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War and the refugee: a call for empathy in an age of intolerance

The following was given as a lecture by Dr Iain Overton at the Festival of Writing and Ideas, Borris Village, Carlow in Ireland in June 2023.

There is a long war that has waged across the world: a battle that stretches over centuries, reaching far beyond the edges of memory.  Back to when words were first captured with clay for tablets and reeds for styluses.  As far back as weapons themselves.

A war made up of three groups.

The first are the victors – they dominate the arc of history. They write the ballads, the poems, the war memoirs. They are the heroes of their own domination.

The next are the vanquished. They stand in the shadowlands of testimony. The unremembered, the unlucky – they bear the hallmark of the defeated.

Then there are the civilians who inhabit that world that lies betwixt victory and defeat, and whose ranks swell and swell again.  They are the widows and the orphans, the homeless and the nameless, the stranger and the refugee. A void of loss that permeates every conflict zone.

Witnessing this phalanx has been my life’s work.  I’ve seen their faces in the ragged bands that flee north on trains from the badlands of drug violence in Latin America.  There in the ragtag camps of Somalia, picking rice off the floor, drinking from ditches, scrabbling at the edge of life.  There in the barbed wire fields of Iraq; the lonely mountain heights of Lebanon; the fly-dense streets of Palestine.

And they will always be there – staring from the old trains and the tents and the goat-houses they call their homes; queuing with the patience of the broken at border checkpoints; watching the journalist with their questions in the thickets of forests and valleys.

When confronted with this third group, we must ask ourselves that most profound of questions: what can we, as good humans, do in the face of their suffering?

Of course, we can donate.  And we should. 

We can support attempts to alleviate their struggle.  And we should. 

We can read the stories of their grief.  And, yes, this too we should.

But of all things required of us, one emotion, I feel, stands. That of empathy.

The writer Carlos Fuentes once wrote you must “recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.”

And yes, it is easier to feel compassion for the young and the beautiful.  What is harder is to feel empathy for those whose backgrounds, creeds and faces feel so very different from our own.

But we must try. For the alternative is troubling. To ignore a person so brutalised, to be oblivious to the wounds they bear is, in the end, a blindness that harms ourselves.

Instead, rail against the media rhetoric that portrays immigrants as ‘cockroaches’; against their framing of people whose very being is assumed as ‘illegal’; rail against the manifestos of political outrage in Britain preaching to ‘stop the boats’ and to send those who arrive to Rwanda.

Deny that cold-heartedness that sees all desire to build a better life, fleeing often the very wars some European nations have fuelled, with suspicion.

Why, you may ask, should we seek to empathise with these men and women who come to our shores?

Well, let me leave you with a fact. 63% of migrants recorded landing on Britain’s beaches so far this year have been fleeing countries that, in 2022, were amongst the ten most dangerous nations on earth. Imagine fleeing Kabul or Aleppo or Darfur.  And then ask: how would you feel if you were denied sanctuary? 

As Shakespeare wrote: “would you be pleased to find a nation of such barbarous temper that… would not afford you an abode on earth.”

Of course, the answer has to be no.

A simple answer to a simple question. 

And, in the end, this is what we all should ask.

To begin an enquiry that – over time – may well blossom into a nurturing of our own humanity, our own empathy and – perhaps, even – our own capacity for love.