All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
I don’t believe that humans act solely out of the kindness of their hearts anymore – life has this way of making you increasingly jaded with age – but I do, in the naïveté I cling to, still believe in the underlying principle of that kindness. Even if thousands upon thousands of people end up inadvertently hurting others, there’s always at least one person who can make a positive difference in someone else’s life, however small. I would like to be that person for someone at least once in my life, and I think that most of us do. But as much as I believe that kindness does exist, I also believe that extending that kindness to include not only your immediate surroundings is something that has to be learned, at least to a certain extent, and that tolerance and acceptance are learning curves for all of us.
With the number of refugees migrating to Germany and other European countries and the reintroduction of border controls in these last couple of days, it is now more important than ever to talk about how and why we should all make an effort to be accepting. Contrary to what the media may lead you to believe, refugees are neither some untouchable holy entity nor some inherently opportunistic evil – they are human beings, capable of both good and evil, but definitely in need. And it is our responsibility not to look away when our fellow human beings are in need. There cannot be a limit to how accepting we can and should be in this matter. It is this simple truth that is often forgotten or dismissed in right-wing discussions in Europe right now.
Refugees are of course not only a European phenomenon. Millions of refugees also flee to countries in the Middle East, and refugees from Africa often flee to other, more stable African countries – most noticeably South Africa. South Africa was supposed to become a rainbow nation after Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, but it has faced and still faces major economic and sociopolitical problems, many of them race related. It is perhaps still surprising that refugees from other African countries who come to South Africa – a country with a non-too-distant history of oppression of the larger parts of the population by a strong, elitist minority that in many ways benefited from its exploitation – are treated similarly to how refugees in the E.U. are being treated in Hungary right now – and that they are treated that way by the very people who faced severe oppression not too long ago. In some cases, the treatment of refugees is even worse than what we are experiencing in Europe right now, with documented cases of violence and, in some cases, even deaths. It goes to show that in some ways it is human to think in categories of we and they. There will always be an other, and experience does not necessarily change that. Babies are hard-wired towards social fairness, but also to bias, i.e. they will tend to want to socialize with beings that they perceive as fair, but also with beings that are more similar to them. There are even studies that imply that babies are innately more likely to prefer their own race. These results are, of course, debatable, but it is still important to raise awareness and talk about them.
It is a hard pill to swallow, but similar hard-wiring may also be present in a lot of us. Take dating as an example. We like features in others that remind us of ourselves and the people we grew up with. In other words, we are all a little narcissistic and biased to what we know. Of course this also means that the more we are around people who are different to us from a young age – the more our world becomes interconnected and globalized, the more we’re exposed to other people’s thoughts and feelings – the more we are likely to empathize with those who are not like us. At the same time, globalization and innate power structures around the world lead people from different countries to gravitate towards a certain trajectory when it comes to their life goals, their views, and their beauty standards. This in and of itself creates problems as well.
So it may be difficult to treat the other as your sister, as your brother. But every human being is connected to you in some way. We are all humans. It is our responsibility, our moral and ethical responsibility, to treat each other with respect and kindness. If you or people you know are having doubts about how we here in Hamburg and Germany are supposed to shoulder refugees and find yourself leaning towards a more conservative stance in the matter, maybe it might be time to make yourself and others aware of this simple fact while also reflecting upon the fact that extending kindness to reach beyond your immediate surroundings is a learning curve. Perhaps exclusion does come naturally, but inclusion is, ultimately, much more human.
The people coming to Germany or wherever you may live from the Middle East, from Africa, from Asia, from South America, from less prosperous parts of Europe: They are your sisters, they are your brothers and they are dependent on your kindness. They are fleeing from war zones and instability and are just looking for a better life. Every human being has the right to pursue a life free of persecution, a life of dignity and financial stability.
So please be kind – or at the very least, take a first step towards learning to be more accepting.
If you want to get involved with helping the refugees in Hamburg, you can find a collection of links to different possibilities here. Possible options include: Donating clothes, donating food and sorting donations (e.g. Messehallen), teaching German (Sprachbrücke Hamburg e.V., many of the Bücherhallen), and helping out with e.g. doctors’ appointments.
Picture from personal archive. Simone was listening to Kettering by The Antlers.