So far in 2021, we’ve confronted tragedy after tragedy, experiencing a string of multiple, complex crises worldwide. We’ve seen violence and food insecurity erupt in Tigray, Ethiopia, igniting instability across the region. We’ve watched COVID-19 claim countless lives in developing nations and here at home. And in just one painful week: We witnessed Afghanistan collapse into the Taliban’s waiting hands while thousands are desperately trying to flee, and we saw an already-fragile Haiti shattered by the aftermath of a second devastating earthquake.
Suffering is deep and wide in our world today. There is no shortage of it as each dawn greets us with news of another tragedy. In the work I do at Medical Teams, these headlines speak of the individuals we serve. The stories behind them tell of vulnerable men, women and children who are on the run and in dire need of the most basic of human rights.
Americans have often responded to catastrophic suffering by seeing it as the misfortune of “others” — those born somewhere else — and yet our own experience of a pandemic and a surge of disasters here in the U.S. prove there is no place and no one immune from crisis. The line has blurred between the figurative “us” and “them.”
I am reminded this year, perhaps more than at any other time in my 30 years of work in international public health, that crises do not discriminate. Disasters are not selective. People become displaced by circumstance, not choice.
Yet despite all of this disruption and pain, many Americans are still in a privileged position to respond. How can we truly engage and empathize, avoiding the all-too-common apathy in the face of yet another crisis that needs our attention?
Here are some ways I suggest:
Remember that our history of welcoming others is the very foundation of our nation. We remember America’s rich and longstanding history of accepting immigrants fleeing from famine, oppression, and religious freedom. Are we able to reframe the narrative, to see those seeking safety and shelter today as the modern-day equivalent of those who make up the fabric of this country?
Recognize that increasing immigration is beneficial to us as a whole. The 2020 Census showed we are on course for slow population growth — the lowest rate since the 1930s. With the average age of newly arriving refugees and immigrants at 31, they bring entrepreneurial motivation and are likely to work in essential industries, thus replacing an aging workforce and bolstering demographic decline.
Accept that our actions are interconnected to the well-being of others. Climate change is one such example. Weather-related crises are the biggest accelerator of forced displacement when compared to all other factors. Our lifestyle choices no longer just impact our immediate sphere. Once we accept this reality, we can further understand our responsibility to each other.
Realize that sitting in grief with others makes us better humans: kinder, gentler and more understanding. We can’t run from the pain because those experiencing it can’t. And when we realize that we are no different, we don’t want to run away but instead run toward. Even when the burden seems too heavy, seeing others as ourselves makes caring possible, even when it hurts.
Perhaps most important, we choose to care. Choosing to care is bold and costly. But when we extend compassion, we affirm what is one of the best traditions we have as Americans. We connect our past to our future, and we can take comfort in knowing that our individual and collective acts of kindness will ultimately strengthen us as a whole.