Sunday, January 29, 2017

Beyond Empathy: Action Over Pity

Beyond Empathy: Action Over Pity
By Soka Keo

The Academic Global Immersion (AGI) Rome Program in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco (USF) gives graduate students the unique opportunity to learn about the complexities of the refugee and migrant crises in Europe, more specifically what are the challenges in Italy and what is being done (UNHCR Facts and Figures, Italy). I was really excited for the opportunity to participate in the AGI-Rome Program but I knew this experience would be very emotional and personal for me.

To give you some background information, my parents were once refugees. My parents survived the war and genocide in Cambodia in the late-1970s (The Cambodian Genocide). My parents were forced to leave their homes, loved ones, and the country they loved so deeply. Fortunately, my parents were given the opportunity to have a better life and they were granted political asylum and immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s. As soon as my parents were able to make a new life for themselves, they dedicated their lives to helping those in need. My mom’s work with the UNHCR and various international NGOs gave me the opportunity to travel abroad and gain exposure to human rights violations, human trafficking, and refugees and forced migration issues throughout South East Asia. As a child, I knew how to spell the word refugee before I knew how to spell the word butterfly. This kind of shows you how much exposure I had to refugee crises and humanitarian emergencies while growing up. So before starting the AGI-Rome Program, I wasn’t quite sure how much I would learn, or better yet, what I would gain from participating in the program.

We started off the AGI-Rome program meeting with Father Thomas from Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). Father Thomas gave a presentation on the amazing work of JRS and I was surprised to learn that refugees spend an average of 17 years in displacement. I could only imagine how it would feel like to be in limbo for a year, let alone 17 years. Over the next few days, the topic of integration became a common theme in our guest speakers’ presentations. At Caritas Roma, we talked about how some refugees and migrants are resistant to integrating in Italy. I had thought that all refugees and migrants would be eager to integrate in order to have better opportunities and a better life. I didn’t realize that for some refugees and migrants, Italy is just a passage point in hopes of reaching countries in Northern Europe like Germany and the United Kingdom. It makes sense that some refugees and migrants don’t want to fully assimilate in Italy because there is a lot of uncertainty of what country they will be granted asylum in, if at all.

The most poignant moment in the AGI-Rome Program for me was when we visited CentroAstali and met with Anthony, a refugee from Kenya. He told us about why he and his family had to leave everything behind and flee from Kenya to Italy, a country he’d never heard of before prior to arriving there. He emphasized the message that anyone could become a refugee like him and that one way we could all help was to raise awareness.

As I was flying back home to the United States, I couldn’t help but think about how grateful I was to have the opportunity to participate and learn so much in the AGI-Rome Program. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the refugees and migrants in Italy, especially for Anthony. It’s been a few weeks since the AGI-Rome program ended and I’ve realized that feeling bad for someone isn’t going to help them unless I take action. Having pity paralyzes one from taking action and making a difference. I remind myself that I can make a difference and so can you no matter how big or small.

To learn how you can help refugees in your community, please check out these links:

Photo: Soka Keo's mom receiving her Certificate of Proficiency in English several months before she immigrated to the United States. Over 35 years later, my mom still remembers the names and faces of every one of her teachers in the refugee camp and processing center.