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Jamie Grumet's Story of Syrian Refugees Will Change the Way You Think About the Crisis

"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.

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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 Lesvos.

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 all things.

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.

"Makeup," she said. Hers had been lost to the ocean during her first boat ride, and she was currently borrowing a friend's.

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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.

Really, it was never about the makeup.

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Photographs by: Lori Dorman

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