2016: The Year of the Loss of Apathy

2016: The Year of the Loss of Apathy

Photo: Abdulazez Dukhan, Through Refugee Eyes

This is 2016. It’s gone down as a year of big losses. The biggest thing that we have lost this year is the privilege of apathy. To put that in more basic terms, we have lost our privilege to turn a blind eye and to not give a damn without experiencing massive consequences. Personally. The problem with this type of social and political passivity is that these consequences aren’t immediate and they aren’t obvious. They often don’t make themselves known and understood until it’s too late.

When I was a kid, my parents told me not to touch the stovetop. Your parents probably told you the same thing. We weren’t able to draw on past experiences like “hey, if I touch something hot, that’s a big mistake” or “I know that stoves are deceptively hot, even if I can’t see an open flame, therefore I should not touch the stove top”. We had to trust, and we had to think as critically as we could with the information we had. “Well, mom was right about not sticking your finger in the toaster, I never see her sticking her fingers in the toaster or putting her hand on top of the stove. With this information, I can conclude that maybe reaching up on to that counter will result in something unpleasant, scary, and regrettable. Therefore, I won’t.”

Right now, I am urging you not to place your hand on the stove top. This is not the time to learn from your own mistakes, to feel the slow burn and then to be left reeling in regret. This is the time to listen to the experiences others have that you may not, and to use your critical thinking about the situation at hand. Every single Syrian refugee I met in my work in Europe will tell you that not too long ago they went to sleep thinking the same thing you do: “It won’t be me.” Today they wake up in a tent in a refugee camp, their lives having changed in a blink of an eye. Do you really think that communities full of doctors and lawyers, engineers, teachers, educated people, do you really think that this entire conflict and conflicts like it evolves purely from brutal war tactics and ruthless leaders? No. Conflicts like these are conceived in populations who do not consider their basic human rights to be at stake until they’re already gone. It’s a slow and calculated process. The things we fear the most: bombs, guns, warfare, those things are just small factors of these wars. It’s the subtle manipulations that fuel them, and it’s the apathy of the populations and of the global community that allows them to grow until they’re too big and complex to solve.

While I was working in the refugee camps of Greece, my Syrian family, a large community of people living in various camps around Thessaloniki in the north of Greece told me to tread carefully. They told me to recognize and appreciate my freedoms, because they can be so easily taken away. Today a member in the audience of a talk I gave on Aleppo and the refugee crisis told the story of her neighbor from Ukraine who voiced an identical warning. She fled the country and does her best to get her family out to safety because slowly but surely their freedoms were encroached on, and one by one they are being robbed of them.

When you lose the basic rights that these people have been stripped of, you are unable to fight your own battles. No wonder we never consider that, what a terrifying realization.

To then realize that we didn’t step up to fight that battle on their behalf when their own means to do so were taken away? That is where we have failed. When families are forced to flee from internationally outlawed weapons falling from the sky, that is where we have failed. When medical professionals fear for their lives because bombs are falling on hospitals and doctors and nurses are being punished for simply but heroically upholding the oaths they made to protect people, to help people regardless of ethnicity, religion, nationality or politics, that is where we have failed. When all of this information was shouted from the rooftops across news and political platforms and we chose apathy, that is where we have undoubtedly failed.

How does this apply to us? This is America. We have a democracy. We have our rights and our voices, how is it our obligation to fight for these things for someone else? And why should I feel shame when I myself have not experienced any personal losses?

With the swish of a pen on a dotted line, women, the LGBTQ community, ethnic minorities, indigenous populations, migrants, they can lose the rights that we have fought so hard for them to have. This is not an exaggeration. The legislation passed against women at the state level in the past few years is nothing less than horrifying. Where is our outrage? I fear that we are too busy setting it for when it’s too late. The damage has been done. We’ve left our palm sitting on that burner for far too long for us to ever be the same again. Will we heal? Of course, but the healing process is far more daunting and complex than the split seconds it takes for the damage to be done. That is how this applies directly to you.

Today, for Aleppo, your likes, shares, tweets, phone calls and dollars are meaningless to the thousands of lives that have been lost and the millions that have been changed forever. Shame on us. That is the cost of apathy. It is human rights. It is human lives. Today it’s theirs, but victims of conflict will be the first to tell you that tomorrow, it could very easily be you.

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