Uplifting Power of Beauty

“In the small bag that seldom leaves his shoulder as he traverses the dusty thoroughfares of his surrogate hometown, Younis carries a bottle of aftershave, a photographic portfolio and a copy of his CV.” When a reader sent me The Guardian article about a budding photographer and journalist, this sentence caught my attention. Younis, the protagonist of the story, is 19 years old; after he and his family fled Syria, they ended up in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp.

perfume

Reading about refugee camps in the news rarely conveys the reality on the ground. One, of course, realizes that life is difficult in the camp conditions, because the opportunities are limited, especially since most countries hosting refugees don’t allow them to move freely, to work, or to attend school outside whatever is provided inside the camp. In addition, relief agencies are so severely underfunded that many have been forced to cut food rations and close clinics. It means millions of displaced people suffer from malnutrition and illness.

Even more difficult to convey is the sense of loss and psychological suffering that people fleeing from their homeland experience. Although my family left Ukraine voluntarily and adjusted to life in the US, I still feel the lingering pangs of separation that will probably never disappear. After more than 20 years, I can describe in precise detail my old room, the pattern of shadows on the windowsill made by the grapevines and the exact smell of the bookshelf (dark chocolate and smoky vanilla).  Sometimes I dream of walking through the apartment my parents and I shared with my grandmother and uncle–the cramped, Khrushchev-era flat was no paradise lost, believe me, but I still wake up in tears from such dreams. I can’t imagine the magnitude of this pain when one is forced to leave everything behind and when the road back may not be possible.

Younis’s story touched me, because despite everything he went through, he doesn’t give up hope. He helps to run the camp’s magazine, interviews people about their stories and takes photographs to catalog the realities of life in Za’atari. His bottle of aftershave is close at hand, because it’s a reminder of normality, of life as it used to be, and a small but important pleasure.

There are those who like to discount such things as frivolous, but they’re the sort that haven’t experienced their powerful effect. This summer I volunteered in Ukraine, working with children, some of whom were refugees from the war torn regions, and I have seen again and again how important beauty can be to uplift one’s spirits, to let one dream, and even to soothe the pain. “My mom misses having a cup of coffee in our garden,” said a 7 year old girl to me, describing the garden they had to leave behind in Crimea, after it was annexed by Russia in 2014. We mixed together an orange cologne with a touch of black currant, and I will never forget the girl’s happy smile as she sniffed blotters and compared the mods. “Can we please add more of this?” she asked, picking up a bottle of rose absolute. “Our garden had many flowers!”

These past days have been enormously difficult–the tragic losses in Beirut and Paris, the attacks in Baghdad and Nigeria, the bombing of Syria, and the endless stream of depressing news. That’s when I’m reminded of the story of Younis and his bottle of aftershave. Even in the most difficult of times, art and beauty aren’t indulgences. They become more important than ever.

Thank you for the article link, Dana. I wish that all of Younis’s dreams will come true and that my little Crimean girl will find a way back to her rose filled garden.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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123 Comments

  • TJ: Such a lovely, touching essay. Thank you for writing it. November 20, 2015 at 7:39am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, TJ, and thank you for reading. November 20, 2015 at 8:24am Reply

  • Michaela: Deeply touching. As much as I appreciate your article, only the little girl adjusting perfume and the killing of Younis’ dog made me cry. There can be no return for them now. No doubt. But I hope things get normal someday for each and every person facing the same fate. November 20, 2015 at 7:55am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m sorry that it made you cry, Michaela. The girl I’m talking about is bright, and I’m sure she will have a good future where she will be. She said that she wants to be a perfumer. 🙂 November 20, 2015 at 8:24am Reply

      • Michaela: I hope she will 🙂 She shows talent already.
        You are perfectly right, art and beauty are essential for all of us to survive terrible times. November 20, 2015 at 9:27am Reply

        • Victoria: During the last lesson I gave before leaving, I brought with me a large bag of perfume samples, and it was so much fun watching the kids pick them out. Out of the things I brought, perfume samples and candies were the most popular. 🙂 November 20, 2015 at 1:40pm Reply

  • Katherine: Heartwrenching and beautiful thoughts Victoria. Reminds us how privileged we are to have just the basic comforts. Should propel some of us to help the Syrian refugees – despite the possible risk of evil-doers hiding among them. November 20, 2015 at 8:01am Reply

    • Victoria: If we think of them as humans, innocent people who suffer tremendous deprivations and loss, it would already help. November 20, 2015 at 8:17am Reply

  • Sandra: Beautiful essay and great article.
    There is much debate here in the states about letting refuges in. Seems like each state and each governor has their own views.

