As I packed my bags to leave Syria in 2016, I carried within them the culmination of the experiences of the first eighteen years of my life, dominated by the overshadowing presence of war. Stepping into a new world that paid little heed to our wars and the devastation of our homeland, everything related to conflict stirred my emotions and occupied my thoughts. I remained distant from comprehending any other form of pain, understanding it, or even accepting its existence.
The early years of exile painted a fresh picture of pain, blending numerous memories of war to craft a tableau that only a Syrian expatriate, having fled the war and turmoil, could decipher. Within this tableau, a void emerged that I struggled to fill, and a clear label for it eluded me. The increasing complexity of my emotions and experiences heightened my need for empathy, at an age when the concept of empathy lacked a clear definition in my mind.
Our ability to empathize depends on the type of painful experiences we undergo. Empathy is a biased feeling, like any other, towards everything that resonates with our own experiences
The ability to empathize evolves slowly, springing from an initial awareness of pain. Pain and empathy become intertwined companions, each nurturing the other's existence and amplifying its significance. Since our capacity for empathy is founded upon the nature of the painful ordeals we endure, it becomes a sentiment biased, like any other, towards all that resonates with our own experiences. It aligns with the pain of the society in which we were born and raised. It extends to everyone who grapples with suffering that once befell us or burdens we still carry today.
For empathy to be sincere, it must emerge from a profound awareness of others' internal struggles, recognizing our shared humanity and the similarities in our fears.
Upon arriving in Germany, I had to come to terms with the fact that it was difficult for Germans – no matter how many Syrians found themselves on their land, no matter how much the media broadcasted images of the war onto their screens – to truly comprehend the emotions arising from experiences they had not lived through and hardships they hadn't come close to facing. I realized I had to find a small circle of Syrians to share positive empathy with, a way to overcome our psychological shocks together or continue striving together. Today, I affirm that without this circle's sheltering presence, being far from home in exile could have swallowed me whole, while I was laden with pain. This circle, which wasn't easily found in a world where everyone tries to project an ideal image, often at the expense of their internal collapse.
In Germany, I had to come to terms with the fact that it's difficult for Germans – no matter how many Syrians come to their land, or how much the media broadcasts war images – to comprehend the emotions arising from experiences they haven't gone through
Nonetheless, the impact of exile on empathy is distinct. Diverse experiences and the social environment we interact with expand our understanding of life in general and the circumstances that others around us, both near and far, may be living through. Living far from home compels us to engage in unconventional experiences as Arabs, sometimes working in fields beyond our expertise, building social relationships with individuals from differing intellectual backgrounds, thereby opening our eyes to new perspectives on life.
Exile doesn't diminish our emotional attachment to everything related to the homeland we were born into; rather, it opens up a space for emotions to flow beyond the boundaries of our affiliations.
Often, exile places us in a necessary confrontation with ourselves, urging us to sit at a table with our feelings, fears, and the unclear image of ourselves. Responding to this call makes us more prepared to acknowledge our shared vulnerability as humans. True empathy cannot be reached unless we accept pain as a part of human experiences, not as an individual condition directed against us. It also comes through recognizing that we don't inherently stand above others, and sometimes success is purely a matter of chance.
Empathy has a formidable enemy and a false friend: "racism and pity"
Hardly any Syrian's life is devoid of at least one racist encounter, even if in passing, like reading a fleeting news snippet on Instagram.
Racism extinguishes the flames of empathy, turning others' tragedies into opportunities for mockery and reinforcing the idea of superiority over them
In the initial years of exile, we got accustomed to exchanging phrases to alleviate the impact of racism we faced due to the German language. "Let them try learning Arabic!" I can't remember how many times I've heard this phrase. We used to say it with anger, sadness, and irony due to the Germans' lack of understanding about the challenges of living in a foreign country with a new language. They made this experience even more challenging with their condescending comments and looks.
Racism extinguishes the flames of empathy, turning others' tragedies into opportunities for mockery and reinforcing the idea of superiority over them. Pity doesn't differ much from racism in terms of the ideas it stems from. At times when pain makes us doubt ourselves, our capabilities, and our entitlement to better circumstances, the last thing we need is someone emphasizing their superiority over us with their compassion.
You're right to feel tired
Empathy resembles a consoling hand on a friend's shoulder after disappointment. It's like a gentle hand extended to lift us up after a fall, a prolonged silent embrace.
Empathy doesn't diminish the importance or value of any party; rather, it forges genuine and sincere relationships. While some might consider this emotion a natural response in certain situations, few are capable of bestowing it, and many are in need of it. Don't underestimate the human need to discuss feelings without fear of pitying glances or belittlement. To those who grant the right to embrace their pain, to those who tell them, "You're right to feel tired," .
Is it too much to ask for someone to talk about their pain? Even if all they can offer is the phrase "You're right," it renders their feelings visible, manageable, and their pain a fragile shackle that can be freed.
We grasp the extent of fears and conflicts an individual wrestles with daily within themselves. We all strive to survive, each of us through their unique ways guided by life.
In life, there are many facets of pain. The faces we encounter in our experiences may vary, but we all understand how circumstances can build or break a person. We understand the magnitude of fears and battles that humans engage in daily with themselves. We are all attempting to survive, each through their own paths life has led them to. If we are powerless in stopping the causes of pain, we are not powerless in calming the internal beasts of humans through listening and empathy.
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