When my husband, Hadi, and I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, I volunteered at an internado for girls. It wasn’t quite an orphanage. Most of the children had a parent or a grandparent who were unable to care for them due to poverty or addiction. I believed then that my motivations for volunteering were selfless. It had nothing to do with the loneliness of living in a foreign country or being away from family for the first time. I simply had time on my hands, and I wanted to make a difference.
I did not know then that I was stepping into a bottomless pit of need, that the longer I volunteered there the more layers and layers of things I had no power to fix I’d uncover. The homes the girls went back to on the weekend were broken, the discipline system at the internado was broken, their schools were broken, their friendships with each other were broken, their shoes were broken, and their hearts had been broken time and time again.
During those years, I felt guilty for everything. My bed, my space heater, my shower, my clothes, my washer and dryer, my childhood, my education, my parents, my husband. I had so much. Too much.
At home, I told Hadi stories about the girls. Some nights the bleakness of internado life consumed me, and I wept. On those nights, I wanted to shake Hadi. He needed to care about the girls like I did. He needed to suggest we adopt poor Rosa who had no relatives that visited her on the weekends – when he didn’t, I asked him what he was made of, how he could listen to me and not want to at least bring Rosa home. And then we’d argue because he had the annoying habit of bringing in practical considerations like that we lived in Mexico because he was a medical student, that I was only eleven years older than Rosa, not nearly enough of an age difference between a parent and child. Then there the was the detail that we had no income, that his parents were still supporting us.
Everything he said was true, but I didn’t know what else to do with the love I felt for those girls. I believed if I truly cared then I had to do something grand, something heroic to save at least one of them. Going back to a life of only loving him and our future children felt insular and selfish. I’d been given a glimpse of a world of hurt, and I couldn’t just walk away from everything I’d seen, everything I knew.
But over time all that unboundaried caring paralyzed me. When I tried but couldn’t change the punitive discipline system at the internado, I felt like too much of a failure to face the girls. I found myself going to the internado less and less and then feeling worse and worse about my absence. But in that space, I finally starting asking myself different questions about my presence at the internado, things like, what if I can’t change any of their lives, but I can make one day better? What if all I do is make them smile once? Is that enough? Is that worth going? The answer always came back a resounding yes.
Sometimes the bigger the need, the smaller our actions need to be. Letting go of trying to fix the internado freed me. The less emotionally involved I was with the girls, the more I could teach them and the less I resented my husband for not caring enough. I wish I’d known then that enjoying my life with my spouse didn’t mean I was putting the causes I cared about last, that nurturing a loving relationship with my partner had its place among things that are good for the world. It counted as something.
There is a lesson in this that I am trying to remember right now. The world is on fire, and I feel that all too familiar sense of survivor’s guilt resurfacing. As an Iraqi-American, I am no stranger to watching my parents’ country fall to rubble on the news. From our living room, we watched the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and now we watch ISIS brutally slaughtering its way through parts of Iraq. When Iraq is on the screen, we feel guilty for our beds, for our meals, for our medicines and hospitals, for our schools, for the electricty powering up our homes and cities. I look around me and think everything I have is an accident of my birthplace, the result of a choice my father made decades ago—to do his medical training in the West, to stay in his adopted country and raise his family.
With the concurrent crises in Gaza, Syria, and the Ukraine, the Ebola breakout in West Africa, those same questions I asked myself while I was volunteering at the internado have resurfaced. How can my family go out to eat, do our back to school shopping, take that one last summer road trip, when the world is burning? The guilt has stained even my practice of gratitude. There is a bitterness to thanking God for sparing us what others have to endure.
But thinking about the internado reminds me of this: Sometimes you have to stand back from the madness and feel just how small you are. You have to say Allahu Akbar and contemplate what those words mean. God is bigger than me, bigger than this. You do what you can to help. It may not change anything on a grand scale, but it’s something and better than indifference. And then you close the door to the room in your heart that stores all your causes and all your hopes and wishes for the world, and open the door to your family. Love your spouse. Love your children. Love your parents. This is peace, too.
Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place,and Beyond Belief. Other works have recently appeared in The Rumpus Funny Women Column and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. Her poem, TV Terror, is part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship, a program of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, made possible by the generous support of Cuyahoga County citizens through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.