The Refugee Crisis: A Leap in Empathy

The post below is from the blog of JFN Board co-chair Angelica Berrie.

For more about the Syrian refugee crisis, watch this webinar briefing on the crisis for funders.

The shift in the tide of empathy toward the global refugee crisis was undoubtedly the photo of a tiny Syrian boy's body on the beach, his shoes so small and his innocent face resting on the sand.

Two-year-old Alan Kurdi's image provoked people around the world to cry out at the injustice of humanity and the brutality of war. It awakened even the most apathetic soul to bring blankets and toys, open their homes, organize relief efforts and bypass traditional humanitarian agencies to respond in a deeply personal way.

At a time when we feel so much pain and don't know what to do for a global crisis that we have been helpless to act upon, we are awakened by the challenge to our soul of seeing our own humanity in the other. Knowing we cannot solve all the problems in the world has kept so many of us inside our own comfort zone, hesitant to take on the world.

The journey of philanthropy is always driven by the question, Where will my love of humanity take me? For anyone inspired by the opportunity to make a difference, how does a sense of meaning reanimate the way we translate our passion into action - interpreting in a personal active way what humanity is meant to be? This is the moral question that the refugee situation awakens, compelling us to dig deep inside to respond as a human being, to discover who we are in the way we give.

Why is turning a blind eye to suffering considered a sin against humanity? Once seen, we can no longer turn away because seeing creates moral responsibility. There are so many sufferings in the world that we know we cannot fix on our own—homelessness, poverty, hunger, human trafficking, etc.

Theodore Roosevelt encouraged us to "do what you can with what you have where you are." A sense of moral obligation does not require a big check or a superhuman effort to make the leap from seeing to doing.

In Sanskrit, nivartatvam means "transcend where you are." We can take one step at a time. No step is too small as we can all do something in our own backyards that will matter to one human being.

Paige Alenick, a New York University student from Woodcliff Lake, was recognized at the Russ Berrie Prize for Making A Difference Awards for her efforts to improve oral health issues and disease. Paige founded Donate-a-Toothbrush and has distributed 150,000 (new and unused) toothbrushes given by individuals, houses of worship, students and government officials that have been distributed to domestic violence shelters, food pantries and other organizations that help people in more than 60 countries.

“It’s the simplest thing, and it makes such a huge impact on people’s lives,” Alenick said, adding, "to people in Third World countries who use sticks or a piece of cloth to clean their teeth, this may be the only toothbrush they have in their whole life."

Anywhere you are in the world, there is one small thing you can do to make it easier for one refugee to experience hope, the hope that comes to life when another really sees you and reaches out to make something happen for you. To know that you are not alone in this world but connected to another human being who cares is the best gift you can give.

Philanthropist Amy Goldman, of the GHR Foundation, visualized the challenge of moral responsibility as personal responsibility - how you respond when encountering something along your path that needs to be fixed.

"Often we see a problem right in front of us that we think someone will surely try and fix, then you look around to see who else is doing it. When you are standing right in front of an issue that confronts you, you can't hesitate and hope someone else will solve this, you just do it."

To create the change we want to see in this world, we have to make the leap from passion to action, to be the change. Transformed by our encounters with humanity, inspired and awakened as we transcend the boundaries of our comfortable life to really see the other - the tide of refugees can no longer remain invisible to us and we can no longer go back to sleep.