she had a plan to get out. She does, but increasingly, she does not think she will go. Why not? 

A disabled child in wheelchair at an IDP camp in Darfur (2012). Photo by Albert González Farran – UNAMID via Flickr.
A disabled child in wheelchair at an IDP camp in Darfur (2012). Photo by Albert González Farran – UNAMID via Flickr.

Elizabeth has found her purpose in advocating for others with disabilities. Her current job gives her a seat at the table when policies and guidelines for responding to humanitarian crises are formulated and revised. She uses that seat, her voice, to speak for the disabled in refugee camps (which she visits regularly)—offering the incomparable testimony and knowledge of someone who has herself lived something of what they suffer. Elizabeth does not know whether her region is facing, as she described it, another Rwanda or something more protracted like Syria. But despite the very real personal risk, she has a growing conviction that, left behind in the first war, she should stay for the coming one to make sure the disabled are not forgotten.

Despite the very real personal risk, she has a growing conviction that, left behind in the first war, she should stay for the coming one to make sure the disabled are not forgotten. 

Whether she ultimately stays or is forced to flee, Elizabeth is a beautiful and courageous person. She is also angered by injustice and deeply anguished: “Why can’t people see the disabled as equally human?” Elizabeth does not want “to be a pity.” She wants—and deserves!—to be respected as a human being, equal in dignity to the able-bodied. She identifies strongly with Pope Francis’ call for peaceful, fraternal coexistence of peoples amidst their differences, repeating the word “coexistence” not just in conceptual affirmation, but as a social and political antidote to war and discrimination. As I listened to her, so often it seemed that the most appropriate response was silence. I also had the growing sense that Elizabeth is a living icon of Fratelli Tutti and the culture of encounter. 

As Pope Francis writes in that encyclical: “War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil. Let us not remain mired in theoretical discussions… Let us ask the victims themselves. Let us think of the refugees and displaced, those who suffered the effects of atomic radiation or chemical attacks, the mothers who lost their children, and the boys and girls maimed or deprived of their childhood. Let us hear the true stories of these victims of violence, look at reality through their eyes, and listen with an open heart to the stories they tell” (FT, 261).

Syrian man with prosthetic legs in Reyhanli, Turkey (2019). Photo by Diego Cupolo ©2019 European Union via Flickr.
Syrian man with prosthetic legs in Reyhanli, Turkey (2019). Photo by Diego Cupolo ©2019 European Union via Flickr.

Elizabeth has a story to tell, and it is important that we listen. She has lived and worked in the periphery. She sees “aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made” (FT, 215). She knows that humanitarian corridors have limits: How are refugees to flee war zones if they are elderly, fragile, unable to see the road, unable to walk? We need to learn from Elizabeth’s perspective on how to build a more just and equitable global society—one in which people of different ethnicities live peacefully together and the disabled are valued and included. 

Elizabeth is my sister, and yours. If she is not well, then neither are you and I. Recognizing that we are part of one human family, children of God the Father, is essential to creating a culture of encounter.

Elsewhere, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the Holy Father remarked: “We renew our gaze of faith, which sees in every brother and sister the presence of Christ himself, who considers each gesture of love for one of the least of his brothers to be made for himself (cf. Gospel of Matthew 25:40). On this occasion, I would like to recall that the promotion of participation rights today plays a central role in fighting against discrimination and fostering the culture of encounter and quality of life.”

There is a beautiful greeting in Southern Africa. In response to being asked about how you are, the reply is: “I am well if you are well.” Elizabeth is my sister, and yours. If she is not well, then neither are you and I. Recognizing that we are part of one human family, children of God the Father, is essential to creating a culture of encounter. And the peripheries we need to visit, the stories we need to hear and to share, may be across an ocean…or simply across the room.

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