So often we want to skip to the solution, to medicate the pain, but sometimes the most human thing we can do is to look another brother in the eye and experience that pain with them and in doing so we acknowledge and stumble upon our common humanity. In those rare moments you discover there is no them, there is only us.
Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas puts it this way: the only thing that really converts people is "the face of the other.” When the face of the other is truly seen, particularly when it is the face of suffering, when we go beyond seeing objects of pity and move to empathy, when we make this journey it leads to transformation of our whole being. A moral demand is then placed on our heart that is far more compelling than logic or law.
After meeting with several displaced families the overwhelming feeling I had was of a searing anger. Not the rioting and setting a city on fire kind of anger, but that feeling of righteous anger that is enkindled deep within the coals of injustice. A kind of outrage that sends you out looking for the tables of money changers to overturn.
In one way it’s sort of easy to be angry at the several hundred different armed groups fighting in Syria, as these innocent families are the direct fall out of that unchecked violence. The gunmen with their weapons and cruelty share a large portion of the blame for the misery without doubt, but to only be angry at the men with guns, to me that feels a lot like throwing punches at the darkness hoping to beat it into light. The only place I can with any real integrity direct my anger is at myself and the communities of which I am a part and begin to ask uncomfortable questions of myself and how are my own sins of commission or omission aggravating the wound?
I would say I’ve always been a fairly compassionate person and have something of a predisposition to social justice, thanks in large part to the upbringing of my “go for the underdog” parents. It’s partly why I got involved in storytelling and documentary making in the first place…to provide a voice for the voiceless.
When it came to the Syrian crisis I knew about it from an academic perspective, had watched and read from different news sources, gone a bit deeper by watching specific documentaries on the situation, but was I moved? Yes and no. I think it was probably more a case of compassion fatigue. How much can you really care for any one tragedy, when there is a whole world of heartache both locally and globally?
So what changed for me in that camp in Lebanon? What tipped me from being a concerned yet dispassionate bystander to an engaged advocate? What was it about the human tragedy unfolding in Syria that registered long enough for me to be distracted enough from my usual distractions to take notice? I realised I had been misled, maybe even in some cases lied too. These Syrians who seemed worlds away from my safe and comfortable life in Australia, were not so different from me.
It has become increasingly easy to dismiss and demonise the other, the stranger, the foreigner, those who look different, speak different, believe different. Perhaps it has always been so. In some ways our social evolution has conditioned us to think this way, to identify who is in our tribe and who is therefore safe and who is without, who is to be feared.
But this social conditioning turns to dust when you sit face to face with the other and truly hear their story…prejudice is laid bare.
In two short days I met shopkeepers, taxi drivers, teachers, farmers, mums, dads, kids…not a single ‘radical fundamentalist’ amongst them. What I did encounter however, were warm, friendly and honest people who welcomed me into the tents they are now forced to call their homes.
I met a young couple in their 30s. Mahmoud* was a school teacher and Amina*, his young wife, had paused her University studies in French literature to give birth and raise their now 7 month old son. Both had recently fled from an extremist controlled area in Syria when their home was destroyed by the missile of a warplane.
Mahmoud* spoke joyfully of their beautiful life before the war, the lake they would visit and have picnics with extended family and the rich sense of community they enjoyed. After the extremists took over he described the restrictions on movement and dress and the violent public executions and punishments, barbaric acts that the extremists forced the children to watch as a way to desensitise and indoctrinate. As he described conditions under the extremists he became visibly disturbed and told me that this was as foreign to him as it was to us “this is not Syrian.” he said defiantly. “Will we all be judged by the actions of a few?” he went on to say…I find myself asking a similar question when I think about the xenophobic rhetoric that is becoming the norm here at home.
Mohammed* 24, was blind as a result of his kidney disease, he spoke passionately of how he used to “live like a king” before the war, picking almonds from the trees of their small farm. Now crippled as a result of his faltering kidneys, he could barely raise his head, but spoke forcefully and with a deep bitterness as he lamented their current situation. His brother Jamal* told us that Mohammed* had tried to end his life a couple of months earlier as he felt that he was posing too great a burden on the family. “My baby niece is more important than me.” he had said.
I heard similar stories over and over again. Stories of utter hardship, yet despite the harsh conditions they all spoke of how they loved their lives in Syria and their burning desire to return home. Many still carry around their house keys in the hope of their eventual return.
Why did I think it would be any different? All I could think was how similar they were to me, familiar hopes and dreams for their families and to live in peace. I couldn’t help but think that in a different place and a different time I could easily see us being friends and our children would play together.
This is the tragedy of fear. People who are fleeing for their lives, who have left behind every possession apart from what they could carry, people who have had their hearts broken and minds tormented by violence and unimaginable cruelty. I think if anyone on this earth has a legitimate reason to be afraid - these are the people. So can you imagine their confusion when they discover it is us in the comfortable West who are in fear of them?