Nemia Temporal’s Tears for Refugee Mothers

My two weeks in Orvieto, Italy at the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma provided plenty of memorable moments.

One of the most vivid came during a second-week lecture on the subject of attachment.

The professor was an elderly Italian gentleman who showed us a clip of a mother breast-feeding a three-month-0ld baby in her home, then another clip of the baby at 1-year-old.  He explained that there had been violence in the home in the intervening nine months and pointed out that the now older child demonstrated less attached behavior than he had at three months.

The video and the whole direction of the presentation elicited a lot of comment and frustration.  Some group members expressed dismay that fathers were not included in the study, but the work purported to make general statements about attachment and parenting.  Others did not seem to respond well to the professor’s answer that some people are made uncomfortable by the sight of mothers breast-feeding their children.

Then Nemia rose to speak.

A diminutive Filipina who has worked in more than 70 countries during her past quarter century’s employment at the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, she currently directs a camp in Uganda that holds 130,000 people.  Nemia has a disability and walks with great effort and a pronounced limp.

Unfailingly pleasant and humble, she looked almost surprised at the wave of emotion that came over her as she started to speak.

Tears started to pool in her eyes.  Nemia tried in vain to hold them down, then apologized for her lack of composure.

She attempted to speak again.

More tears.

A respectful  hush filled the room.

Finally, like a boxer after an eight count, she steadied herself and started to speak.

She spoke about the pain of the mothers who did  not eat or drink for a month before arriving at the refugee camp.  She talked about how they stagger into the camp, barely alive.  And she described their agony at having survived the harrowing ordeal, only to discover that they had no milk with which to feed their children.

Nemia eventually finished her statement, the group clapped appreciatively and the lecture resumed its grinding and ponderous pace.

But the memory of Nemia’s compassion remained, for me and all who were there and open to receiving the power of the moment.

Long after the memory of the taste of the rabbit and the flush of the fine wine we drank has faded, I’ll remember Nemia’s empathy and courage, and be grateful I was in the room.


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