I picture him sitting by the camp walls, the hot night sky bright with stars. I try to imagine his thoughts as news of Gaza in flames, and Iraqi minorities massacred and scattered, reach the refugee camp. I imagine his dark eyes lifting up to the stars, wondering what his life will be, what his future will hold, if he’ll ever leave and do something with his life.
This is what I imagine about Ahmed. But what I know is he’s a 22 year old Syrian refugee living in a camp in Jordan. Surrounded on all sides by war, and more immediately, 110,000 other Syrian refugees, I know Ahmed contemplates whether or not he should return to Syria to fight with the rebels. I know he’s forced to stay in the camp day after day, and isn’t legally permitted to work. Displaced and disempowered, his life looks much different than mine did at 22.
Different, but full of potential and possibility.
“I’ve come to the conclusion,” Ahmed confides one night in the camp, “heroes and terrorists are born in the same context.”
The context of pain, suffering, and hope for future redemption. Ahmed is one of 1.3 million Syrians struggling with what it means to live within this context.
“They can be heroes,” my brother-in-law writes from the refugee camp, “Heroes with empathy, pain, and redemption of epic proportions.”
I’ve read those words over and over again, and hope in the hopelessness can’t help but creep in.
Empathy makes heroes. Empathy is the first step to changing the world. Sympathy doesn't go far enough.
Yesterday I sat in an airline lounge, coffee in hand, and watched a Yazidi family be rescued by a helicopter. A couple business men and I watched silently. Once the Yazidi family was safely in the air, they cried tears of relief and I found my own cheeks wet with sympathy.
But when the camera turned back to the CNN anchor, I couldn’t help but shift uncomfortably in my chair. Surrounded by clean water, food, people in suits and laptops, the contrast was almost unbearable. Again, my eyes welled with hot tears— but this time because of the injustice of it all. And suddenly I felt pathetic holding my cup of coffee. When I looked around, the businessmen had returned to their quiche. Everyone else in the room seemed totally unmoved.
Empathy. The ability to understand. To share the feelings of another. It’s my belief we struggle to empathize in the U.S.
We have sympathy by the truckload. Sympathy throws water, food, and provisions off a moving helicopter. Sympathy builds refugee camps. It changes profile pictures and reposts articles. Gives to charities, without following up. And sympathy comes from a good heart that can’t help but feel for humanity. But sympathy doesn’t go far enough.
It’s limited in its ability to be nuanced and helpful. Sympathy, by its very definition, victimizes its recipients. It can’t empower because it doesn’t understand the situation. It doesn't touch.
It’s true, as a Americans, few of us actually know what it’s like to flee our homes with gunfire at our heels. Few of us know what its like to go without water. Few of us have watched our family members gunned down before our very eyes. We don’t know what its like to scramble onto a helicopter, and because we can’t make the connection, we avert our eyes.
But God didn’t avert his eyes from us. When our world descended into chaos and sin at our own hands, he became flesh and dwelt among us. He knew he had to become us, so he chose to literally put himself in our shoes. Because he faced our suffering, we do not have a great High Priest who is unable to relate to our condition, but one who has willing endured all things.
We are far closer in our experience to our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters, than God was to us.
When we practice empathy, we practice putting ourselves in someone else’s place. We try our hardest to understand the what compels someone to act a certain way. And when we practice empathy, we also confess that we’re not qualified to make decisions when we don’t fully understand.
Empathy makes heroes, it instills hope. Empathy says “us” instead of “them”.
You may feel powerless to do anything as the news flashes horrific images day after day. But nothing could be less true. You can practice empathy. You can try to understand, instead of looking away.
Empathy also informs prayer. I confess, as I’ve watched the news these past few weeks, I’ve doubted the power of prayer. I wrote as much in a recent email to my brother-in-law who works in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, and told me about Ahmed. He responded with this:
“Gabby, if you doubt the power of prayer, imagine the thousands of Christians in Iraq whose prayers for salvation have ended in decapitation. Doubt, struggle with it. I do every day. But continue. We still love our families in the face of arguments, no? So pray in the face of doubt. For every brutal death can be turned into a redemption. Is that not the very example we cling to as an entire religion? “
Is that not the very example we cling to as an entire religion? The words pierce me. They inspire me to let empathy inform my prayers. Let’s pray as people who take the time to investigate the truth, to find the nuances, who pray specific prayers that address the needs of those living through the terrors happening right now in the Middle East.
I also asked my brother-in-law if there was anything that could be done by me, the average American whose heart is breaking with sympathy, but longs to do something actually meaningful. He responded with the following three ways.
1. Media - that voices would move towards a courageous search for truth, not propaganda in any direction.
2. Protection for Christians and Yazidis in Northern Iraq and Syria -- that supply chains and lines would open at least for them to receive food and water.
3. That Jordan would be wise in its choices, to remain stable in light of all that cracks and crumbles around it.
4. That people across the region would have their hearts divinely shielded from developing hatred, as hatred and resentment will fuel all of this for years.
5. That ISIS would be stopped, someway, somehow. But not dehumanized. Though we shudder at their deeds, may we extend the same empathy and grace that was extended to us. We don’t fully know the paths that have led them to commit these horrible acts. Let’s pray for our enemies, and not just against them.
If you want to sign a petition, go ahead. I actually agree with Obama’s current air strikes, my brother-in-law writes. At this stage death is everywhere. The Iraqi army is not functioning. The Kurdish army is strong, but penetrable, especially the further West/South you get from Erbil. Someone needs to stop ISIS’s supply lines.
Most organizations are repeating tired practices that don’t work in the Middle East given the culture/power dynamics. Some organizations, though, are doing good things.
A massive thank you must be given to my brother-in-law who has helped me start to make sense of the pain and chaos in the Middle East. I could not have written this article without his guidance and on-the-ground knowledge. Grateful for him and all those currently working in the Middle East in the face of pain, suffering and war. Of those who believe in a future full of hope for the Middle East.