SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Stories of Compassion: Transformative Narratives for Understanding and Empathy

When the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition invited me to join their transformative conversation workshop, I did not expect to learn the power of stories of compassion to change voter support for legislation to help migrants, refugees, and the others of our society. The right story could change one’s thinking about outsiders. It struck me that I might bring change by giving stories.

If I were to choose a story for a small child, I would find a copy of A Bear called Paddington by Michael Bond. This is a story written for the post-war children of England who had experienced removals to the countryside during the London bombing raids. This old story doesn’t seem to date. It is the delightful tale of a bear from “darkest Peru” sent to by a guardian aunt after an earthquake kills his parents. This bear is named for the station where he was found by the family that fostered him. Paddington’s woes, awkwardness and adventures helped its little listeners and readers to think with kindness of the un-English people arriving in England, because they too miss the familiarity and family of their homelands. The transformative power of this story about a lonely bear who finds a home in foreign England is demonstrated by the BBC’s use of Paddington in the royal jubilee celebrations. 

If I were to choose a story for a teenager, I might find a copy of Refugee Boy. Benjamin Zephaniah, who passed away this month, wrote this engrossing and simple story about Alem Kelo, who is both Eritrean and Ethiopian. The book reads as the eyes would inspect a tapestry: it is a skilled quilt of many stories of human mobility. This book could be the personal narrative of many people I have met in the streets of the city where I live. This book paints a deeply tragic story with such poetic beauty that it is difficult to stop reading. And when one has finished reading, it is a real boy’s voice that lingers in one’s heart. The critical acclaim of the writing of Zephaniah underscores the power of stories that give a voice to the mute migrants who live amongst us.

If I were to choose a story for an adult, it would be difficult to choose only one story.

For my dear friend who finds the arrangement of letters and words hostile, I would give Persepolis, an adult graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. Bare pictures speak of the horrors and the pain, the deep loneliness and the alienation brought by unchosen and desperate journeys, where even the family left back home could not understand “the confusion of being a third-worlder”. This double book of a journey away from and back to Iran shows - rather than tells - thousands of unspeakable stories. This autobiographic novel tells stories that words could not. I was silent and exhausted, deeply sad and humbled by the vulnerability the author seems to be bringing to the narrative. This is not merely another refugee survival story: it is a jarring testimony to the dogged resilience of people seeking home and hearth in a place where they have none.

If I were to choose another story for an adult, it might be A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg. It is the story of Asad Abdullahi: an epic tale of a child from Mogadishu who finds his adult self in Kansas City. This is an awesome biography of compassion in the face of xenophobia. It is about “loss, loss, loss” and it is about victory despite the irrationality of bureaucrats and governments.  It is no wonder that this book was translated so beautifully into a musical drama by the same name. This book would be a gift to the heart and the mind, this book would move hearts and minds.

A workshop followed by a visit to my local library and bookshop have caused me to believe that we can create a kinder world for those who find themselves in a place which is not their home. Perhaps, by giving a book, I can give the gift of human compassion to a friend at the end of this year so that next year … I hope, there will be more compassion in the world. 


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