    I think the best reminder for us US citizens is the Statue of Liberty:” Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” November 20, 2015 at 8:48am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Sandra. It’s a beautiful reminder too. November 20, 2015 at 8:58am Reply

    • solanace: Thank you for writing that, Sandra. November 20, 2015 at 10:20am Reply

    • Joy: This is so appropriate during this time. Our politicians should have to take a boat ride out to read these words. Almost all of us in the U.S. have benefited from this philosophy. November 20, 2015 at 11:57am Reply

      • Victoria: Yes, very true! I know that I did. November 20, 2015 at 2:06pm Reply

      • Sandra: Your welcome. Living here in NYC it’s easy to remember her and all she stands for. November 20, 2015 at 2:59pm Reply

  • Danaki: Oh Victoria. Thank you so much for posting this. November 20, 2015 at 8:56am Reply

    • Victoria: I found the boy and his story so moving and inspiring. November 20, 2015 at 9:02am Reply

  • Karen (A): Thank you – simply thank you. November 20, 2015 at 9:03am Reply

    • Victoria: And thank you for taking a moment to read! November 20, 2015 at 9:10am Reply

  • frugalscholar: My daughter lived in Serbia for two years and visited one of the few remaining members of my family: my mother’s cousin’s widow, now in her 80s. She was in two concentration camps as a child and also lived through the political miseries of the region.

    She often took out an empty bottle of Fidji perfume to smell. We were able to send her a new bottle–I’m sure it doesn’t smell the same, but she was happy nonetheless.

    Thank you for a beautiful reminder. November 20, 2015 at 9:05am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, you made her very happy, I can just imagine it. What a touching story!

      My great grandmother kept a tube of red lipstick during WWII in her purse. In some photographs from the period she looks really thin, but she has a discrete dab of crimson on her lips. “It would boost my morale,” she said. November 20, 2015 at 9:20am Reply

      • Jane: I have read that when Belsen concentration camp was relieved, as well as special famine food being given to the remaining inmates to help them recover, a shipment of lipstick arrived. Although some people thought it a trivial gesture it made a huge difference to the moral and recovery of the women in the camp. November 23, 2015 at 5:31am Reply

        • Victoria: I remember reading a story about it someplace. Let me look for it. November 23, 2015 at 10:00am Reply

          • Victoria: Here it is, from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin:

            “It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

            http://www.bergenbelsen.co.uk/pages/Database/ReliefStaffAccount.asp?HeroesID=17& November 23, 2015 at 10:02am Reply

    • Michaela: What a beautiful idea for a perfect present! You were so kind and inspired! November 20, 2015 at 9:29am Reply

  • limegreen: Thank you for sharing this, Victoria. One hopes that the little girl and her dreams of recreating her garden, perhaps through perfume, will be a joyful path out of the distressing ones. November 20, 2015 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I very much hope so too! She was very good too and I loved her comments on scents. “Orange smells sweeter than lemon.” “Lavender smells like soap.” Very sweet. November 20, 2015 at 1:27pm Reply

      • limegreen: I hope you are safe, Victoria. The news doesn’t seem to be very good out where you are. November 21, 2015 at 12:26pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you, please don’t worry! I’m fine. November 21, 2015 at 12:29pm Reply

  • Lizbee: So beautifully put. I’m touched by both the beauty and the sadness in each person’s story as you’ve portrayed them here, including your own. Thank you for sharing this. November 20, 2015 at 9:21am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Lizbee. November 20, 2015 at 1:37pm Reply

  • Cricket: Thank you for this compassionate and well considered post. We all need to remember that refugees are people and families, children and elders like the rest of us who are now suffering things that we would never wish to know. Thank you Victoria. November 20, 2015 at 9:25am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with you completely. It was very sad to see children sleeping on the sidewalks, but whatever some of the local politicians say, it has been heartening to see Bruxelles residents organizing help, food, blankets. November 20, 2015 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Betsy: This is so powerful. I think this is why an assault on Paris is so symbolic…a city that represents beauty, style, art, intellect, philosophy, on and on… Holding on to all those powerful cores of life is not frivolous, it is everything. November 20, 2015 at 9:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Indeed. Not frivolous at all! November 20, 2015 at 1:41pm Reply

