'They Were Just Like Us, and They Lost Everything'

Can empathy for refugees be taught?

A MSF and Greenpeace rescue team responded to a sinking rigid inflatable boat carrying Afghan refugees crossing from Turkey to the north shore of Lesvos, Greece.
A MSF and Greenpeace rescue team responded to a sinking rigid inflatable boat carrying Afghan refugees crossing from Turkey to the north shore of Lesvos, Greece. (Will Rose / Courtesy of MSF)

A few weeks ago, I scrambled to evacuate my area with the only five items I could grab—my phone, passport, water, money, and medicine—in the 30 seconds before I had to flee.

Many of the roughly 65 million refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people around the world today have had to make panicked choices like these; more than 4,000 have died at sea in overcrowded boats and rafts attempting to reach Europe from the Middle East. On Thursday last week, more than 200 additional people lost their lives in two separate shipwrecks off Libya.

But my own “escape” was far away from that, on the safety of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had organized the Forced From Home exhibit. The aim was, in part, to put the staggering numbers of the crisis into tangible terms for those of us who don’t have to contemplate actually being forced from home. So I took on the identity of an asylum-seeker from Honduras while my tour guide, Ahmed Abdalrazag, pled with the group to hurry up. If we were really fleeing, he explained, our time would be up and it might be too late.

We got on a raft like the ones in which so many have risked, and lost, their lives in recent years—though this one stayed on dry land—and later, we were detained at a fenced border where our various legal classifications determined our future. At each stop, hardships from the journey forced us to give up one item, until we were left empty-handed in front of staged refugee tents—where in real life another series of ordeals await those who make it that far.

MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, the international aid group and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is touring the exhibit through five U.S. cities this fall, with a series of West Coast stops planned for next year. So far, according to an MSF spokesman, more than 17,000 people have attended, including over 3,400 students. MSF provides medical and related humanitarian aid in over 60 countries, often in dangerous circumstances—the group describes its mission as assisting “victims of conflict, natural disasters, epidemics, or healthcare exclusion.” In Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan recently, MSF-supported hospitals and the people who work there have themselves been victims of conflict. With the Forced From Home exhibit, MSF is trying to communicate, in concrete terms, the reality of people fleeing from those places and elsewhere, including Burundi, South Sudan, and Central America.

Official action to mitigate this reality has been frustratingly slow. It has been more than two years since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) first reported that the number of displaced people worldwide had surpassed the figures following World War II.  But as my colleague Uri Friedman wrote in September, the UN General Assembly only recently held its inaugural Summit for Refugees and Migrants, and the declaration that emerged from the meeting delays specific measures by UN member states for two more years.

The timeline of the UN plan is not comforting to the refugees or concerned observers. The crisis figures are familiar, but remain unfathomable—one in 113 people displaced “by conflict and persecution in 2015;” and 54 percent of 21 million refugees from just three volatile countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. It’s easy to be numbed by the numbers. Or even actively repelled—across Europe and the United States, 2016 has seen a surge of anti-refugee protests and rhetoric conflating refugees and terrorists—sentiments that influence elections and produce significant legislative and societal results. In a sense, the refugee crisis has helped generate a corresponding crisis in empathy.

But if national and international political solutions seem sluggish or even impossible, what hope is there for refugees in the meantime if not for the empathy of individuals? Where there is a confluence of human suffering and nationalistic backlash, can empathy be taught, sparked, or successfully deployed? The MSF exhibit can be seen as a test of these questions. It creates an empathetic response by tying the visitor’s experience to an individual’s—each participant is assigned a specific displaced person’s identity, and each tour is given by an aid-worker who has served in an MSF camp. Throughout the journey, the guides share their own personal stories about people they lived with, worked with, and ministered to, further illuminating the individual suffering behind the numbers.

Abdalrazag, a physician with MSF originally from Iraq, first got involved with the organization when he was in a camp as a refugee. On his tours, he talks about a friend of his who, after living in a refugee camp tent for years, so desperately missed a wall to lean his back on that he hugged the first wall he saw in his new home. After the tour, Abdalrazag admitted that this was his own experience, one he sometimes obscures because his memories are painful to recount. Another guide, Sarah Khenati, a psychologist with MSF-France who has worked in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the West Bank, shares a story on her tours about a woman who was raped and impregnated while fleeing her home, then involves her groups in the ensuing MSF discussion about how best to treat the woman after her psychotic breakdown.

