Refugee child at the Hungarian/Serbian border September 2015 – Image courtesy of Fedja Grulovic
It seems that everywhere we turn now, we are seeing heartbreaking stories of refugees attempting to escape conflict and rebuild their lives somewhere else. From those who make the desperate crossing from Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean to others being kept in island detention centers by the Australian government, it is truly a tragedy to see people’s lives reduced to such circumstances through no fault of their own.
Recently, I found myself in a passionate debate with people who did not seem to care. Perhaps they were just frightened, or overwhelmed – but too many people I speak to appear to have lost their compassion when discussing ‘what is to be done’ about the millions of people who are seeking a place of safety.
I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure anybody has. But I do know that this is one planet, with many peoples, all who have the right to live in peace and security. I also know that the fact that I don’t have to try and find somewhere safe with my children after my home and livelihood has been destroyed by conflict is not because I am a better person than anyone else, but because I’m outrageously lucky. That’s all. I was not chosen. So, I will ALWAYS be grateful to whatever higher being it is that allowed me to be born in one of the lucky countries and remember that ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.
But I often wonder why I appear to have more empathy for refugees and asylum seekers than others in my extended family and even some of my friends. And I also wonder why others can appear to be so heartless in their condemnation of those seeking a new life.
And I wonder if it is to do with books.
I have read thousands of books in my lifetime – each and every one of them offering me an opportunity to live, for a short time, the life of another person. Sometimes that may have meant finding myself in the head of a 16-year old cheerleader at Sweet Valley High, but at other times it has found me experiencing the fear and hopelessness of a stubborn, middle-aged Kurdish man living in a refugee camp in Turkey after an earthquake has destroyed his home.
When you read novels, you realise the world is not black and white. There are characters whose motivation you don’t really understand, but because you are inside their heads, you are forced to try, flexing those empathy muscles, again and again. Every book you read makes you wonder what you would do if you were in that person’s situation. That’s just how it works.
When you read fiction about the Holocaust, you completely identify with those in the camps. When you read a novel like Every Man Dies Alone, you appreciate that the German people were also victims. Exodus fills you with the passion of the birth of modern-day Israel, while Mornings in Jenin puts you in the shoes of the Palestinians. People and history are complicated. Novels help you make sense of it.
And there are several studies which appear to back this up.
The Guardian – Literary fiction improves empathy
Scientific American – Novel Finding:Reading literary fictions improves empathy
The Guardian – Reading fiction improves empathy, study finds
Edutopia – How reading literature cultivates empathy
Even Barack Obama puts his ‘good citizenship’ down to the empathy he has gained from reading novels.
Here are some of the novels I have read which have given me an appreciation for those who have dealt with crisis and conflict. Each and every one of them helps to build that empathy I believe is so important when trying to understand the lives of those you see in the news. There are, of course, many more, but these are some of the ones which have most affected me and I highly recommend each of them…
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Set during Nigeria’s civil war of the 1960s (recently chosen as the best book out of a decade of the women’s prize for fiction winners)
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam – One family during the civil war which sees the birth of Bangladesh.
Gardens of Water by Alan Drew – A Kurdish family become refugees after 17,000 people are killed in Turkey’s 1999 earthquake.
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa – The members of a Palestinian family try to rebuild their lives after they are forced off their land in 1948.
Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway – People try to go about their normal lives as their city comes under fire from snipers.
Anything by Khaled Hosseini! – Hosseini’s novels of Afghanistan such as The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns give an insight to life in that country through different eras and conflicts.
But while I am forever grateful for what I can learn from fiction, can you imagine what it would be like if you were in a refugee camp where you had no exposure to books, culture or education, year after year after year? That’s right, it’s not unusual for refugees to spend several years (sometimes decades) in camps.
Thankfully there is a fabulous organisation which is trying to address the fact that so many kids in refugee situations have no books or education. This is a brilliant idea – have a look at this video. It can explain it much better than I can.
Here are some of the things inside the Ideas Box…
- Paper books
- E-readers with thousands of books
- Education from the Khan Academy
- Other education apps
- Handheld cameras
- Board games
- Arts and crafts materials
According to the website, refugees spend an average of 17 years in a refugee camp – this is a tool to help them rebuild themselves when they are finally able to emerge.
‘The dream is all the more important when we have lost everything…This is the first and last thing we should give to people who have lost everything.’ – Designer Philippe Starck (who helped create The Ideas Box)
If you are looking for some way of supporting refugee children, you could do worse that donate to, or sponsor an Ideas Box yourself. Perhaps it will go to the children who will one day write the novels that help us truly understand the victims of this current refugee crisis.