  • Julie: Dear Victoria,
    When I see the masses of people filmed on television my heart aches for their freedom and safety. I always try to hold back tears.
    A dear friend asked me years ago what I loved the most about this country (USA) my answer was freedom. A person feels helpless watching the news unfold. One thing I have learned is when our hearts break and we cry out, it is usually the best time to express our needs to God. Only He can change the heart of a man or woman.
    As the holidays approach I wish we all would continue to remember these people & pray for their future homes where ever that may be. Thank you, Victoria!
    Once again you have shared a beautiful article with us. 🙂 November 20, 2015 at 9:55am Reply

    • spe: Julie,

      Thank you for your beautiful words of truth.

      I thank God my grandparent’s families had the courage to immigrate to Canada. I thank God my parents immigrated to the United States of America.

      I pray that these refugees find peace and freedom and acceptance. The opportunity to find a better and safer existence.

      The world is experiencing tremendous challenges now – to our core values. I hope we make the right choices. November 20, 2015 at 12:25pm Reply

      • Victoria: The world is experiencing tremendous challenges now – to our core values. I hope we make the right choices.

        So very well said! November 20, 2015 at 2:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: Especially these days when there is so much suffering in many places in the world, it can make you feel helpless. For me, doing something, even if it was a little thing like organize play times or lessons for children, seemed like a good idea.
      Thank you, Julie. November 20, 2015 at 1:44pm Reply

  • solanace: Thank you for sharing your sensible thoughts on the ugly times we live, Victoria, and for the beautiful work you did in Ukraine, too. If there were more children learning how to mix perfume instead of being bombed, there would be less terrorists out there.

    I entirely agree with you, beauty is a priority now, for every human now, not something for the hypotetic people of the future. November 20, 2015 at 10:31am Reply

    • Victoria: It was nothing major, of course, but the kids were happy, and their parents had time off to take care of logistics, work, etc.

      I like how you put it–“a priority now, for every human now, not something for the hypothetic people of the future.” In Poltava, the town where my grandmother lives, musicians would organize free performances and singing events, and it was so wonderful. “Who has time for it right now?” grumbled my grandmother’s neighbor, and yet I saw her and her family at the performances on every occasion I went. 🙂 November 20, 2015 at 1:49pm Reply

      • solanace: Nice story, you truly give us a taste of Ukraine. I agree, people are thisty for beauty. In my experience, whenever there is a free or not too expensive interesting cultural event, people will attend massively. Even to lectures, if they sound promising. November 20, 2015 at 8:32pm Reply

        • Victoria: Over the summer I also traveled to different towns around my grandmother’s, and almost every place had a little museum, sometimes run out of private houses and showing nothing more than their grandmothers’ collection of embroideries. But it was so wonderful to meet people who were dedicated to their projects. November 21, 2015 at 1:25pm Reply

          • Solanace: Oh, I’d love to visit these little museums. Such collections offer a glimpse into people’s lives, specially of those quirky and often sweet aspects that tend to be forgotten by history books and big, curated expositions. I’m sure you had a blast!
            We now have a cool major here in Sao Paolo who’s been stimulating street artists to paint graffiti murals everywhere. It feels like the city is less suffocating, in a very empirical way. We sure need to breathe art, too! November 22, 2015 at 2:40am Reply

            • Victoria: I love spotting murals in different cities. I will have to look for some photos of Sao Paolo’s murals now. November 23, 2015 at 9:24am Reply

  • Alicia: A touching story with a profound truth in these heartbreaking times. Thank you, Victoria, for writing it. November 20, 2015 at 10:41am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for such warm comments! November 20, 2015 at 1:49pm Reply

  • Mare: So heart wrenching what good people have to go through because of the bad.

