Dr. Lisa Finlay
Director of International Services, Headington Institute, 2016.
Some credited Daniel Etter’s photo of Laith Majid, clutching his children after landing on the shore of the Greek island of Kos, with humanizing the Syrian refugee crisis. The photo went viral on social media as Majid, his wife Nada Adel, and their four children continued on from that particular moment. Journalists who had been covering refugee stories for months (it’s the biggest mass migration since World War II) commented in varying degrees of admiration and cynicism in response to the photo’s appeal. The cynicism seemed related to the fact that, for them, the most striking thing about Majid’s story was how markedly not unique it was. For them, the refugee crisis already had faces and names and histories. But for the rest of the world, an image of a family in the midst of tragedy was moving, if still very remote.
Here is one of the great divides between those whose work involves advocacy or care for vulnerable, dis-enfranchized, or displaced populations and those who work in other fields. There is a lot of variation in the things that people pay attention to on a daily basis. Most people effortlessly monitor their exposure to tragic events and stories to suit their mood and interest. This is a luxury that they hold: the ability to change the channel or not click on the link to that sobering article. But when your job involves interviewing people who are seeking refugee status, or organizing food distributions after a massive earthquake, or raising awareness of domestic violence in a culture, you are continually faced with cases of human suffering. Dr. Laurie Pearlman helped define the effects that extended interaction with negative or tragic stories can have in her writing on vicarious trauma. One component of vicarious trauma is that your worldview can become very pessimistic. Your faith in humanity or in a benevolent higher power can take a beating.
One of the things that can help is to seek out stories that will keep your perspective balanced. This could mean taking some time to review progress that has been made, or hearing from people who have not just survived trauma but recovered. Although many people may need to be reminded about the refugee crisis or even jolted into action for the cause, if you’ve been working with refugees then you may need to be reminded of something different.
When you interact with people at a desperate point in their lives, it may be impossible to know what happens and it can be hard to imagine a hopeful future for them. This is why I loved seeing the follow up story for Majid and his family. It doesn’t diminish any of the need for advocacy, aid, or relief efforts. But it does give us a glimpse of the recovery and healing that we may not see when our attention is constantly directed toward those with the most critical needs.