It’s hard, returning.

Just over two months ago, I pedalled through the green countryside of an English spring, and wondered about the unknown world I was headed for: the Central African Republic, spiralling out of control with ethnic-related violence.

And now, as I walk down a wooded Devon lane splashed with pink campions and the last of the bluebells, with the sound of the surf breaking on the beach below me, I try to adjust to the peaceful world I find myself in once again. A short flight has transported me back to a different planet: to a world not punctuated with the daily rattle of gunfire, with heavy armoured cars filled with troops rolling past, with endless tales of tragedies, of families slaughtered, of whole villages wiped out, their remaining inhabitants hiding in the bush. A world where I don’t hear a woman, expressionless and hunched, telling of being gang raped. Where I don’t see men damaged, physically and mentally, by torture too appalling to relate. Where women rarely die in childbirth, where wounds don’t fester till limbs need amputating, where tiny babies don’t die from malaria because they can’t get medical assistance in time.

But this was the world I was living in, 100% immersed in as in a bubble, the outside world increasingly sidelined. Now that I’m back in that other world, what should be my “real” world, I am finding it totally alien. I am no longer sure who I am, where I fit in, where I belong. Outwardly I must look much the same: a bit thinner, a lot more tired, a bit older in these two months, but basically the same, the same mother, the same friend. But inside – how can I be the same? I almost feel I’m two different people, the Ali who lives in the English countryside and blends in, albeit chameleon-like; and MSF Ali.

“I can’t do normal,’ said Juliette Binoche, or words to that effect, acting the part of a war photographer in a recent film and trying to fit in back in her Irish home. Normal seems so – well, abnormal. And it’s hard to relate to people who haven’t been through these experiences, who cannot visualise what we have seen and done, and so are hardly interested. “I sometimes want to say I work in a biscuit factory making Jammy Dodgers,” a dear MSF friend of mine said recently. “Anything to avoid having to say those three letters, that no-one can really understand.”

So how do we cope with this returning, this adjustment that we must all make? What is the secret to being able to live successfully in two such very different environments, moving between the two and adapting to each, but remaining grounded and integrated? This is my tenth mission, but I still find the adjustment hard. I want to absorb all I have seen and done, be aware of all I have learned, allow it to reshape me, not break me.

It seems there are no easy answers, no magic potions. But today, as I lay in the evening sunshine on a shingle beach, it gradually felt as if the swoosh of the breaking surf and the gentle sea breeze that swept over me were amalgamating the fragmented parts of myself, uniting them into one whole. A whole that has changed, but is stronger, richer and wiser.

And ready for another mission.


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4 Responses to Returning

  1. Hi Ali – came to your blog via Discover, and I’m glad I did! Reading this post makes me think of people who leave home, even for uni or living abroad, and then have to find their place in the jigsaw of home life again, even though their edges have reshaped, smoothed or extended. I suppose everyone around you has to shift around a little to make room for your new/same self – which I think is a good thing, for them and for you, mainly because we do tend to ‘fix’ people in our imaginations, when all of us are fluid, Ariel-like creatures at heart. You probably are at least 2 different people – the Ali of the English countryside, the MSF Ali and a few other Ali’s that you’re not trying to be at the moment.

    I’ll stop here – because long comments from a new reader are always a bit of a shock! I hope you’ve found a way to be all the different/same Ali’s.
    Best wishes

    • Hi Elaine – thank you for your very empathetic reply to my blog on returning to “normal” life from a humanitarian mission. Beautifully put. It is indeed a jigsaw, though at best a watery one where the pieces have the ability to reshape themselves to fit in place, or to allow a newly-shaped piece to re-find its place. I am about to find out how this piece of the jigsaw, changed yet again by all I have seen and heard of the tragedy that is Syria, can fit in.

      • Hi Ali – I think one of the trickiest things is registering the subtle changes that have taken place in the lives of those who haven’t been away. Whenever I’ve lived away from the UK, my idea of ‘home’ gets a bit fossilised, for good or ill, and it becomes a touchstone, not a living thing.

        I’d guess that part of the challenge, for you, is that your neighbours, friends and family will ‘know’ something about Syria from the media, but the things they ‘know’ won’t be the things that you’ve seen. It’s a bit like going away on a package holiday – yes, the hotel looks like the photos in the holiday brochure, but only from a certain angle and in a certain light.

        The place that you’re from will have framed your response to the places you’ve been, and will have travelled with you. So you’ve never been too far from your own history and your own roots.

        And as far as settling into your ‘normal’ life, I’m sure you’ve heard the Arabic saying: ‘the soul travels at the speed of a trotting camel’. I’ve always thought it wonderfully expresses that delay in feeling fully yourself after physically arriving anywhere by plane and train. Your soul takes a while to catch up. And there’s all that Channel swimming for a travelling camel!

        All best wishes

      • I love it! No, I hadn’t heard it. When I feel adrift, as usual, I will realise that it’s just because the camel is still swimming….
        Thank you!

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