    I pray to God to touch the hearts of the terrorists who drove people like Younis’ family out. November 20, 2015 at 11:18am Reply

  • Scented Salon: These people, and the countless other refugees in the future and the past, will probably never get back their home comfort but they can still find peace in a new normal and create new traditions with a nod to the past that honors their struggles and their heritage. Many of us are immigrants, in one way or another, but frankly, that makes me feel more fortunate. I have ties and memories to something strong and I am very proud of my ancestors and my country. I don’t expect to feel as proud of my adoptive country as my original one, but there are good and bad things everywhere. I feel at home here, but a piece of my heart will always feel the bittersweet tug of my place of birth. These days there is so much travel and immigration that I suspect that notions of identity will become more fluid as time goes on and that can serve to unite all people and not divide them, as has happened in the past. After all, if I have neighbors from all over the world, it is really hard to maintain my prejudices because of my personal connection to many nationalities and religions within my own neighborhood. And that is a beautiful thing. November 20, 2015 at 11:24am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree, I know that my family is enormously fortunate. The opportunities I had in the US, I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. What I always liked about the US was the openness of the society, and the fact that although I wasn’t born there, I could easily feel at home and meet so many people from other parts of the world. So, for this and many other reason, the xenophobic discourse is distressing.
      But as you say, you still miss the place where you grew up. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Even longings like these can be inspiring or can be channeled into something creative. I instantly think of all the literature, music, poetry, paintings, and yes, perfume, that was inspired by such nostalgias. November 20, 2015 at 1:57pm Reply

  • Bernadette: Thank you, Vicotria, for sharing these thoughts. It helps bring empathy to and increase our awareness of what refugees go through & the fact that they are people–just like we are. A neuroscientist named Dr. David Eagleman studied how atrocities like genocide can happen & can it be understood as a neural phenomenon. He has a series on PBS & one of the videos talks about Empathy and how propaganda plugs directly into neural networks, enabling dehumanization & leads to the Massacre of Srebrenica (and others). Sad, but very interesting. By sharing the stories of refugees, hopefully this brings awareness and empathy that we lack. November 20, 2015 at 11:27am Reply

    • Victoria: In my work as a political scientist, one of the studies I’ve done was a research on the use of the political propaganda leading up to various atrocities, and yes, you see the pattern that you describe. The moment people become “the other,” they are dehumanized, and violence against them becomes much easier. Very sobering and so very frightening. November 20, 2015 at 2:04pm Reply

      • girasole: This phenomenon is often studied in my field (anthropology) also, and you’re right, it’s a frightening and slippery slope. But writing like yours is such a good reminder of our common humanity – it’s so important to spread such reminders as widely as possible. Thank you for writing such a tender and personal account. November 20, 2015 at 7:29pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you! Hearing the stories of others is what makes such sharing special. November 21, 2015 at 1:20pm Reply

  • Hamamelis: Thank you for these thoughts, and the humanity in them. I think your blog sends this message very consistently, that beauty is not a luxury, but it is a force, and to appreciate it is inherently human, and it puts us in contact with our humanity, and reminds us of home. November 20, 2015 at 11:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for these words and thank all of you for inspiring me to think beyond a bottle of perfume, so to speak. November 20, 2015 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Aurora: I’ll remember Younis and ‘your’ little girl for a long time to come, and hope they live in a better world soon. The UK government is only accepting a small number of refugees, at least it’s directly from the camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey where the most vulnerable people are located. My heart is very heavy after the Paris attacks but I consciously remind myself it doesn’t compare to the situation in other parts of the world. November 20, 2015 at 12:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that all of your friends and family in France are safe. I was with my French-Lebanese friends the week the attacks in Beirut and Paris happened. And as you might image, the mood in Brussels is very heavy these days. You can feel it.

      I was just reading that France is accepting refugees too. November 20, 2015 at 2:27pm Reply

      • Aurora: Thank you, Victoria my family is shocked but fine. Yes, it must be a very difficult situation in Belgium too. Keep safe.
        Indeed France is willing to take the quota allocated by the EU while the decision in the UK was to provide £1bn in aid to help the refugees directly in the camps but accept only a very small number. All my thank for making your blog such a wonderful forum. November 21, 2015 at 7:44am Reply

        • Victoria: It’s thanks to all of you. 🙂 November 21, 2015 at 2:13pm Reply

  • LenaD: I am surprised that you did not mentioned people on the Russian plane blown to pieces as a “tragic loss”.
    But other than that I agree with you! I slept on the floor in my room but continued treating myself to a the best tasting coffee I could find in United States. That was making me feel human again. November 20, 2015 at 1:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: I mentioned about the last week specifically, but unfortunately, the list can be expanded even more–a testament to the difficult period we live in. That catastrophe in October was horrible, and of course, it’s a tragic loss too. November 20, 2015 at 2:11pm Reply

