Friday, June 7, 2013

Enhancing empathy

Published in the Fiji Times' "Off the Wall with Padre James" on May 29th, 2013

LIVING in a situation with people of different ethnicities and cultures and trying to create a sense of unity, we can often overlook the difficulties experienced because of our differences or particularities.
In my time away from home these past two years, I have lived closely with colleagues not only from Korea, but India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Kenya, Togo, Liberia and Sri Lanka. Being a seasoned traveller, I consider myself extremely adaptable to differing contexts. However listening to their situations, both in Korea and, for the foreigners, back in their homeland, gave me a greater understanding of the struggles.
Sometimes that is the case for us in Fiji where communities have existed side-by-side for generations and know of each other but do not really know each other. By "knowing" I mean not just knowing names and occupations, but knowing their problems, their dreams, their fears, their reality.
I recently read an article by Steven Youngblood, the director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University. Youngblood is in Lebanon in this month directing peace journalism workshops for students and for professional journalists.
Peace journalism aims to open the framework for how reporting and journalism is done, especially during times of crisis. It calls for journalists to look beyond the immediate events and to frame them in a wider context. At the same time it calls for not just news of the parties engaged in conflict but also those affected on all sides by the conflict.
Youngblood's article, written in Beirut, illustrates this: "We've all walked past the poor or the homeless asking for money, usually not giving them a second thought. I was about to do the same thing yesterday until the young journalists I was accompanying on a reporting assignment stopped and engaged one such middle-aged man, whom I'll call Hakim, in conversation.
"Believe me, Hakim doesn't have your usual down-on-his-luck story. But then again, the same can probably be said for the other 463,000 Syrian refugees (UNHCR) who have made their way here into neighbouring Lebanon.
"As we approached Hakim, the first thing we noticed was the odour. It's hard to guess, but it's been many days, perhaps weeks, since Hakim has bathed. He was sitting on the sidewalk, splayed, ironically, in front of a fancy jewellery store on Hamra St, in the centre of Beirut's upscale shopping district.
"As the well-heeled shoppers robotically wheeled around us, we stooped to speak to Hakim.
"He explained three times that he had never been in this position before, that he "never had to beg" to survive. Hakim said he was going to get bread for his family in Syria when a massive explosion killed his entire family and left Hakim's foot injured. To dispel any doubts about this, and to elicit sympathy, his foot was prominently displayed, jutting out into the middle of the sidewalk. I could see that the foot was injured, but didn't want to look too closely.
"Hakim said that he smuggled himself in to Lebanon almost two years ago, right after the explosion. He crossed the border with nothing but his ID. He has been looking for relatives who live in Lebanon, but hasn't located them yet.
"Even as a self-described beggar, Hakim said that life on the streets of Beirut is 'safer than the streets of Syria. If they see me in the streets of Syria, they would run me over'. In fact, he said that in comparison, life in Lebanon 'is almost like a hotel'. But one minute later, Hakim did an about face, commenting, 'I have no help. The situation is very bad'.
"Hakim is one of 88,000 Syrian refugees living in Beirut, according to the UNHCR. This makes sense, since Beirut is only 55 miles from Damascus, Syria's capital. Syrian refugees come from all walks of life, as I learned during our visit to Hamra Street. In fact, we met a group of four very well dressed and presumably wealthy Syrian women who were window shopping, a Syrian retail clerk who charmed my female companions with his intelligence and good looks, and four Syrian construction workers laying concrete blocks.
"Their stories all differ, but unlike Hakim, all were reluctant to call themselves refugees or admit that they have been in some way victimised. My Lebanese companions insisted this refusal to admit victimisation was Arab pride. I told them that I believe that no one anywhere likes to admit that that they are vulnerable.
"Our discussion with Hakeem and the others was part of an assignment in my peace journalism workshop to produce stories about Syrian refugees. As the participants wrote stories about the Syrians the day after their reporting forays into the city, we all shared a 'count your blessings' moment.
"The Lebanese student reporters said that they now have a better and more sympathetic understanding of the refugees who have crowded into their tiny country. I hope that, through their journalism, these students can help spread this enhanced empathy among their Lebanese neighbours."
(Source: Follow Steven Youngblood onTwitter: @PeaceJourn)
In Fiji, where sometimes the coconut wireless is faster and has more news than newspapers, radio or television can provide, the example set by these student reporters in their new understanding of the "others" in their communities is not only for student and professional journalists to follow.
We are all citizen journalists in Fiji. We all share the stories we hear or of our experiences. However, it is no longer enough to just report what we see or hear, but to try to understand each situation and share our understanding. It is no longer enough for us to share stories about events and people. We must share the lessons learned from our experiences and also share the experiences of those different from us so that we can truly start to understand each other.
"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity."
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, and currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

No comments:

Post a Comment