"It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving
unless you know one Chinese who is starving."—John Steinbeck
I am sitting in my hometown of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Steinbeck's words, which have been used for decades to teach empathy, were written. The coastal California backdrop of chilly weather and beautiful sea is
not all that different from the backdrop of my experiences on a journey three months ago to Lesvos,
Greece, where I went to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis. One rather prominent detail missing in when I compare Lesvos and California? Displaced people and families—lots of them. No one in Carmel is running for their lives, and
that is a striking contrast between the two locations.
Those who have been following the Syrian conflict and the war
refugee crisis that ensued from it hear all the time that, in order to address this crisis properly, we need to have empathy
for those who are caught in the midst of displacement.
But what does that even mean? Empathy, of course, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of one
another. Many of us confuse pity with empathy, but the two are actually very
different. Empathy brings us together, whereas pity disconnects us. It's an emotion, much
like sympathy, centered around negativity and, though we mean well when we feel pity, it winds up driving us apart. There is an uncomfortable and patronizing overtone in being pitied and it makes the person who is pitied feel less-than.
Empathy, though, that's completely different. Empathy validates what someone is going through in an empowering way. Steinbeck brings up a key component to empathy, pointing out that, in order to
empathize, you need to either have experienced whatever the issue is yourself or know and relate to someone who is experiencing it (or has at some point themselves).
And that key point is what I did not understand until my trip to
It wasn't that I had to be on the ground to see the struggle for
myself, but I did not have an accurate depiction of the people currently experiencing this crisis. I wasn't completely in the dark: I
knew that the coverage of the Syrian conflict was showing Syria, a very developed
country, as poor and not technologically savvy as some other countries in
the world. Western media also tended to inaccurately depict the people and
their culture. The coverage rested so heavily on the turmoil of the Syrian
conflict and the consequent devastation (which, don't get me wrong, was also very important to cover!) that they left
out the heart of its people and their perseverance.
During my weeks on Lesvos, talking to Syrian women and their children, I found extraordinary moments of perseverance in the most
unlikely of places. It was then, in the most seemingly benign of places, that
I began to empathize. The connection that made empathy possible?
When I saw their fight to feel
pretty amidst the chaos.
Ridiculous, right? No, no not at all. It was fucking glorious.
My first day at a boat rescue on
the shore of Molyvos, a heavily pregnant woman had gone into labor on the boat. She was suffering from
hypothermia and had her beautiful family, all safe, looking at her with great
concern and compassion. At one point, the volunteer
medical team began a long and tedious transition from the rocks to a makeshift ambulance (an old van) in order to get this woman transported to a medical facility. [Here's a video of the laboring woman.]
Before they could
close the door, the woman began to panic, which made all of us panic. Did we separate her from one of her children? Was she in pain?
Did she lose her wallet with identification cards? These were the questions
running through my head. Something really bad must be happening.
Actually, the problem was that she had left her mascara on the rocks
and was worried she was going to leave it behind.
But there she was, sitting in the refugee camp wearing her donated clothes like they were made specifically for her, her eyeliner and lipstick applied with perfection.
A little part of me fell
in love with her in that moment. I would want my mascara, too. I totally got her.
I thought the laboring woman on the shore might have been an
atypical experience, but I was wrong. There were woman all over both Moria and
Kara Tepe camps who were going through the hardest experiences of their lives
and still admired and appreciated feeling beautiful and responding to beauty in
Maybe you're thinking that's a little shallow, but maybe this will help you understand that actually, it's quite deep, quite humane. We're all connected.
At the Kara Tepe refugee camp, I was introduced to Ousi, a beautiful
young woman who was brave enough to sit down, potentially at great risk to her
safety, and tell me and our live stream audience about how she barely made it
to the island alive. [Here's a video of that interview. And also Part 2.] She had experienced more fear and heartache the past week
than most people will experience in their entire lives.
But there she was, sitting in the refugee camp, wearing her
donated clothes like they were made specifically for her, her eyeliner and
lipstick applied with perfection. She wanted to talk about the plight of the non-Syrian refugees, who have it much harder on the island
than Syrian people. Ousi said they deserve to be treated with the same assistance
that her people are receiving. Here she was, in the midst of this crisis, but she
could still empathize and teach true empathy to her audience.
She continued to shock people when she answered questions from
viewers at home. Many were sympathetic to her situation and had no idea how to
help. "What can we give you?" so many people asked. Obviously, people
wanted to contribute with material items. But Ousi, never missing a beat,
replied with one word: respect.
She requested respect.
When the interview was coming to an end, Antoine Morlet
of VCA International jumped in and asked, "What are you going to buy when
you make it to Austria?"
Again, Ousi's answer was unexpected.
said. Hers had been lost to the ocean during her first boat ride, and she
was currently borrowing a friend's.
In her dream to secure a "nonessential item," Ousi artfully
destroyed every stereotype about Syrian refugees. Not only did she clearly not
want or desire handouts, nor did she seem so desolate and lost that her
concentration was at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs,
but she was concerned about wanting to feel like her presentable self. To
do that, she felt she wanted makeup.
And it was in that element of her
story that she crossed cultures and helped the women at home empathize with her
and the other people at the camp.