      • Marion: If you were beholden to mention every unspeakable trajedy, you’d have to go back to many thousands of years, and countless millions of souls, and the despair and impossibility of such a task, to be sure no one is left unmentioned, is an act of inclusion that no one is capable of. No heart is that strong. No lifetime long enough. You’ve done a service in your piece that is invaluable. November 20, 2015 at 3:34pm Reply

        • Bernadette: Yes, Victoria–you have done more & continue to do more than most people. In helping others, I hope that keep up your own strength knowing how much we appreciate all that you do. You bring much beauty to us all! November 20, 2015 at 4:02pm Reply

          • Victoria: Thank you so much! It means a lot to me, and yes, your comments, emails, stories, the thoughts that you share on perfume and life in general are invaluable. November 20, 2015 at 5:57pm Reply

            • LenaD: I apologize, I did not mean my remark as an insult! I meant that there is a certain power in mentioning these multiple victims of terrorism in one article! And yes! I think a running list of all victims of terrorism on all continents, all countries, all nationalities and religions might help us to unite in order to defeat this ideology of terror! November 24, 2015 at 2:44pm Reply

              • Victoria: I didn’t take it as such, no worries. November 24, 2015 at 3:23pm Reply

        • Victoria: Just reading history books sometimes is hard enough. I’m reading William Dalrymple’s Return of a King, and while it’s a well-written, interesting book, it’s so depressing that I can only read it in small bits at a time. I also have a new book on Holocaust by Timothy Snyder on my desk. It’s important to know and remember, of course. November 20, 2015 at 5:56pm Reply

  • Stephanie: This was so moving. Thank you for sharing. November 20, 2015 at 1:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you too, Stephanie. November 20, 2015 at 2:28pm Reply

  • Joy: Thank you, Victoria for sharing your personal story and the story of the boy and girl. Art and education are what can make a difference in these awful times. I can’t even imagine the experiences that the refugees have except to know how frightening it must be. November 20, 2015 at 1:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t even imagine. When I read stories about people traveling in rubber boats even though they don’t know what awaits if they reach the shore, my heart breaks again and again. November 20, 2015 at 2:33pm Reply

      • spe: Yes – a testament to human will and hope. November 20, 2015 at 4:16pm Reply

        • Victoria: Indeed! November 20, 2015 at 6:36pm Reply

        • solanace: Sweet words I´ll try to see it that way. Your name is appropriate. November 20, 2015 at 8:43pm Reply

  • Marion: Thank you, thank you, for this beautiful piece about beauty, and its importance in such hard times. Please, never stop writing, sniffing, and delighting. November 20, 2015 at 3:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marion. It’s a reminder to myself too. November 20, 2015 at 5:44pm Reply

  • Shoshi: Also the attacks in Israel this week… November 20, 2015 at 4:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: Very sad. And now Mali. November 20, 2015 at 6:01pm Reply

  • Gabriela: Very moving this article. I sometimes ask myself wether I should have gone to Doctors Without Borders instead of settling down by getting married and having children.. The world needs so much help. November 20, 2015 at 5:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: There are numerous ways one can help, and it doesn’t have to be a binary choice. Plus, raising children is already a big and important task. November 20, 2015 at 6:04pm Reply

    • solanace: If you are even wondering that, I would bet you are raising awesome kids. November 20, 2015 at 8:45pm Reply

      • Victoria: I was thinking this too! November 21, 2015 at 1:25pm Reply

  • Bea: Moving essay Victoria, thank you for sharing!

    This was in the article in The Guardian: “to the man who makes perfumes from roses and wood in the camp”. There’s a perfume maker in the camp! I wonder if there’s a way to get him in contact with the perfume communities on social media, so we could support him by buying his scents.
    I started buying Savon d’Aleppo on a regular basis after the war started, just to help support their trade that they have kept going, even during the war, although I think that some companies operate from other countries now. November 20, 2015 at 5:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: I found this article from 2012. I don’t know what the situation is like today, since many of the agencies UN runs have been forced to reduce their ratios. They can’t raise enough money from their donors.
      Anyway, here is the piece:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/world/middleeast/market-rises-at-zaatari-camp-for-syrian-refugees.html

      “Maintaining a glimmer of hope and humor amid grim surroundings, Noor Ibrahim calls his wares “Eau de Liberty.” He stands ready to mix scents like “Red Angel” or “Night of Love” into spray bottles arrayed on a tray set atop an overturned garbage can between the endless rows of dusty tents here. He said he was making $8 to $14 a day.

