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Empathy, not indignation, in Arabs’ reactions to Ukraine

A woman cries as she holds her baby after they have arrived with other evacuees from Mariupol, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, March 29, 2022. (Reuters)
A woman cries as she holds her baby after they have arrived with other evacuees from Mariupol, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, March 29, 2022. (Reuters)
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30 Mar 2022 01:03:47 GMT9
30 Mar 2022 01:03:47 GMT9

To paraphrase a Palestinian friend’s Facebook status, which he posted in a stream of reactions to news from Ukraine about people fleeing their homes as the Russian military advanced: “They left in a rush with one suitcase, thinking it is only a matter of days before things calm down and they go home. Where have I heard that before?”

The musician who now lives in the US would have heard similar accounts from his grandparents, perhaps even his parents. A generation of Palestinians who remember leaving their homes as nervous adults or as bewildered children. In the present set of events, and in a young European nation that borders a global military heavyweight, there was talk of hostilities potentially escalating over territorial and other disputes, but few believed traditional war was really a possibility. Not in Europe, they thought, not in 2022. Still, fighting broke out overnight, a full army came closing in and it was no longer possible to sleep.

More than seven decades on from their initial major exodus, many Palestinians still carry their house keys. This most precious possession is akin to an amulet that continues to promise the safety of home, while the owners move time and again across the globe through a lifetime of forced homelessness legally named refugee status. Many thought the skirmishes that broke out in neighboring villages would be resolved in a matter of days and have passed this account on to their descendants, along with a sense of belonging, even if to a homeland they have never seen. Between legal disputes about their rights and a humanitarian crisis that seems to beget more crises over the passage of time, the Palestinian people feel that their plight has not yet been fully addressed. Still, they do not fail to see the suffering of others.

The asymmetry between the overwhelming global support given today to the Ukrainian people, who have left their homes in fear only to be received with open arms, on the one hand, and the many waves of suffering undergone by the Palestinian people, who were forced to flee under similarly vague circumstances, on the other, is not lost on my musician friend. While his continuing stream of comments shows comparisons his mind cannot escape, his empathy trumps any sense of indignant injury.

Suffering is one of the most fundamental things we can recognize in each other, no matter the circumstances.

Tala Jarjour

I may be biased in seeing my friend’s comments as predominantly positive. Perhaps because I see in fellow musicians the universal side of how they experience human expressiveness. But if my bias favors some presumed innate tendency to privilege lifesaving intuitions, then let it be.

When Syrians were the refugees whose hundreds of thousands and later millions created statistical concerns for the UN Refugee Agency, I was particularly struck by accounts of descendants of Jewish victims of the extreme brutality meted out in Europe around the time of the Second World War opening their homes to Syrian individuals in various parts of Europe.

The point here is to underline a fundamentally positive notion in human nature: Empathy. As news and images of war return to our daily reality around the globe, this writer seeks to see life amid news about death.

We often hear about the survival of the fittest as a presumed law of nature that justifies aggressiveness. But social science tells a different story. Humans, anthropologists have recently argued, are vulnerable beings. Our offspring are helpless for much longer than those of jungle beasts, so human babies need much care from adults, and for a long time, to survive. Human adults cannot take care of babies while also hunting and protecting themselves, so they need each other. By the same token, adults need to be in groups to survive and groups need to work together to flourish. So the human story is predominantly one of cooperation, not competition, for survival. This is a useful notion to remember, even when millions of people have become homeless in just over a month.

Suffering is one of the most fundamental things we can recognize in each other, no matter the circumstances. People from more and more countries of the Arab world, especially those east of the Mediterranean — and for a number of unfortunate global geopolitical reasons — are all too familiar with this sad reality. It cannot be easy for them to see Ukrainian refugees receive better treatment than they did in their darkest hour. But that is not all they feel when they watch the news today.

• Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is visiting research fellow at King’s College London and associate fellow at Yale College.

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