April 14, 2016

What Refugee Children Taught Me about Birthday Parties.

"Syrian Refugee," Bengin Ahmad, Flickr

Yesterday, my youngest daughter turned three. To celebrate, we did very little.

It was quite a departure for the former Birthday Mad Mother, who had been known to go to such lengths as making customized printed invitations and hiring marquees or halls and bouncy castles.

At the pinnacle of my madness I engaged my cousin to help ice cupcakes for a zoo-themed party, whereby each stroke was to look like a blade of grass. Do you have any idea how many hours this takes when there are in excess of 40 cupcakes to be prepared? And in stark contrast, how little time it takes for 40 beautiful cupcakes to be smeared over little faces and any nearby furniture?

When I think about it now, I laugh, because it’s hard to believe that this level of detail really mattered to me—and that anyone was willing to indulge me in this insanity.

It’s fair to say that my perspective on a lot of things has changed since I left my marriage and became a solo parent to three children almost two years ago.

I would also say that my stance yesterday was a direct result of my experiences as a volunteer within the refugee crisis over the last eight months. Just last week, while my children holidayed with their dad, I was in Greece packaging up bags of milk formula to be passed through the wire fence of a detention centre.

Doing this kind of work will change a person.

I believe in celebrating birthdays. I always have. It’s a time of year to take stock of milestones and to be grateful for that person’s existence. As a parent, it’s an opportunity to reflect on all your child has accomplished thus far, and to dream about what their future may hold.

So this year, like every year, we celebrated. But unlike other years, this birthday was spent only with our small family of four. My eldest daughter and I hung bunting around the lounge the night before. There were wrapped presents on the table for my daughter to wake up to. There was plenty of regular food to be eaten and many hugs to be shared. In the evening, we toasted with banana milk in real glasses and chocolate cake on plastic plates.

It was simple, but it was special, and everyone went to bed satisfied.

In my former life, I would have spent the day so busy worrying about the details and all the guests that I would have missed the beautiful moments of connecting with my child.

As a parent, I understand full well the temptation to want to give your child everything—to host the biggest parties and to be known as the family that gave the best goodie bags. As if all this were in some way a reflection of how much love you have for your child.

But, in my volunteering work I have seen children, with nothing to speak of, find moments of happiness in the simplest pleasures. This has made me reassess my own life criteria.

Refugee children have taught me that moments of being present are worth more than the presents and the fuss.

It is a lesson that I hope to live, to teach my children and to share with others.


Some of my friends, with shared volunteering experiences, are taking their learning a step further. They are now on a mission to bring a consistent supply of nourishing food to refugee camps in Europe. If you wish to support them to help refugee children and adults alike, please click here.


Author: Vanessa Marjoribanks 

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Bengin Ahmad/Flickr


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