      Selling perfume? In a refugee camp full of Syrians who had fled their country’s civil war?

      “People like to have a good scent in front of people in any culture,” said Mr. Ibrahim, 30. “There is no real hygiene here. Everybody smells. Sometimes, they spray their tent.” ” November 20, 2015 at 6:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: P.S. I have something on Savon d’Aleppo coming up. It’s a wonderful product in many respects, especially for those who have dry, sensitive skin. November 20, 2015 at 6:14pm Reply

      • Sandra: I want to know too! November 21, 2015 at 2:25pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’ll check on it! If anyone has any ideas on how to find out, of course, do share. November 21, 2015 at 2:30pm Reply

    • solanace: This is the best idea ever. This is a blind buy I would forever be proud of. How can we find this guy? November 20, 2015 at 8:49pm Reply

  • Maya: I have been enjoying your blog for the past three years and have never commented before. Your writing is eloquent, and poignant.
    I had a baby 8 months ago and have found that all of my fears, anxieties, and most painfully sadness about the world, have been magnified by a power of ten since he has taken his first breath. Now that I know what it means to raise a child and how it entails an endless amount of emotional investment, I ache even more when I hear about the untimely/ tragic death of anyone. I automatically think about the parent who changed countless diapers, woke up hundreds of times during the night, and had hoped for the best for their child. Ta Nahisi Coates wrote an open letter to his African American son that expresses my feelings perfectly. While it is intended to showcase the black-American experience it is universal in its application. Every human should read it and internalize its lessons. I feel helpless. My husband and I give ( modestly) to Doctors Without Borders and some other charities we deem important, I try to be kind to everyone I meet but I feel helpless and completely inept at combating all the hate. As the news is unfolding about the tragic deaths in Mali and more stabbings occurred in I steal, I am just very sad. November 20, 2015 at 5:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for reading and for sharing this story, Maya. I can only begin to imagine how having a baby changes your perspective on things, and that you already do something and reflect makes a big difference. Ultimately, there is within each one of us power to oppose to hate or injustice, whatever our means for doing so are. Your baby is lucky to grow up surrounded by love and to learn good lessons from you. That will make him stronger as he makes his way through life.

      I’m slowly working through Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate,” and I found this inspiring quote:
      “I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never by conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” November 20, 2015 at 6:26pm Reply

      • Bernadette: Fantastic! “Life and Fate” just became a must read. November 20, 2015 at 6:49pm Reply

    • solanace: When my first kid was born, I felt like that. Such an infinite love, you just can´t stand all the hate and stupidity in this world. I was feeling very sad one day when my mom, who is a migrant from a very poor region herself, told me something I remeber almost everyday. She said, ´It´s too heavy a load, because now you are one with every woman in the world who is carrying her child in exodus.´ Today this feels even more real than it did six years ago… and yes, maternity is too heavy, our hearts can barely stand such huge feelings, but we are together, Maya. We truly are and this, I believe, is what has been keeping this world afloat. There is not a single day I´ll get the bus with my kids and another woman will not activelly help me out.

      Victoria´s quote below made me cry like a baby, in the best possible way. November 20, 2015 at 9:18pm Reply

      • Victoria: Your mother is incredible. You’re fortunate to have such a role model in your life.

        Giving you a big hug. November 21, 2015 at 1:27pm Reply

    • Tiamaria: I understand the feeling Maya. I recently finished reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara in which one of the characters describes becoming a parent and says something to the effect that when you have a child, the world overnight transforms itself into an obstacle course of terrors! I rarely cried before he was born, now I cry during X factor! This post had me sobbing. When I hear such stories now I just think “what if my son had to go through this”. I try now not to put too much focus on the hate and focus more on all the people doing good. On how fortunate and grateful I am for the blessings I have and to be born where I was. Also 10 minutes meditation a day works wonders. Take care. November 21, 2015 at 7:34am Reply

  • Tati: Thank you for this, Victoria. My heart grows heavier each day watching the news, seeing the intolerance and fear that is growing. I think small, individual acts of bravery and kindness by each of us are the only real challenge to what is happening globally.

