Image by the author Sarra A.
Imagine growing up in an environment where kindness was a foreign concept? Imagine knowing nothing else beyond the boundaries of your home? Imagine what it takes to escape, at only 21, with no money and no job, just a desire for freedom ...
It hadn’t quite sunk in yet; the magnitude of what I had done, what I left behind and what it meant for the future.
I had just moved out of my father’s house, finally taking a stand against his control. I kept telling myself that I outsmarted him, that I broke free, that I was finally in control of my own life; that he no longer owned me.
I was still in denial about the fact that what I escaped was, in fact, abuse - no matter how I tried to sugarcoat it. And during some of my darkest moments … moments when I felt there was no way out except THAT way out, I tried to stay strong by affirming that I will overcome my situation.
“You are NOT a victim. You are tough. You got this.” I often told myself.
I could do this on my own. I WILL make it on my own. I had to because there was no other choice. I was not going to let THAT choice be my only choice.
In reality, overnight, I had become homeless, jobless, penniless … and without a family. In moments of weakness and fear, I often thought about the next best alternative to taking my own life … I thought about going back. Maybe he would take me back? Wouldn’t it be better than the feeling of humiliation that came over me every time my hosts looked at me? The pity (and often unspoken disgust) I felt in their stares was something I could not bear. I had just made the biggest decision of my life and I felt a sense of terrified yet deep empowerment. Their pity was NOT going to take that away from me … Plus, going back to him would come with consequences. Major consequences.
In the guest room of my hosts’ apartment where I stayed, I often stood in front of the mirror saying over and over again, “You can do this on your own Sarra. You got this.”
But, I couldn’t do it on my own. I had no money and no job to sustain myself. We tend to forget that no matter how strong we think we are; we still need people. We still need help, even if we don’t like admitting to it.
One of my ‘saviours’ was an unlikely one. His name was Karl. He was my manager from my last place of employment. Working with him, I did not find our interactions pleasant. I just could not warm up to him. He was a man of small physical stature and a quiet demeanor. His manner was cold and uninviting, and in his business dealings I naively sensed ruthless ambition (something I despise in people to this day).
Yet, he was one of few – and unlikely – people to extend a helping hand to me. He was aware of my situation, seeing so many warning signs – and incidents – over the course of my work. Instead of ignoring my plight, Karl stepped in to help.
Karl regularly checked up on me, made sure I was comfortable where I was staying, bought me a mobile phone and gave me money whenever he could – which was on a regular basis – to sustain myself. He tried to help me leave the country to join my mother, making endless calls to people in high places to find a solution to my problem (which was further complicated by legalities of residencies and work permits) … and he was always there for me whenever I needed to talk.
I felt a deep sense of guilt and shame for not seeing past his cold façade and for judging him so harshly. I heard through the grapevine that my father thought I ran off with him. I laughed when I heard. But then again, why was I surprised? How could someone so cruel begin to even comprehend that people can be kind to those in need without expecting anything in return?
"“You are NOT a victim. You are tough. You got this.” I often told myself."
I should explain that, not once, not ever, has Karl ever acted in a way that was untoward with me. I still did not understand his motives, but I was desperate for help and I couldn’t afford to think of what he could possibly want from me. I was just very thankful for the people that did everything they could to offer me help in my time of need, Karl included.
“How are they treating you?” He asked about my hosts during one of his regular check-in calls.
“I don’t know. It’s okay, I guess.” I was careful not to bash my hosts. I could not afford to lose my lodging. What if they overheard?
“I think it would do you some good to go out. Up for dinner?” He said after a brief pause.
“Yes, please. It would be nice to change some scenery.” He got the hint. I needed to talk.
We went to one of those restaurants that gave the illusion of fine-dining but was serving glorified fast food. You know, the ones where you get burgers cut up on a plate with salads smothered in balsamic vinegar on the side and your fries seasoned with sea salt.
So that’s what I ordered. It was either that or pasta with a fancy name. He ordered a steak. I figured a burger would be cheaper. He was paying after all. Not that it mattered. If I offered to pay, it would be with money HE gave me. I tried to hide my discomfort at being helpless and dependent on his charitable gestures. As I made the order, I handed the menu back to the waiter and thanked him with a smile that I felt did nothing to hide the feeling of inadequacy that was currently coursing through me.
