Abeer Pamuk

Keeping the Smell of Dried Lavender Leaves: How I Think about Self-Care

June 21, 2019

At the start of my career a few years ago, I worked with an international organization called SOS Children’s Villages in Syria. For much of that work, I was on a field mission in Yarmouk Camp near Damascus, where I had the chance to document families’ stories across Syria.

I still find it hard to convey to American’s how brutal life is for millions of people in that part of the world.

There was one family I visited many times, and each time, one of its members was no longer with us. They were kind, simple, generous; the grandmother cooked for everyone, including me and my colleagues. They lived so close to the frontline that you could hear the battle clearly. One night, as we sat with them, the grandfather took a heavy breath and just before he started to eat, he said, “We used to be twenty people sitting around this table. Half of my children are now only pictures on the walls of this room.”

I burst into tears as I looked around at the pictures surrounding us. I had to go outside to compose myself. My colleague followed me outside and shared words that I can’t forget: “You are a humanitarian. You can’t come here to give people strength and hope and then collapse. I think your job has started to become overwhelming and you need to do something about it. In order to take care of others, you have to take care of yourself first.”

You can’t come here to give people strength and hope and then collapse.

It wasn’t until that moment that I truly internalized how much the work of taking care of myself mattered to my efforts to make the world a better place. You cannot serve from an empty cup.

What Self-Care Means to Me

As a person from Syria who lived there during the war, self-care has become simple things that I used to do before the war that I can still do now. When there is war in your country, you will feel like you have no control over anything, not even when there is water or electricity in your house. It makes you constantly petrified of losing things like your home, your belongings, or in the worst cases, you feel constantly worried about losing your family and friends.
I have lost six of my friends to different things, including sniper bullets, stray bullets, rockets and explosions. Many other friends fled Syria and I don’t know if I will ever see them again. I myself have not seen my family in more than three years. People wonder how I can continue living with all the stories that I have in my background—and the answer is, taking care of myself is what has allowed me to do that.

There are many ways I’ve learned to practice self-care since leaving Syria.
The last time I was in Aleppo, I went to the café where my friends and I used to stop to drink mocha coffee in university. It was in the winter and the place looked nothing like it did before the war, but just the fact that I could stand there and drink my coffee brought back memories. I could almost feel the warmth when we filled these walls with noise and laughter. Going back there by myself and having that experience helped to root me in positive memories.

Going back there by myself and having that experience helped to root me in positive memories.

Other simple examples are things I do in America that remind me of my home before the war, like rolling the towels in a specific way or making things smell the way my home used to. The smell of dried lavender helps me to feel like I am at home. I now understand that I will never be able to live at my home again—that home is gone, no matter what happens in my country—but making things look and smell like home helps.
Finding Balance in My Work
It is not necessary to fall short on your work tasks to take care of yourself. Sometimes taking a 10-minute break to walk outside can make a huge difference in your day.  It’s difficult to remember that you are a human and not a machine and if you become burned out, getting back from that point is really hard. Sometimes we beat ourselves up about breaks or taking a vacation. It’s so important to remember that while these things can be a privilege, they are also your right. I try to remind myself of this. I try not to feel guilty about taking the opportunity to balance myself.

This is especially important for activists and advocates, and those who have experienced some form of trauma. The emotional labor involved in our work is real. If we don’t make time for ourselves, our productivity will drop and we’ll be unable to actually get work done.
We All Practice Self-Care Differently
No matter what community you’re a part of or what work you’re doing, different people have different personalities, experiences and needs. Some people find self-care in an extreme sport or trying something completely new, while others will find self-care in things that keep them grounded and connect them to certain phases of their life. It all depends on your background, where you grew-up and the type of job you have. Exploring what works for you is the first step in practicing self-care intentionally.

Ultimately, my advice to younger advocates and activists trying to learn how to fit self-care into their lives is that social change is not an easy road to take for a career, and you’re already doing something amazing by choosing it. Always remember that you are there to solve big problems and you will come across things that seem inhumane, unjust and sometimes brutal. Those experiences will affect you. Some days, you may feel you are way smaller than the problem and it might feel overwhelming.  Connecting with people who do similar work is helpful, and allows you to recharge yourself and reassure yourself that you are not alone.

If we don’t make time for ourselves, our productivity will drop and we’ll be unable to actually get work done.

Social change does not have to be doomy and gloomy. Remember that  you have the right to smile and have fun even if your field of work or the issue you’re devoted to cannot be described as “fun.” Having the opportunity to serve others and make other people’s lives better is a privilege and you should be happy and proud for doing what you do. No matter what you do, you can always find your own form of dried lavender leaves. There are small things in the world we can all find to rejuvenate ourselves, and remind us of hope.

Abeer is a nonprofit, communications professional with five years of experience producing videos, photos, and human-interest stories used to fundraise for humanitarian aid programs. The majority of her work experience has been in Syria, where she created communications packages for use by her colleagues in SOS Children’s Villages fundraising offices in the United States and Europe. she went into the field often, going to the frontlines of the Syrian war to document the impact of the organization’s programs by interviewing beneficiaries and capturing their stories. Abeer is a former fellow with Atlas Corps, a comparative fellowship program for social change leaders in the United States and served as a Communications Strategist with the American Express Foundation covering three social corporate work areas. She is motivated by the knowledge that communications is a vital part to fundraising and that without fundraising, people in places hit by humanitarian disasters would not receive the support they need.