Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Empathy Map (Part 2) by Tess Berry-Hart

"Is a refugee someone who's had to leave their home?" asked Anna.
"Someone who seeks refuge in another country," said Papa.
"I don't think I'm quite used to being one yet," said Anna.
Extract from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr

When I wrote the first part of The Empathy Map last month about how big business has turned empathy into a tool for selling, I'd planned a very different type of post for my Part 2.

Back then it was the middle of August, and all over Europe the biggest exodus of people from their native lands since World War II was under way. Pictures of desperate and frightened people, travelling for months and months overland in terrible conditions, were filtering through Facebook feeds. Boatloads of starving and fleeing people arrived in the beautiful Greek islands, narrowly avoiding being drowned on the way whilst Western holidaymakers reclined on the beach or complained about the view. MIGRANTS STORM CALAIS! shouted the tabloids. David Cameron talked about building a wall. Macedonia was actually building a wall. The word "refugee" was barely mentioned. Empathy was in short supply.

Along with many people, I felt so upset about the coverage and the political inertia that I got in touch with Libby Freeman, a grass-roots activist who had loaded up a van with much-needed supplies and driven over to Calais with a few friends the week before. "How can I help?" I texted her. "I'm planning to get a load of people and supplies together and go over again next month," she texted back. "Great! I'm in," I replied, before I had time to think. Libby and her friends had received so many offers of help that they were setting up a Facebook group called Calais Action and were putting out calls to collect clothes and shoes for people in the camps. I became the West London collector for Calais Action, and posted on local community Facebook groups asking for donations. I received some grateful replies and promises. Going to be a busy week, I thought.

Then I went away for the Bank Holiday in Somerset. Phone coverage was patchy, so I switched my phone off and went Facebook-free for a couple of days. When I eventually logged back on, I had nearly 100 new private messages. People were frantically messaging me from all over London - "I'm so glad to see your group! I have clothes! What do you need?" My phone was full of texts, my email rammed. There was even wild talk of rallies in London and Calais to show solidarity with migrants, an initiative unthinkable only a week ago. When I got back home, there was a huge pile of plastic bags on my doorstep, overspilling with clothes and shoes.

What? How!

Then I saw the headlines - and it clicked. In the awful photos of drowned children on a Turkish beach, Britain had found its empathy.

Migrant:A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.(ODD)

Refugee: A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster

The words we use to describe something are important as they can skew our perception and understanding of a situation. Take the word "migrant" - in the hands of the right-wing press it became loaded and symbolic of a particular menace; a hooded, dark skinned man, probably a member of Isis or some such, camping in Calais and breaking into lorries to come into Britain and steal our jobs and benefits. Words make us see "a migrant" as “the other” – someone who threatens us, threatens our secure livelihoods, because of ... what? The realisation that the world is not as safe as we would like it to be? That if the genetic chips had been spilled any other way then our lives would not be composed of lattes and Netflix and clean roads - and that we might be in their shoes?

When Al Jazeera refused to use the word "migrant" and instead reported on "refugees" it changed the narrative. Everybody knows what refugees are - the word was picked up immediately by much of the media and it triggered reserves of empathy towards people seeking refuge in another country.

But how are we to instil empathy in our children? The second way of building empathy, as I talked about in Part 1 of the Empathy Map, is reading stories. Studies show that children who read novels are more empathetic, quicker to visualise themselves in the shoes of a storybook character. When I was younger, some of my favourite books were about refugees and immigrants. For me the ultimate refugee/ roadtrip novel has to be Watership Down by Richard Adams, one of my favourite stories for children and adults of all time. It's the story of a group of rabbits in Sandleford whose warren is destroyed to build houses. Together they journey over the South Downs to find a new home, encountering on the way many different types of warrens and the fearsome rabbits who populate them. I defy anyone to read it and not feel empathy towards people who have been expelled from their homelands. When they finally find a warren high on the downs that they can call their own, it is a dream of every refugee who has ever travelled. “It’s not really about rabbits!” shout its supporters, and they are absolutely right. You can find similar parallels of refuge and exile in The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.

My other childhood favourites were When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr, about her own childhood as a refugee travelling across Europe from the Nazis. Goodnight Mister Tom, about the "vacuees" - evacuated children from London during the Second World War making a new life for themselves in the countryside. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier is another, about a group of children travelling from bombed-out Warsaw to Berlin to find their parents in the aftermath of Word War II. Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah is a more modern novel about a young boy who is brought to claim asylum in the UK during the 2000/2001 civil war in Eritrea. All of these stories are vastly different - some deal with events long ago, some are about events that have never happened or could happen - but they all contain within them the seeds of empathy that we so badly need.

Indeed, I was so influenced as a child by the ideas of flight and refuge, that the first young-adult novel I ever wrote, Escape From Genopolis, followed the fortunes of a group of refugees in the futuristic world of Genopolis where pain had ceased to exist. Those who still experienced pain were called Naturals and banished to a wilderness because in knowing pain, by extension they still had empathy. In the world of Genopolis, empathy was held as a dangerous gift, because to control people you have to dehumanise them - you must not "understand" them. Words that dehumanise people prevent us from empathising with and helping them; words which foster empathy can change the world.

And the world does appear to be changing from a month ago. Empathy is now front-page news. Libby and her friends have been interviewed by TV and newspapers about the new "grass-roots giving" which refuses to sit back and wait for politicians to take action. And what a powerful force grass-roots movements are. Just two weeks after I set up the West London branch of Calais Action, over four hundred and fifty generous and hard-working people from my local area have either contacted me with donations or volunteered to help collect, sort and pack the giant pile of supplies that I've received - crates upon crates of food, 200 large boxes of clothes and shoes, sleeping bags and tents - which now fill an entire house in a neighbouring square (the house has been also temporarily donated for a week!). This weekend the supplies will be shipped out, to be sent on to refugee camps in Hungary and northern France. A huge rally - "Refugees Welcome" - happened on the weekend in London; another one will happen in the Jungle camp in Calais itself this next Saturday 19th September. A co-ordinated volunteer programme is being set up in Calais by Calais Action and other NGOs and grass-roots groups to repair water pipes, build proper shelter and distribute the vast amount of supplies to the vast amount of people who need them.

Empathy is part of us and what makes us human; we just need to let it flourish.


Steve Gladwin said...

Your article is moving enough, but the response of people in just one small corner says it all about what we as human beings are capable of when we can see the truth behind the media's panicky blanket. Thank you and very best wishes for the efforts of you and everyone else involved.

rjsolution said...

Een tafelblad dat in de tuin en in de woonkamer kan worden gebruikt? Kies voor het graniet tafelblad en ontdek al zijn positieve eigenschappen!