“Pity and what it offers are scraps from the table. Justice is a seat at the table.”*
Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan.
Three vastly different countries with different histories and different politics. They don’t even speak the same dialects of Arabic, but they are lumped together in the two-dimensional view that the Western world has of the Middle East.
I have a limited perspective, one that is confined to brief visits, cups of strong tea or Arabic coffee, and conversations of the heart. But in this limited perspective, I am reminded again that refugees are not to be objects of pity, hanging around like dogs to get scraps of charity. They are people of dignity and worth, people who have tenaciously clung to life and hope. Why would I pity someone who is so much stronger and more courageous than I am?
But this is not necessarily the attitude of others or of governments. An excellent article in Foreign Policy speaks to the danger of pity:
The Global North is building fences, deporting children, stymieing the progress to safety of war refugees from Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Europe is paying Turkey to play bouncer and keep asylum-seekers outside its borders. The settled West is telling migrants: We pity you, but we don’t trust you, and we want to keep pitying you on your shores rather than welcoming you to ours.
The author goes on to say:
Rootlessness — the implied weakness of it — is treated as a failure. That is plainly schizophrenic: In a world where one in seven people is displaced, the failure must be of planetary scale. It belongs to all of us. This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.
We in the West are tutored well in our attitudes toward refugees and migrants – tutored by a fear-mongering media, tutored by law makers and wanna be law makers who speak without facts and spread misinformation. As the author of the article I cited above says: “The West is telling migrants: We pity you, but we don’t trust you….”
Three years ago, I wrote an article called “You Can’t Empower Those you Pity.” I think about it today as I mull over how I want to portray the people I met and the stories I heard. Because if I create a narrative of pity, then I will have failed.
Pity reduces people to failures who somehow couldn’t hold it together enough to stay rooted. Pity is the enemy of compassion.
Pity insults. Pity humiliates. Pity sees others as ‘less than’ not ‘equal to’ or ‘above’. While compassion is a vital part of love and moves us to action, pity looks on as a superior bystander.
Pity is scraps from the table.
I don’t know a lot, but I do know that refugees need to be given a seat at the table. They need our partnership, our compassion, the best of what we can give. Otherwise we all lose.
“Unless the world finds compassion for this new communality, learns to make sense of one another’s voices, its humanity will perish.”
“Dispossessed is an identity of disempowerment, but it is a powerful identity. Borders may temporarily hold back the flow of humans adrift, but in a world where we are so tightly and dizzyingly interwoven, physical boundaries are far less obstructive than the lasting confinement of imposed narratives.”
*paraphrased from a tweet by Lindsey Hunt at Harvard Medical School Primary Care Center.
Note: Would you consider donating to schools for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon? Read more here!