    I don’t know if this is appropriate here, but I’ve done a little early holiday shopping and bought books, Soup for Syria, for friends and family. It is a collaborative project by the Lebanese food writer, Barbara Abdeni Massaad, and all proceeds go to food relief for Syrian refugees. (I have no affiliation.) The link is: http://soupforsyria.com. November 20, 2015 at 9:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. What frightens me more than anything is the rise in intolerance and paranoia, along with the rhetoric that accompanies it. But when I see examples of kindness and selflessness, it makes me believe that everything will be well.

      Thank you for sharing Soup for Syria. I know Barbara Abdeni Massaad, and I have followed her project. She’s amazing and has such a big heart. (Also, she’s a talented photographer and has a few other cookbooks; I especially love her book on Lebanese preserves called Mouneh. If you like jams and pickles, it’s a worth checking out.) November 21, 2015 at 1:50pm Reply

  • Elizabeth S: It is very true that the little things are the glue that hold our day to day world together and are so evocative. I have had many family bereavements over the last 5 years, only my mother and my cousins left from the maternal side of the family but looking at a book containing my brother’s handwriting or smelling my grandmother’s perfume can bridge the gap and transport me back to a time where there was happiness and love and I had the joy of a family around me. I remember as a teenager meeting a lady who had been a survivor of a concentration camp. Somehow, she had managed to keep hold of her powder compact through all the time she was a prisoner. She like others, never knew from one day to the next if she would be killed and she told me that the powder compact kept her going because it represented the outside, life and the joy of getting ready to go out somewhere. She had to bury it to stop it being found or stolen but she would dig it up, touch it like a talisman then re-bury it. There is so much tragedy in the world right now but the human spirit is indomitable and people can and do get through this and build new lives. I saw that firsthand during my work in Africa but let’s all help each other as much as possible, refugee or not because kindness is what builds bridges and bonds. I hope the Younis’ and the little girls of this world have peace and stability soon. November 21, 2015 at 5:43am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very sorry that you experienced such losses, Elizabeth. What you say is very true, and I have experienced it myself again and again. The reminders, mementos or even something beautiful or meaningful can give one a tremendous boost. I was thinking about it today as I was sorting through the photos I took over the summer and found a picture of my grandmother as a young girl holding a bouquet of lilacs.

      Thank you for sharing this story and a reminder that we have to help each other as much as possible. November 21, 2015 at 2:01pm Reply

  • Alicia: Have just heard that Brussels is declared in severe and inmediate threat. High alert. This is very distressing. Thinking of you, dear Victoria. May God keep you safe. November 21, 2015 at 7:03am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your thoughts, Alicia. I’m fine. Life is going on anyway. November 21, 2015 at 2:02pm Reply

  • iodine: I’ll take some time to read with full attention your post and the comments. In the meanwhile I just want to send you a warm, protective hug, wherever you are, expecially if in Bruxelles. 🙂 November 21, 2015 at 7:05am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! I miss Milan and its perfume of iris and jasmine. 🙂 November 21, 2015 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Tiamaria: Thank you Victoria for such a thoughtful and important post. I know how heart wrenching it is to leave home and family to move to another country, but when my family did this when I was 14 we just bought plane tickets, and when things weren’t great we were able to return home. It was tough in those circumstances but to have to leave under the circumstances of the refugees, risking everything including their lives, I just can’t imagine. November 21, 2015 at 7:20am Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t agree more. I also can’t even begin to imagine it. November 21, 2015 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Maya: Victoria, thank you for this wonderful quote, I have transferred it to my notebook of interesting quotes and idioms so I can reflect on it and incorporate it into my thinking. I’ve also downloaded a sample of “Love and Fate” to my Kindle. Solance, I have done the same with your mother’s profound saying.
    Tiamaria, I think I should incorporate at least ten minutes a day for meditation and to think more about the kindness that exists in the world.
    Years ago I read the book “And the Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years” by the late Kyrgyz author, Chinghiz Aitmatov. It is a great reminder of how friendship and kindness can endure even under brutal regimes-in this case the USSR. I highly recommend it. November 21, 2015 at 9:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for mentioning Aitmatov’s book. I’m not familiar with his writing, so it might be a good introduction. November 21, 2015 at 2:17pm Reply

