The news headlines for the past few weeks have been dominated by the ongoing tragedy in Syria, with stories about the thousands of people leaving home, desperately seeking safer futures for themselves and their families. Those who are in refugee camps may have reached a haven of sorts, but life is still far from normal. Children are particularly vulnerable, in both the short and long term, affected by lack of food and shelter, not to speak of a complete absence of access to education.
It’s difficult not to be moved by those images, especially of the young ones, but sympathy from a distance is always the easy response. For the countries and communities actually facing the influx of Syrian refugees, it is a more complicated situation. On the one hand, there have been many stories of spontaneous generosity, of people opening up their homes and hearts to strangers, entire villages coming out to receive refugees with blankets and food, setting up school spaces and community halls as temporary shelters. On the other hand, countries have responded by fencing off their borders and closing off entry pathways, citing stretched capacities and insufficient resources.
Attitudes toward “outsiders” and “others”, our sense of entitlement as citizens, the ownership we feel over resources of various kinds…these are developed quite early on. Conversations within the home, school and among peers reinforce these attitudes and the walls they build between “us” and “everyone else”. But the various political, social and environmental shifts that are happening globally are creating uncertainties even in the most stable of countries. Everything is connected, and the connections sometimes become visible only in times of crisis.
Maybe the task of teaching interdependence and empathy is more important than transmitting content that will get our students high marks and admission into professional colleges. While we continue to deliver concepts and skills, we can also develop in children a keen awareness of issues of the day, so that they can react to crises with compassion and understanding rather than suspicion and fear. They need to understand, for instance, that what may happen many borders away has repercussions for families closer to home; and that we can no longer take refuge behind national boundaries or narrow notions of ownership.
In the past decade or so there certainly has been an increasing emphasis on what we loosely label “soft skills” or “life skills”, including conflict resolution and empathy. But more often than not these are pitched as skills one needs for the job market, rather than for the much more serious business of everyday life. Maybe it would help to talk about and unravel the various responses to the Syrian refugees and other such global humanitarian crises, and give those skills a test run. Maybe then, more of us would be out there with open arms and blankets, and fewer would support shutting the needy out.