Aged 20, I spent two months backpacking around India and Nepal with my boyfriend. We loved the vibrancy and drama but the poverty and crowds wore us down to the point my boyfriend broke up with me over tea at New Delhi railway station. As I sobbed into my chai I knew I had to finish the trip solo – a huge lesson in resilience. Just like life itself, travel can sometimes be hard but keep putting one foot in front of another – you eventually get somewhere.
That boyfriend and I got back together and have been married 30 years.
In 2002 I was sent to Afghanistan to document the unexpected return of four million Afghans from neighbouring countries after the defeat of the Taliban – though they were returning to very little.
I visited one shell of a building in Kabul where more than 100 families were squatting but every effort had been made to create a homely space – well-worn rugs on the floor, family portraits nailed proudly to the walls – and I was invited to share with them all they had to offer, a steaming cup of green tea.
In my travels, I continue to see the most sincere displays of generosity from those who have the least.
Near Notre Dame, I chatted with a Parisian busker who was twirling my teenage daughter – while balancing a goldfish in a bowl on his head. Luckily, we ran into him the next day at the Bastille markets while frantically searching for my teenage son.
The busker (Ali from Sierra Leone) calmly took my hand – fish still on his head – and guided me from stall to stall asking if anyone had seen my son. We found him in an internet cafe.
Relieved, we bid adieu to Ali and watched his goldfish bowl disappear into the crowd, glad to have made that connection.
In 2011 I led a group of donors on a fundraising trek up Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains. Having successfully climbed Africa's second highest mountain I thought the lower peaks of the Rwenzori's would be – if not easy – manageable. This was a big mistake. I was ready to give up in the knee-deep mud, but every night when I finally made camp, often in the dark, I was greeted with a rousing cheer, a hot drink and lots of laughter. I made it, and learnt the importance of camaraderie.
Five years ago in Kampala I met a group of refugee women who'd been learning craft-making to generate income. I have watched the group grow to 36 women supporting more than 1500 people. They have impressed on me the power of female enterprise, but for them, the most important thing is they have built a community to look out for each other. We're now working together on a new venture to train the women as guides who'll share their unique insights of Kampala with tourists and donors.
In 2000, Naomi Steer established Australia for UNHCR – the only international agency in Australia solely focused on refugees. With the support of Australian donors, the organisation is now a top 10 private sector contributor to UNHCR's budget. June 20 is World Refugee Day. See unrefugees.org.au