Refugee Week: Compassion in Action

By volunteer, Benny Bruce.

Our task must be to free ourselves – by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” —Albert Einstein

© Elisa Bernal Arellano for Action Against Hunger

The theme of Refugee Week 2023 is compassion—defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.”

Compassion is a powerful force. We believe that it is intrinsic to almost every human being. Yet, in our world today, we witness the widespread mistreatment of refugees, the denial of their human rights, and a lack of empathy for the horrors they face.

Most people would respond with compassion if the life of a friend, family member, or even a distant acquaintance was turned upside-down by conflict, simply due to the suffering of a fellow human being.

Why then is compassion not extended to refugees?

The sad truth is that becoming a refugee can deprive people of their personhood—of the right to be a ‘fellow human being’. ‘Refugee’ is a reductive term which describes millions of normal people; husbands, wives, sons, daughters, doctors, nurses, teachers, businesspeople, artists and students who are reduced to the pursuit of safety for themselves and their families—often without the basic rights and respect afforded to others.

Cultivating Compassion: Our Approach

In turn, this experience can diminish an individual’s sense of self, robbing them of their past, their individuality, their dreams and desires. Even some models of humanitarian aid distribution can compound this—reinforcing a cold feeling of powerlessness and dehumanisation.

We strive to bring dignity, humanity and a sense of normality back to the lives of refugees. At the heart of our approach are our Dignity Centres, which break the conventions of ‘aid’ distribution by mimicking a shopping experience.

The result is more than distribution. Even if only for a fleeting moment, we restore a sense of agency, giving people the power to make choices like anyone else. While it may seem mundane, shopping is a universal experience. It’s one of the most ordinary, human things you can do.

While compassion is often associated with overt gestures, our volunteers embody it in a very different way. Rather than performing grand gestures, which create a dynamic of dependency, we create a space for compassion in our Dignity Centres. A space in which families can partake in the ordinary experience of selecting essentials and indulging in a few treats.

In addition to addressing material needs, our Dignity Centres foster a sense of community and respect. They are spaces where individuals can support each other, offering not only food but also warmth and solidarity.

Compassion Breeds Compassion

When volunteering with us, many people expect to return home feeling depressed and powerless. In fact, the vast majority are inspired and invigorated by the experience, and the like-minded individuals they encounter, both among fellow volunteers and beneficiaries.

Our Dignity Centres bring people together who would never usually cross paths. The shared experience unites them—knocking down boundaries that become insignificant. In the modern world, there are strong polarising forces keeping us apart, but as humans, our commonalities are far greater than our differences.

Over and above material exchange, the human exchanges that take place daily in our Dignity Centres reinforce our belief that compassion can cross borders and overcome policy and ideology to unite and galvanise people to action. Despite its inevitable encounter with suffering, compassion doesn’t necessarily lead to sadness. On the contrary, it can be a pathway to joy. Feeling compassion is life affirming.

Compassion is good for us, it’s good for others and it’s highly addictive.

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