Tatiana Chiarella, an MSF nurse from Brazil who has been touring with the exhibit, explained how she sees the value of these kinds of personal stories: “For people living in the U.S., or even my people in Brazil, we are so far from the situation that you may hear their stories but you don’t realize it could happen to any one of us.” The people she treated “were just like us, they were doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers, and suddenly this happened—they have war in their countries and they have to flee for their life and for their families—and they lost everything.”

Maybe it’s strange to shift the discussion of a massive problem down to the granular level, especially when the world needs a response to match the scale of the crisis. Yet individuals generate a human response that statistics can’t. Updated crisis figures from UNHCR don’t go viral. Images of a drowned Syrian toddler on a beach in Turkey, or a wounded boy in an Aleppo ambulance, do. And they focus observers, however briefly, on the human cost of conflict.

Still, the problem is bigger than the tragedies of Alan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh, so the question remains whether concentrating on a single victim can generate an empathy that expands to include others suffering outside those particular frames. According to Jamil Zaki, assistant professor of psychology and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, even though empathy is a fundamental human emotion, people are not exactly wired for a globalized response. “When we evolved, we were in small groups of interdependent individuals, so the people that you would run into and subsequently empathize with were probably family or extended family,” he explained. “And nowadays, we’re given the unprecedented opportunity to empathize, reach out to and help, not just the people who are right around us, but people all around the world. That’s a really enormous challenge as well as an opportunity, and I think that sometimes, our more evolutionarily old or primitive … emotional responses are not really perfectly designed for the modern world.”

Visitors watch a 360-degree film that focuses on displaced individuals living in Greece, Lebanon, Mexico, South Sudan,  Tanzania (Elias Williams / Courtesy of MSF).

This is even true of people who are already inclined to be sympathetic to refugees—the people, in other words, likely to visit an exhibit like MSF’s in the first place. On the tour I took, I met Cameron, a student from Charleston, South Carolina, who said: “It pains me to see how unaccepting communities can be of refugees especially when a good amount of people in the U.S. can trace their ancestry to people who left their home because of economic or political issues.” He added, “I think it definitely made me more empathetic and understanding because you only get so much information from the news and other media sources.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, in his 2006 Northwestern University commencement speech, called attention to what he saw as a national “empathy deficit.” He advised the graduates that, in a culture that does not encourage empathy, “as you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier.  There’s no community-service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going in your own little circle.” That warning came 10 years ago; five years before the Syrian Civil War began, and eight years before UNHCR first identified a new record in the number of refugees worldwide. As David Desteno wrote for The Atlantic last summer, a recent study from the University of Michigan found, based on empathy assessments of 13,000 college students between 1979 and 2009, that “levels of compassion and empathy are lower now than at any time in the past 30 years, and perhaps most alarming, they are declining at an increasing rate.”

The barrier that the MSF exhibit and other calls to empathy might bump up against is our basic wiring: If our relationship to empathy is naturally individual and impulsive—Zaki describes it as “staccato”—how do we create the sustained empathy suited to an ongoing and outsized crisis? Will the impact of an exhibit like Forced from Home—or photos of children whose lives have been ended or upended by war—be momentary or lasting? And what difference does any one person’s feelings make to finding a genuine solution?

Some of the answers may lie in the way we think about empathy. If we think of it as malleable, it’s an emotion that we can actively choose to engage with and develop. Zaki emphasizes that empathy can be strengthened with practice: “Empathy is under our control more than we think it is. ... It’s our responsibility to exercise empathy responsibly, and it’s an opportunity for us to connect with more and more people if we work hard at building it.”

Most importantly, Zaki says, “convincing people that they can build their empathy actually helps them to build [it].” He points to training programs that can change people’s responses to others’ suffering. A sampling of these empathy interventions across the country range from increasing care for homeless people in the Bay Area, to teaching empathy in middle schools to prevent bullying, to training police officers in Washington state to have compassion for citizens with mental illness so that they can be helped or hospitalized rather than arrested, though it’s too early to judge their effects.

The refugee and the empathy crises can—but don’t have to—leave us with an action crisis. Even if MSF succeeds in generating empathy, the feeling by itself is not a solution. Still, it’s hard to see how there can be a solution without it.