Brothers and Sisters

It was easy to ignore them when the sun was shining. Our first two days in Istanbul, we had perfect early fall days - sun that warmed your skin without making you sweat, and cloudless skies that set flawless backdrops for the minarets of the mosques jutting up into the blue. As I strolled happily through Sultanahmet with good friends, we knew the refugees were there. Families approached as we left stores with colorful lamps and bags full of Turkish bath towels. They asked for money while we sipped on $4 pomegranate juices and lounged on sofas outside of nice hotels.

And always we said what I always say to people asking for money on the street, "no, sorry." I felt bad, but I didn't know what else to do. I wasn't even totally sure they were refugees - the skeptic in me wondered if they were just people claiming to be in order to garner more sympathy and get more money. Yes, I can be incredibly cynical.

Two weeks later, I returned to Istanbul after a beautiful vacation - hot air ballooning, cruising on a private yacht, eating fancy meals - and the city looked different. Fall had come on in full force, and the days were wet and chilly. I was unprepared, with my summer shoes and light rain jacket. I spent a lot of days curled up inside, drinking tea to stay warm.

One afternoon I ventured out to the modern art museum a few blocks from my apartment. It was a gross day - pouring rain, freezing cold. Even with my rain jacket, hiking shoes and umbrella, I was still miserable on the 5-minute walk. As I neared the museum, I saw a woman in the grass off to my right side trying, rather unsuccessfully, to create a shelter for herself with a large cardboard box. And when the crowd on the sidewalk cleared I noticed the man to the left, presumably her husband - crouched on the ground under a tree, holding a small child, maybe a year or two old. The man had his whole body curled over, trying to protect the boy who was wrapped up as much as he could be in the ends of dad's suit jacket. Water was streaming down the man's head into his eyes, and he held out a hand for money.

It was a heart-wrenching scene, but I still didn't know what to do about it. I started to pass by as usual, but something made me turn around. I walked over to the man and held out my umbrella - "would you like this?" "Thank you," he said, in unaccented English, and gestured to the child. It wasn't enough. It wouldn't change this family's fate, it wouldn't feed them for the day, or get them a safe place to sleep, or buy them a berth on a boat to Europe. But it was all I knew to do in that moment, and at least it felt like I was acknowledging their humanity, their sacrifice and suffering.

I returned home wet and cold, but incredibly grateful that I had a dry home to return to. I had read about the war in Syria and knew there was a refugee crisis, sure, but until I got to Turkey it had felt so far away - easy to ignore. The magnitude of it became much clearer the longer I spent in Turkey, and as the numbers on the news became faces on the street my skepticism turned into compassion and then into action, however small.

In the last few weeks a lot of hearts - and borders - have closed to the people of Syria. I know that people are scared, and that it's more work to feel compassion for people who seem different from us. But if we value every life equally, we have to act like it. Even when it's scary, when it's expensive, when it's inconvenient. Sometimes we falter - I know I do - and we have to call ourselves out. And sometimes we have to work at it - compassion is a practice, not a passive state.

Of course I don't have the answer - for Syria, or for the billions of people in the world suffering due to war, famine, poverty, oppression. But I know that we have to do something differently, and I think compassion is the foundation.

I'll end with a couple of quotes from the Dalai Lama (my go-to on all things compassion related):

"Change in ourselves and in the world in which we live may not take place in a hurry: it will take time. But if we don't make an effort nothing will happen at all. Change will not take place because of decisions taken by governments or the UN. Real change will take place when individuals transform themselves guided by the values that lie at the core of all human ethical systems, scientific findings, and common sense."

"When we say "I love the members of my own family, the people of my own religion or country or color" bias limits our affection. But with proper practice, from an ordinary level of affection we can develop an unbiased universal love, in which we don't care what other people's faith is, their nationality, or social status - so long as they are human beings, they are our brothers and sisters."

If you want to do something to help our Syrian brothers and sisters, consider making a donation to one of the many organizations working to keep them safe in Syria, run refugee camps in neighboring countries, and help them build new lives as they resettle elsewhere.

And if you are interested in learning how to better help our brothers and sisters suffering all over the world, consider this online course on Effective Altruism. I'm only partway through, and I don't agree with everything he says, but it has really made me think about the impact I want to have on the world, and how I can try to achieve it. 


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