As we waited for food to arrive, we talked about my hosts; how they were generous enough to board me but that their backhanded remarks about my presence were becoming uncomfortable. How the lady of the house expected me to do all the chores around the house and sent her cleaning lady away. How they would only want to use the room I was sleeping in while I was sleeping. And how I needed to hold on until things were resolved.
“I know it’s hard, but this will all change soon. Just try and hold on.”
“Oh, I’m fine.” I waived my hand dismissively, hoping that in my helpless state, I did not appear so helpless.
“No, you’re not.” His face was more serious than it normally was. He leaned over the table, linking his hands together in the process. I could not afford to feel the full extent of my situation. I was NOT going to cry in public.
“I mean I will be okay. I’m sure there is light at the end of the tunnel.” I nodded a little, letting my guard down while not fully admitting defeat.
This made him seem to relax a bit. He sat back in his chair and sighed heavily. “Yes, there will be. But I just want you to be ready for everything else you will face later. What you are going through is not easy.” He looked at me again. “I have no doubt you will be okay, but you will need therapy later.” I nodded slowly. I would not understand why he would think so until decades later. But for now, my immediate concern was to hold it together and to make it out of this intact, mentally at least.
As the food arrived, I was thankful for the silence. I needed to forget everything. I needed to disconnect and enjoy this meal without thinking about everything that was happening to me and around me. But I could not stop thinking about how a man who appeared to be as disconnected and solitary as he was, would have such an enormous capacity for kindness and generosity.
Looking at this man that I didn’t really like in the past, realizing how wrong I was about him and how he had the biggest heart, I was finally beginning to understand what it meant when people say to “never judge a book by its cover”.
"I could not stop thinking about how a man who appeared to be as disconnected and solitary as he was, would have such an enormous capacity for kindness and generosity."
A short time later, things were finally starting to look up. I found employment and I moved out of my hosts’ apartment. The reality of what I had lost and what I had gained in exchange was finally sinking in. I was free and slowly getting back on my own two feet … I felt empowered again and I wanted more than anything to give back. But how, when I owed so many people so much?
I finally worked up the courage to email Karl. I tried to be upbeat, asking how he was and updating him with everything I was doing now; the new job, the fact that I was okay (and not in need of therapy as far as I’m aware), but most importantly, that I now had money and that I wanted to pay him back.
The response I got was not what I was expecting. As I clicked on his reply to my email, I kept on staring at the screen, reading then re-reading his reply again and again . . .
“You don’t owe me anything. All I ask is if you meet someone who needs help the way you needed help, that you help them the way I helped you.”
I cried like I never cried before that day. In fact, I cried for days on end. I was overcome with so many emotions I could not explain to myself and I could not understand his capacity for THAT much generosity.
I promised myself that day that I would be kind and generous to anyone who needed me. I found myself staring at my reflection in the mirror of my bedroom in my new place and promising myself out loud that I will share what I can and be as kind and generous with my actions, feelings and possessions as he was with me.
“It’s amazing how people are put in your path when you least expect it. I don’t know how I would have survived any of this without all the people who helped me. Someone somewhere is watching over me.” I said to a close friend – one of my many saviours – over coffee years later.
My friend replied, “Good friends are the universe’s apology for bad family. They are the family you choose.” To this day, I have not been able to find words more eloquent than hers to describe the unlikely saviors who have crossed my path … time and time again.
The truth is, your belief system doesn’t matter; whether you believe in God, Buddha, a higher power or the universe as a whole, kindness is all around you. It comes in all shapes and forms and sometimes, it comes from the most unlikely people and sources.
Have faith, be kind and remember that we need each other even if we look tough on the outside. Even at the lowest moments of life – and there will be many – remember to show kindness to others and yourself in whichever way you can. You never know whose life you can change … or save.
A decade and a half later, I still try to operate from a place of kindness, compassion and generosity, hoping that in one way or another, I would be somehow able to repay Karl’s, and others’, kindness towards me.
“May you always continue to be kind and find kindness in return.” - Unknown