    • Tiamaria: I’m going to look up that book Maya. Thanks for the recommendation. For meditation I find the Head Space app fantastic and easy to incorporated into a busy day. November 22, 2015 at 6:03am Reply

  • Kate: Such a beautiful, moving and compassionate article. Thank you for posting it. I’m reminded of my grandmother’s recollections of trying to have a little glamour in her life during the bad days of WWII. Women still liked to wear their lipstick and even when nylons were unavailable would draw a seam up the backs of their bare legs so that it looked as if they were wearing stockings. In situations that seem to conspire to dehumanise, to hang on to self-respect, pride in one’s appearance, and the so-called ‘trivialities’ are a mark of resistance to dehumanisation.

    There was a lovely article by Sali Hughes in the Guardian last week that emphasised just this: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/nov/14/beauty-how-makeup-can-help-at-hardest-times-in-life

    And I applaud you, Victoria, for expressing so eloquently that these people are human beings suffering war trauma and the horrendous trauma of deracination and exile, when so much of our media seek to foster suspicion and fear. November 21, 2015 at 1:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for this and for putting it so succinctly and powerfully, Kate. I also liked Sali Hughes’s article. As a saying goes, it’s the small joys that comprise big happiness. November 21, 2015 at 2:29pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, thank you so much for this post. Younis’ story is very sad but yet uplifting…the resilience and spirit of humans and yet the evil of some. November 22, 2015 at 11:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s so true! November 23, 2015 at 9:54am Reply

  • Nemo: Adding my thanks for your touching essay. It has made me think harder about appreciating beauty in my own life without guilt, and also makes me hope that one day I can help others find beauty in small things too. I loved your story about the little girl making perfume-it sounds like your samples went to very good homes 🙂 November 22, 2015 at 11:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: One shouldn’t feel guilty about spending time on yourself or enjoying little pleasures, be a visit to a museum, a good book, a new lipstick or a few drops of favorite perfume. There are always people eager to pontificate how you can spend that money on something grander, but the truth is that small things makes the biggest difference and having grand goals and taking care of yourself aren’t mutually exclusive. November 23, 2015 at 9:58am Reply

  • Trish: I have so many perfume and beauty product samples. I would love to share them with people who are in need of touches of beauty in their lives. Any idea how to go about sending them somewhere? A contact in Ukraine maybe? November 23, 2015 at 1:37am Reply

    • Karima: Great idea, I would also like to send my perfume samples there! November 23, 2015 at 7:20am Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you very much, Karima. I will keep in touch. November 23, 2015 at 10:00am Reply

    • Victoria: Trish, you’re so generous! Let me find out how it can be arranged best. Otherwise, I will contact you before I leave for Ukraine, which would be the easier way to do it. November 23, 2015 at 9:58am Reply

      • Trish: That would be great! Sending them to you sounds perfect. Just keep me posted.

        XOXO November 23, 2015 at 10:17am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you again, Trish. I will do! November 23, 2015 at 5:05pm Reply

  • Daisy: Thank you for sharing this, Victoria. It was incredibly touching and made me think of my own family and what they left behind. I don’t know much about my father’s side of the family, but my mother’s side of the family was heavily persecuted when the Communists came into power; almost everything they had was taken away from them.

    Once my grandmother finally made it to Hong Kong, everyone thought she had lost her mind because the first thing she did was buy a fur coat. A fur coat with silk lining! Can you imagine???

    After the PRC was established, her home was claimed by party officials, her family was broken up and her children had to be sent away. Many family members and friends were killed, and she herself was sent to a labor farm. Finally free, I think that buying that coat was just a way for her to feel like herself again: normal, attractive, and even hopeful.

    As you point out, beauty isn’t frivolous. There are so many ugly things happening in the world today, why not try to hold onto something that reminds you of something better?

    (and on a side note, we are following the news closely here in NYC. Our thoughts are with you in Belgium!) November 24, 2015 at 12:13am Reply

    • Victoria: Daisy, this is such a great story, and your grandmother sounds like a strong, resilience person. The coat seems very symbolic too.

      These past days I have been reading books my grandmother gave me from her library while wearing my brightest red lipstick. Red is the most uplifting of colors for me, while the scent of old books is better than any perfume.

      Thank you very much for your thoughts. Just hope that metro gets running soon and things resume their usual schedule. November 24, 2015 at 11:01am Reply

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