The ‘Little Match Girls’ of the MENA region

12 October 2020
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Updated 12 October 2020

The ‘Little Match Girls’ of the MENA region

The current global crisis provoked by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has severely impacted every aspect of our lives, including the economy and mental health. Although the world is now navigating this pandemic with as much grace and optimism for the future as possible, it has undoubtedly left its mark, especially impacting the vulnerable — the homeless, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), who have no access to clean water, shelter or means to follow social distancing rules.
In connection with the challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in Sudan due to recent floods, especially those who ended up being internally displaced, I would like to discuss Cameron’s research. A few years ago, the psychologist conducted a study on the behavior and response of two groups of people toward the masses of starving children in Darfur. His conclusions showed that the group that was asked to act as humanitarian actors and help those children could feel for compassion only for one out of eight children affected by starvation, while the other group of individuals who were not obliged or expected to help had a feeling of compassion for all of the children. This study showed that without expected costs, compassion rises; hence, the relation between them is linear growth.
We could continue to speak on this topic for days, but in order not to branch out, I will address the situation of our beloved region from another perspective. Although our own lives may brim with options and luxury, let us take a moment to imagine the grim reality in Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. As members of a responsible international community, we ought to reflect on the many homeless children and families who are refugees, displaced all across this region and the world. While we plan where to spend our next holiday after the pandemic, others live in a state of constant fear. Some have no shelter; others, especially children, have suffered various forms of exploitation. Surely, we are all familiar with such terrible stories. Oftentimes, vulnerable people, including refugees, just want attention to be brought to their suffering; they want to be seen, heard, and acknowledged.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 84 percent of refugees are living in developing countries, and seven out of the top 10 developing countries hosting refugees are considered fragile in the OECD’s fragility framework (OECD, 2019). In addition, disease control measures and proper treatment for both refugees and IDPs in the West were very disappointing since, in many countries, these persons were not afforded treatment. On the other hand, in the Gulf Cooperation Council region, especially in Saudi Arabia, treatment was not only available for free to citizens but also to residents and undocumented immigrants.
While the world is busy fighting this pandemic, refugees are being left behind. The UNHCR’s innovation department must find a way to bring their cause back to international tables of discourse, especially in the West where the topic is almost neglected. We must not legitimize the current rhetoric that stifles our compassion for vulnerable people. Instead, we must act upon our common human values and extend compassion intelligently, avoiding burnout but also encouraging altruism. If you are in Saudi Arabia, you can always donate to a variety of causes and regions of the world through the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center.
I would like to conclude with a story. For those who have not heard of “The Little Match Girl,” it is a tale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen. What distinguishes this tale is that although it was written nearly 200 years ago, it is not restricted to any particular place or time period, but rather to humanity as a whole.   
This sad story tells of a little homeless girl who tried to sell matches in the street on one cold, windy New Year’s Eve. No one showed any sympathy for her. When the weather became unbearably cold, the little girl went to a corner of the street and started to strike the matches against the wall to warm herself.
Have you ever wondered how many little children in the world sell matches, apples, or flowers, from Sudan to Lebanon, from Syria to Iraq, indeed all over the world? How many children walk barefoot through the streets on an empty stomach? This story, however tragic, serves as a necessary reminder of a stark reality that must be acknowledged. When, on the second day, the sun rose, people passing by found the girl’s frozen body against the wall surrounded by the matches she used up to stay warm the night before. What is worse than the ending of the story, however, is that they assumed she died of starvation and cold weather when, in reality, the Little Match Girl died from sadness.


Abeer S. Al-Saud is an op-ed writer for Arab News exploring development, peace and cultural topics. The views expressed in this piece are personal. Twitter: @asmalsaud