Tag: compassion

Recent Posts

What the Migrant Crisis Says About Us


I write about foreigners, like myself, who choose to move between places and cultures; who face the challenges and reap the rewards of “nomadic” life. But I have always, intentionally, – steered clear of writing about a particular kind of foreigner: the one who moves by necessity or force, rather than choice; the one who is uprooted by war, poverty, persecution or all of the above. Refugees are not my area of expertise. But lately I have been feeling that humanity should be everyone’s expertise.
The stream of people fleeing broken countries like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to seek safety elsewhere is hardly a new situation, but it is one whose urgency and visibility have risen dramatically in the past few days. European citizens and their governments are confronted with a swelling flood of migrants; a humanitarian crisis of overwhelming proportions. And, for the moment, they do not seem to have a coherent plan for how to deal with that crisis.

I don’t have a solution for the tragedy that unfolds every day before our eyes. I am not issuing condemnations or calls for action. I don’t know how we will make it right. But I believe that trying to make it right will make us better people.

As we go about our daily lives, most of us are not confronted with the extent of poverty, need, suffering, and desperation that that have come our way now. As we go about our daily lives, we don’t have to rise to the occasion. Before scores of refugees were washed out on their beaches, the people of the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos – two of the first stops for Syrian and Afghan migrants on their way to Europe – did not have to show unbelievable generosity and kindness on a daily basis. They did not have to offer whatever they could spare – which is often so very little – to help those who have even less. They did not have to work full shifts in addition to their day jobs to collect donations, distribute water, medicine and clothes or take care of hungry children. They did not have to open their homes so that their foreign “guests” could clean themselves or sleep. Now, that’s what they are doing – on a daily basis.

And this is no isolated response. When trainloads of refugees arrived in Munich central train station last week, the locals’ donations of food, water, clothes, blankets and toys, were so overwhelming that the city’s police asked them politely to stop bringing supplies because there were more than enough. In Iceland, within 24 hours, over 10,000 people responded to a Facebook pledge and signed up to open their homes to Syrian refugees – when their government had previously agreed to offer asylum to only 50. In Germany, crowds at football stadiums raised banners welcoming refugees. In Austria, this weekend, hundreds of rail workers pledged to work overtime for free, to drive special trains that will get refugees to their desired destinations as soon as possible. People all across Europe are taking matters into their own hands, not waiting for their governments to act, feeling the moral responsibility to ease the suffering of the hundreds who have been thrown at their doorstep.

What is happening right now, in our own back yard, is making us push against the boundaries of our own empathy, our sympathy, our desire to do the right thing. This massive influx of fellow human beings, driven out of their homelands has revealed unprecedented solidarity and compassion that lay dormant in us. It has allowed us to explore the depths of our humanity – or lack thereof. Because this latest crisis has also brought out the worst in some. It has stirred up xenophobia and racism; exposed some very short memories; allowed those who choose, to to give in to hate, cruelty and the building of fences, emotional and literal. I will write about the kindness and humanity; not the harshness and fear.

I was struck by a recent study that found that the most powerful predictor of identity change is the disruption of a person’s moral faculty. Not memory, but morality. If our moral character changes (the study focuses on the impact on the brain of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s), we become unrecognizable to others. If our moral compass is messed up, we are not ourselves any more. Empathy and compassion are part of that moral compass that is the essence of our identity and makes us who we are.

This human tragedy shapes our moral identity – as individuals and as nations. It brings out our true selves; or it changes our true selves. It exposes our collective inner sense of right and wrong. It transforms the moral fabric of our societies and ultimately changes our national identity.

Who will we choose to be?


expat, home

Other people’s homes

For us nomads, home is a subject that we constantly come across, touch upon, confront. We have to make sense of it in order to make sense of our lives. We ponder, explore and evaluate our
sense of home, what we need to feel at home, how we go about creating it. We value and protect it. Our home. The home of our partner. The home of our children. But what about the home of others – not our family or friends, but
people we don’t know, haven’t met before, total strangers? What if that home is at stake? How does that make us feel and what do we do about it?
I was sitting, again, in my neighbourhood café in Athens doing some work, when I noticed an elderly lady come in. I only guessed her age from the lines on her face, because she certainly wasn’t dressed or behaving like an old lady. She was rather elegant, though low-key, in her red leather jacket and dark pants, a leather bag hanging from her shoulder. She was holding a cane, limping slightly, but she wasn’t hunched, as often happens with age. She stood upright, though her eyes were cast downwards. She seemed shy.
I was taken aback when I saw her going from table to table, asking people if they could offer her some help. This woman was not your typical beggar. But then again, this has become a relatively common sight in my country in recent years – people who used to be
well off, leading what we would call ‘normal’ lives, being rapidly and ruthlessly reduced to poverty, desperation and the need to survive forcing them to ask for help.
Most people gave her coins; very few ignored her. Across from me, a middle-aged mother was just sitting down with her two kids. She was still busy getting them settled with their drinks and food, when the elderly lady approached her. The mother took one look at the lady and I could tell that she knew exactly what to do. Without hesitating, she
asked her if she could offer her something to eat instead of giving her money. The elderly lady accepted, and the two of them went to the counter together, where the mother bought her a sandwich and a coffee. If I hadn’t witnessed the beginning of their interaction, I would have thought they are two friends having coffee. I could almost feel the gratitude I saw in the elderly lady’s eyes as she tucked the food in her bag and swiftly got on her way. I saw her thankfulness, but also a sense of relief that she could interrupt what she was doing, at least for now. I saw an urge to get out of the café as fast as she could; to escape from a reality that wasn’t hers.
I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of that gesture; the instant recognition of how hard this must have been; the almost instinctive act to try to salvage what was at stake, even a minuscule part of it. The elderly lady’s home was at stake – emotionally and probably also literally – and the mother’s gesture indicated to me that she understood that; she knew how vital that sense of home was.
Because isn’t home a feeling of security and comfort; an ability to be our true self? And isn’t dignity part of that true self? For the elderly lady, preserving her sense of dignity, being true to herself was vital for sustaining her sense of home. She was holding on
to that dignity, through the way she dressed and through her behaviour, even while engaging in an act that effectively stripped her of it, therefore threatening to leave her homeless.
Most people at the café, but especially that mother, got that. With the way they reacted to her approach, they played their part in helping her sustain that dignity – at least
for a moment. Their kindness and compassion essentially kept her from being homeless – emotionally, if not literally.
Sometimes we are almost as protective of other people’s homes as we are of our own. Such little acts of saving home are proof of that, even if it takes a crisis to get us there. 

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com