10 Nov Voices: Why we should care about Syria

A beautiful piece on the intersection of war, empathy and memory, by my friend Kristin Deasy. (Special for USA TODAY. November 10, 2014)

The other night I was lying stretched out on my apartment floor, trying to imagine myself someplace stress-free. Everything was going just like therapists said it would, until I heard the sound of a plastic chair scraping the ground at a cheap hotel in Reyhanli, Turkey, 3 miles away from Syria.

I lived there a year ago, working as a journalist, and I remember the moment perfectly. I was interviewing a Syrian rebel sniper, a woman of about my own age who had been jailed years before the conflict began. I had just asked her, through a translator, if there had been any sexual abuse during her imprisonment.

I don’t exactly know how to describe what happened to her when she realized what I was asking — her eyes dilated briefly and then collapsed in on themselves. I lost all connection with her face, which is huge when you’re interviewing in a language you don’t understand. Her chair scraped loudly as she abruptly got up to walk around the corner and calm herself before returning to answer the question in the affirmative.

I wrote about her, but the piece was never published, maybe because there was so little assurance the Western public would read another story about the bloodshed in Syria. It can be difficult to read about what’s going on there. For one thing, the conflict is complicated. Syria is a pawn in a complex geopolitical power struggle. That is precisely why tens of thousands of innocent people are being slaughtered and no one is doing much to stop it.

Which brings up the other, bigger reason it’s hard to read about Syria — it means reading about war. It’s hard. There aren’t many feel good stories. That’s why the scraping of a plastic chair has come to haunt me.

I wish I could do something, I should be doing something, I’d think. Similar feelings often arise, I think, when people read about what’s happening in Syria. It makes them feel bad, or it seems pointless — great, more bad news I can’t do anything about.

But reading does do something about it, provided that reading is engaged and empathetic. If a reader takes a moment to imagine opening the front door and finding her or his missing child’s hacked-up body parts on the doorstep, which is what people told me Syrian President Bashar Assad was doing to enemy parents in some places, that is a profound act of compassion that not only changes the reader, but also creates space within that person for future action.

Education and empathy till the interior soil, readying it for whatever seed may fall, however small. Maybe someone asks for a donation to a cause and this reader says yes instead of no the next day. It may not seem like much, but the momentary flicker of empathy that story-telling and narrative reporting calls us to make is a powerful thing. It invites us to make a human connection with the greater world in which we live.

That visualization, in turn, readies us for greater participation in that world. It also makes us more aware of opportunities to do something about the situation. Awareness gives us the power to show up, to be in relationship our whole world, not just our place of residence or our social networks.

You probably didn’t want to know that Syrian woman I spoke with that day told me she was repeatedly gang-raped and tortured, lighted cigarettes ground into her arms while in prison; nor is it likely you wanted to contemplate the ways Syrian families have been systematically dismembered. But if you did, if you dared to touch their pain from however far away, then you did do something. You chose to be present in a reality that is not your own — collectively, that simple act has power to seize the world.

Deasy is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires

Link: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/11/10/why-we-should-care-about-syria/18557065/