WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

Empathy in…a bottle

 

An 8-year-old child in Gaza has lived through three rounds of conflict. A year after the summer 2014 hostilities, the children of Gaza are still recovering from the nightmare. They are growing up in bleak conditions, surrounded by poverty and violence. But they still have dreams… (UNRWA #SOSGAZA )

 

I received this bottle as a gift from a friend who wanted to support the UNRWA #SOSGAZA project for children’s education in Gaza (don’t miss their beautiful video). I kept it closed for a long time because I was looking for a special occasion to open it. This occasion came when I discovered Diala Brisly, a Syrian artist who fled her war-torn country, and whose work with Syrian refugee children touched my heart. Using her talents, empathy and lots of love, Diala helps children overcome the trauma of war, and keep their hope alive. I invite you to discover Diala’s work and story through:

When I asked Diala to be with me when I opened the bottle, she did not hesitate.

When I saw the drawing, I was utterly moved. I had expected bombs, war airplanes and blood to fill the page, and instead we saw this:

 

 

The sharp contrast between the peacefulness of the drawing and what children in Gaza go through hit me in a way I can hardly describe.

Later Diala translated what is written on it: the name of the kid, Arij, her age (14), her school name (Al-ma’mounieh), and the title of the drawing: I WISH I COULD BE.  I believe it says it all.

Diala was so touched by yet another sign of how deep and desperate the desire for normality in children living in conflict zones is, that she decided to send us a gift: an image she illustrated for a children’s magazine that used to be distributed in Syria, but that stopped a few months ago, because of lack of funding.

She accompanied it with a reflection on Arij’s drawing:

 

Arij said: I wish I could be, and we try to encourage Syrian kids to keep on dreaming, we remind them of normality while a lot of killing is happening  around, we provoke them to build their imaginary world since we can’t build them a better one.

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said:
The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.
Kids are the best in using their imagination.
Kids like Arij are struggling in many conflict zones to keep some of their childhood, and while we should tell them how truly hard life is, we should also help them manipulate this life so they can be ready when the grow up.

 

 

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In Danish schools, empathy is taught one hour a week. To have happier adults.

It is called “Klassens tid”: children learn to listen to others, to have a multi approach to problems, and to develop a strong team spirit. All of this while sharing a cake they have made in class.

Empathy is the ability to identify with the feelings of others, to step into someone else’s shoes. It is a crucial personal skill, especially when working with others and within a couple relationship. Being empathic is something one should ideally learn within the family as a child; however, some think that children are losing this ability, and will therefore be less happy as adults.

More narcissism, less empathy

A recent Michigan University study, carried out on about 14 thousand university students showed that the young today have roughly 40% less empathy than their peers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with a marked increase of mental troubles and depression. Some believe that this is due to the fact that our society has become much more narcissistic (self absorbed) than it was 30 years ago. A completely different example comes from the north, from the land with the happiest inhabitants in the world, according to the “World happiness report 2016”. In Denmark empathy is a compulsory lesson at school once a week, between the age of 6 and 16. It is called “Klassens Tid”, or “class time”.

empathy in denmark

Photo credit: StartupItalia!

Listening to the others while eating a cake

This is how it goes: children discuss among themselves their individual or group problems. If someone has a problem that she can’t solve alone (let’s think for example of bullying), this hour is her opportunity to be heard, to receive endorsement and encouragement from the others through their listening. Gradually the children learn the importance of mutual respect. After listening, the group will discuss the problem, considering all points of view and try to find a solution.

The children are not afraid to speak up, because they feel part of a community, they are not alone.

Creating a welcoming atmosphere that puts everyone at ease is the basis for this hour: only in this way can children feel free to express themselves and feel free to think; to be able to see things in an  objective light. During Klassens Tid, while listening to their classmates, the children eat a cake they have made together. (here’s the recipe). This increases the sense of family in the classroom.

These lessons have taken place in Denmark since 1870, and in the 1990s were officially introduced into the national school curriculum. They are not only useful to the children, but also to the teacher, who, by listening with the students, is able to create a more inclusive and warmer learning environment.

Empathy can be taught

It is certainly not easy to measure the effectiveness of the “empathy lesson” on adults. There are many reasons why Danish people are amongst the happiest in the world: high income, an equal society, excellent welfare in health, education and socialization. But even with these conditions, the Klassens Tid continues: it seems then that Danish citizens not only recognize the importance of empathy, but they believe that it is not something one is or isn’t born with, but rather it is a skill that can be learnt and should be taught. Children need to practice empathy just as they need to practice math or sports.

 

This article was written by Italian journalist Carlotta Balena and originally published in Italian on StartupItalia!

December 2016

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