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I didn’t think I could love Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York any more than I did when he chronicled the students of the Mott Hall Bridges Academy and their incredible principal, Ms. Lopez. Or when he shared the stories of Iraq’s Yazidi minorities escaping the wrath of ISIS. Or when he gave us a non-mainstream peek into the lives of average Pakistani and Iranian citizens. But HONY’s recent series on refugees making their way across Europe is his most timely and needed one yet.
This series is important not only because the refugee crisis has reached a desperate point in terms of its magnitude and Europe’s poor handling of the migration, but also because this is a time when people have become impervious to mass tragedies.
One study shows that “people relate to the suffering of one as a tragedy but tune out the loss of thousands as a statistic.” There is a tendency for people to turn away from mass suffering, but feel compassion when they hear a single tragic story. It is easy while having our morning coffee to continue scrolling on our phones when coming across a headline that reads “Hundreds of Casualties in Air Raids on Syrian Market.” But when we hit a HONY post of a Syrian woman in tears lamenting that her husband was never found in the ocean, it is not so easy to go about our day without her words echoing in our mind.
At a time when millions of people—millions of individual stories and tragedies—have been expelled from their homes, displaced, or even killed, the political and social climate has not given these humans the dignity they deserve. Political discourse points to them as a problem or source of potential economic downfall rather than living humans who are desperate to escape conditions we couldn’t imagine surviving.
It is easy on our psyches to point fingers at the rich Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar or the United Arab Emirates—states that have shamefully not taken in a single Syrian refugee—in an attempt to paint the whole Arab world as heartless. Reflect on the fact that the Arab world is often seen as barbaric while the Western world is seen as humane, then consider that Lebanon currently houses 1.2 million refugees, Jordan has 650,000, and Iraq has almost 250,000, all of which are spreading their very thin resources to accept more refugees and have significantly fewer resources than many European nations. And while countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar should absolutely be accepting Iraqi and Syrian refugees, this argument distracts from the gravest tragedy of this whole conversation: the refugees themselves.
It is demoralizing to see refugee families survive their war-torn countries and risk their lives crossing oceans on plastic boats only to be met with such degrading obstacles once inside the European countries. It is disheartening that innocent victims can be demonized to such an extent. To say we have failed them is an understatement.
The political debate of whether Western nations should feel responsible to take in refugees is built on a false premise: many have painted these refugees as mass troublemakers, terrorists, and threats to Western culture, rather than individuals who deserve a life outside of violent war. This is why the power of a single story is so strong. It is easy to point to the influx of refugees as freeloaders, but it is hard to do so when reading about Muhammad, a Syrian man who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week to save up enough money to make it to Europe, and then spent 17 hours a day learning German in order to integrate into life in Austria.
It’s almost impossible to read his story and be inclined to believe that he won’t be a productive member of society. The people that make an appearance on the HONY page want what almost every other one of the millions of refugee want: a chance to make an honest living, contribute to society, and provide for their families.
The power of HONY lies in its ability to shake us of all of our “compassion fatigue.” Compare reading a headline that states, “Europe Faces Unprecedented Migrant Crisis, Warns OECD” to reading the individual stories of the refugees coming in. One elicits fear, the other compassion. We need not see traumatic pictures of dead bodies to shudder out of our comfort—it just takes a single story attached to a face. Just as HONY’s portraits have mobilized people before, my only wish is that enough coverage will result in some sort of widespread action.
Mother Teresa once said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.” I can only hope that the leaders of our world stumble upon a HONY portrait. Maybe then, they too will act.
Mariam H. Jalloul ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Quincy House.
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