“My home, Syria, once a beautiful, beautiful woman…now ruined…destroyed…,” the woman across from me laments amidst a chaotic and bustling refugee resettlement camp. White dust is rising in the Greek heat from thousands of scuffing feet. Hazardous barbed wire lines the camp’s limits. We are a long way from her home.
I envision her city, Daraa, a community with sweeping archways and fluttering flags stretched across the city square. The camp is a devastating contrast; littered with trash and dubious liquids, weathered tents, and a despair so tangible I can nearly hold it. Her homesickness envelops me, a lump in the throat, a ever-widening crack in my heart. I take her hand in mine and listen as she speaks; our fingers intertwine as the crowded camp falls silent behind us.
Moria Refugee Resettlement camp is located on the eastern shore of Greece’s third largest island, Lesvos (Lesbos). A temporary home and simultaneous prison to a 4,800+ population of refugees, Moria is a land divided upon itself. Gates, locks, and barbed wire separate the refugees, yet the deep barriers of language, nationality, and stigma are what truly divide them. Many countries are represented in this predominantly Arab camp; there are Afghani, Cameroonian, Congolese, Egyptian, Iranian, Iraqi, Kurdish, Palestinian, and Syrian people. All are fleeing persecution; Moria is a mere checkpoint on their individual roads to asylum, resettlement, and peace. The tensions between refugees are distinct, carried over from their homes in the Middle East and parts of Africa. The Arabs are at odds with both the Afghanis and the Kurds, while the Palestinians, mostly Christian, float on the edges of Moria. Congolese and Cameroonian refugees stick to themselves, seemingly breaking off from the rest of the camp. Nationalities and gender physically divide Moria, each world operating behind their own padlock with their own gatekeeper. It is a city divided.
Moria refugee camp is a microcosm of division, echoing the tensions present not only in the United States, but around the globe. This idea of borders and separation is a thread woven throughout humanity. People, as a whole, operate out of a natural desire for boundaries rather than a natural response of acceptance. Humans erect altars and draw lines based on beliefs while living out their lives keeping an arm’s-length between themselves and what is different. Regardless of where you stand on the Syrian refugee crisis or any number of political controversies currently sparking passionate conversation across America, one thing is certain: we choose to align with those who think, look, feel, and operate similarly to ourselves. We draw closer to the political left, right, somewhere in the middle; we gravitate towards the places that feel comfortable and commune with those who share in our status, logic, culture, habits, beliefs, and morals. And while this is understandable and convenient, we must challenge ourselves to operate from a place of genuine curiosity rather than judgement. We should strive to reach out in a spirit to understand what is different rather than distance ourselves from the unknown. At the end of the day, it is fear of the unknown which immobilizes and isolates us from one another; dispel the fear, and a more united world draws closer. We draw closer.
Yet how do we do it? How do we even begin to bridge the tensions that crack nations in half, destroy relationships, and polarize communities? Through trial and error and from my various experiences (both within and outside the walls of Moria), I have found these practices to be the most effective in my efforts to invest in and understand others.
1. Admit we don’t know the whole story, because we don’t.
No one on earth knows anyone’s full life story, unabridged edition, footnotes and all. More often than not we don’t have the initial context or capability to fully grasp what others are experiencing. We should listen with humility and an intent to learn instead of projecting what we think we already know.
2. Reject the idea of competition whether it be racial, political, or blatant self-glorification.
CS Lewis wrote, “Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” These qualities are at the root of relational fracture; by consciously stepping away from pride and competition, we are able to move far more openly with one another and be vulnerable. This world doesn’t need more self-promotion; let’s aim to encourage, uplift, and promote one another rather than dwell on ourselves.
3. Educate yourself.
Surround yourself with people and resources that present information that is new, challenging, and doesn’t merely solidify what you already believe to be true. (Although we should absolutely keep engaging with those resources which come from a perspective we understand and agree with. While we need to know what we believe and why we believe it, we can constantly be asking questions and exploring what we value through a robust lens). The more time spent familiarizing ourselves with varying perspectives, the more well-rounded and effective we are.
4. Actively seek out people who are different from you (and might even make you uncomfortable).
The people who make us uncomfortable are oftentimes the best teachers. We learn as much about ourselves as we do from those different than us when we choose to actively engage with people who make us at least a little uncomfortable. Ask yourself questions: Why does this person make me uncomfortable? What does this say about me and my prejudices? What can I learn from this person? How do I honor this person who differs from me? How are we the same?
5. Share your revelations and thoughts with others.
Change is only real when shared; let your evolving perspective ignite passion and growth in those around you. American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. believed, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” As your love and affection grow for those who are different from you, you will be unable to stand by your preconceived notions. As you put names to those faces and invest in their lives, suddenly the injustices they face are injustices you also face; the things that threaten them threaten you. The more you learn about differences, the more you realize how similar we all are. Revelation gives way to passion — which is fed by love.
While the details and context change depending on the person, the themes and challenges we all struggle with remain the same throughout time, nation, and tongue.
Once we choose to set down our prejudices — then our hands are free to reach out and meet one another. In the midst of that hot Greek day, another refugee joined the conversation with the woman mourning beside me. A Kurdish Iraqi man, an Arab Syrian woman, an American girl — we sat cross legged in the dirt and leaned into one another in the midst of grief. As our conversation drew to a close, the Kurdish man shared a sentiment I will never forget. “We are so divided here…the others forget this is happening to all of us, not just them. This is happening to everyone. We are all in this together, as one.”
In Moria, in the United States, in the Middle East, around the globe…regardless of where we stand politically, religiously, culturally, physically — let’s stand together.