How contact with local realities can spur your empathy

Our current challenge on What Expats Can Do is “Directly experience the lives and lifestyles of those different from us”. It made me reflect : How can we experience different lives if we do not have an entry channel to them? How can expats really become advocates for the lives and lifestyles of the people of their host countries?


mosquito net

In South Sudan photo credit ©Claudia Landini

We know that arriving in a new country and learning how to function in it is an amazing experience in that it defies our preconceptions, opens up a whole world of unknowns both on ourselves and our culture and the hosting culture, and confounds our certainties and expectations making us feel vulnerable, and in a way, new.

However, our contact with the local reality is often obstructed by circumstance and marked by disparities. We might – and we often do – find ourselves living in conditions that are much more luxurious and comfortable than those of most of the local population. This creates a barrier which makes it difficult to build relationships on an equal footing, but more so it prevents us from getting in real touch with all sections of society and learning about the reality of the more uncomfortable aspects of life for the people we are living amongst.

I personally have been very fortunate in this respect because my life abroad has been driven by my husband’s work for the Red Cross, within which I also worked at the beginning. I won’t use this article to talk in detail about this beautiful movement (you can find out more here and there), but there are three things that are important for me in relation to our current challenge:

  1. Whenever a foreign delegate of the Red Cross arrives in a new country, he/she fits in or works in collaboration with an already established local structure, with which he shares seven very simple but highly impacting principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. This means having a privileged entry channel into the new culture: Everyone involved shares the same values, intentions, methods and purpose, and this creates a base of commonality that serves to speed up the process of building relationships.

2. Working with the Red Cross means working for the most vulnerable, and acting on the basis of humanitarian principles. Local people know that when they welcome a foreign delegate, she is not there to make a profit from the country, but to work to alleviate the suffering of the local people. In my experience, this has made an enormous difference in how local people see the foreign person. And it certainly contributes to building deeper, long-lasting and fruitful relationships.

huila angola

In Angola, photo credit ©Claudia Landini

3. Working with the Red Cross means coming into contact with situations that would not be accessible otherwise. In my long experience abroad I have visited war zones, hugged malnourished children, evacuated dying people, talked to families who have lost their homes and all of their belongings, seen people discriminated and dying in solitude because they had AIDS, and visited villages where in the Internet era there is no power or even latrines.

Contact with vulnerable, marginalized or disadvantaged sections of society has been central to my life abroad. Through it, I have increased my capacity for empathy and become a more complete person. All through these years, I have approached my hosting cultures through the most painful and dire situations – epidemics, famine, wars, natural disasters. This has carved a path for me towards human suffering, and it is in shared suffering that the truest feelings and the most beautiful side of human nature can be found. It is in these kinds of situations that the best of human values are expressed. All through my life abroad I felt as if I was embracing the whole world, as if I was touching the real core of our times. And each time I was so privileged as to see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands the conditions of people who are exactly like me, but who were born on the wrong side of the planet, I felt my own humanity expanding and gaining value. Living in contact with people that struggle to rebuild a house destroyed by a hurricane or have to cope with discrimination and marginalization when struck down by AIDS or Ebola, has been the greatest lesson life abroad could ever teach me.



Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
February 2017