We were volunteering at an orphanage for children with AIDs in Cape Town, South Africa when Rihanna began serenading us through the speakers. The song was undoubtedly intended to be fun background noise for club goers to gyrate to, but in that moment, within that context, it felt so much more powerful.
“We fell in love in a hopeless place. We fell in love in a hope-less place.”
As I looked at Zoë, surrounded by happy babes unaware of their uncertain futures, she met my gaze and we simultaneously acknowledged a significance the artist never intended. Our eyes misted together for a moment before the children restored our happiness.
That was the last time a silly pop song had brought me to tears. That is, until a few weeks ago.
During our October trip through Italy and Greece, we received a crash course on the Syrian crisis. Both countries have become part of the impromptu refugee highway created by the mass exodus from the middle east. Media coverage of the crisis is omnipresent. After reading yet another article covering the needless drownings of dozens of children, the lines between inaction and complicity started blurring for us. We bought two tickets to Lesvos (the entry point for the majority of refugees seeking safety within the EU) and would spend the next three weeks volunteering on the island.
It was around this time that Adele’s “Hello from the other side” ascended the charts. Adele is exponentially more capable than Rihanna in her ability to move the masses to tears, but it’s usually due to catalyzing some personal reflection regarding a failed relationship. However, as the song continued to be part of our journey, with Adele belting lyrics from the speakers of miscellaneous gyro shops, hotel elevators and tiny European cars, the song become metaphorical in more ways than one.
The first instance occurred as we arrived in Molyvos, on the north shore of Lesvos. As I climbed a small wall in the harbor to get my first peak at the ocean that had claimed so many refugees, the proximity to Turkey took my breath away. Turkey wasn’t just “in sight” as I had heard. It was so close, you could make out the houses on the other side. With a pair of binoculars you could see the boats depart from the shores as the Turkish mafia overloaded sub-par rafts with far too many people. Refugees weren’t drowning on some daunting Columbus-esque journey. They were dying in plain sight. To be so close yet so incapable to provide aid was frustrating to a degree I had never previously felt. I could literally say (or at least scream) hello from the other side of the water. Never had the tranquil blue of the ocean seemed more black and murderous.
It wasn’t until the Paris attacks, which occurred during our second week on the island, that I realized the refugees were on the other side of something much more treacherous than the water that had swallowed far too many of them. As I watched my Facebook feed fill with the red, white and blue French flag overlay during the same week that downtown Beirut lost more than 50 in a bombing and the Syrian body count crossed the quarter of a million mark, it became all too apparent that these people were on the other side of western empathy.
Responsibility for the lack of outcry and assistance lies within our collective ignorance regarding the 1.5 billion people that make up the Muslim world. The gigantic region that stretches from the western border of China to north-west Africa is often mentally lumped together by westerners as one failed state, plagued with extremist who live in a perpetual state of chaos. We’ve been taught, through a media narrative that paints a singular terrible picture, that “those people” are always fighting and dying. “Those people” are irrational and can not be saved from themselves.
This ignorance equates to a lack of empathy manifested by westerners that serves as a mental self-defense mechanism of sorts. If you believe every Muslim nation has been burning for over half a century, why get bent out of shape when the flames jump a little higher than usual.
These thoughts are so deeply ingrained in our cultural fabric that it took an image of a dead 2 year old boy, one who could not possibly be responsible for the tragedies of his country, to cause a ripple of empathy.
Aylan’s drowning is a tragedy, but it should also be a reminder that there are hundreds of thousands of children whose survival and opportunity to live a productive life rely on our actions today. Knowledge can trump ignorance. Love can destroy fear. Empathy can defeat apathy. Humanity can do better than this. We can close the mental chasms that keeps us on opposite sides. Only then will the physical chasms follow suit and people will stop dying.