WE’VE all done it. We walk down the street and see a homeless man asking for some small change and we stride straight past avoiding his eye. Or we read about children in Burma being brutally persecuted and muster a brief flicker of outrage before turning the page and continuing on with our day.
It is understandable on some level; we all lead hectic and stressful lives. At times we don’t feel we have the energy to step into another’s shoes. Sometimes it’s easier to live in denial than it is to face up to the monstrous size of an issue in which you feel helpless to do anything.
Our empathy, while real, is short-lived and we often need a stark reminder in order to feel any at all. A shocking picture of a lifeless body washed ashore, for example, or a controversial right-wing political standpoint to dominate the headlines before we really sit up and listen.
But with the rise of anti-refugee sentiment that we see simmering around the world, short-lived empathy may not be enough.
We have seen countless instances of refugees being unfairly treated and bullied by those nations in which they seek solace.
Not long ago we saw Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution being turned away by Bangladesh, Thailand and even Malaysia.
More recently we heard of Australia attempting to bribe occupants of the Manus detention centre to return home in a bid to get rid of the “problem”.
And of course, we have seen the headline-grabbing travel ban policy coming from the U.S. administration.
The narrative around refugees is also becoming more loaded. The language used to describe them is becoming more inflammatory, with people often describing them as “illegals” rather than acknowledging their status as asylum seekers and refugees.
Right wing politicians are becoming more vocal, like Pauline Hanson in Australia claiming the country is “being swamped by Asians” and using sweeping statements such as, “Muslims are prominent in organised crime with associated violence and drug dealing,” to fuel fear in the community.
U.S. President Donald Trump is also using language that associates refugees with terrorism and crime. All of this is very dangerous rhetoric that is whipping certain sectors of the population into a storm of fear and fury.
It is easy to get bogged down in the politics associated with refugees, and it is easy to get caught up in the unending reality show that is the Trump presidency; every day a new scandal emerges that puts pay to the one before.
But we have to maintain that this behaviour towards refugees is not normal and we have to make sure that we don’t rely on sensational headlines to be able to remember that. Our empathy is needed here, and not for a fleeting moment, because behind every shocking photo in the pages of your newspaper there are a thousand un-photographed refugees struggling with a life in limbo.
And this life in limbo has never been more uncertain than it is now.
“People are hopeless. People are scared. We don’t know what the future holds.”
These are the words of Sharifah Shakirah, a Rohingya activist living in Malaysia. And she is a woman who knows all too well the reality of a life in limbo.
Sharifah is a refugee herself, arriving in Malaysia 19 years ago at the tender age of three, and has dedicated her time here to helping others with her charity Rohingya Women Development Network.
As a leader in the community, Sharifah is more than aware of the fear and uncertainty that envelope many of the refugees’ lives.
“In Malaysia, we cannot build a life here, we cannot fly, but now (given the uncertainty of resettlement) children’s hopes and dreams are just gone. Now the wings have been cut off.”
“People are scared and I cannot tell them that it will be okay.”
“People here are feeling hopeless,” she said, “the U.S. is the only place we can go. We have no choice on resettlement and we may get banned if we refuse.”
Sharifah herself was hoping to join her family in America where they were resettled five months ago, but her prospects now are unknown as Trump’s executive order has been blocked by the court and a new one is reportedly expected soon.
But even for those who have been successfully placed, life is far from easy.
Friends, as well as her father and five siblings, ranging in age from five to 22 years old, have experienced racism and persecution in their new home of Texas.
“People in the U.S. don’t feel safe,” Sharifah explains. “Trump is the true face of America, he’s being so open about his racism that it’s affecting many people living there. Everyone is afraid.”
She has had a Muslim refugee friend investigated by the government for reasons that she believes are purely because she is Muslim.
“She is a U.S. citizen, married to a U.S. citizen, and had her phone hacked and was being investigated for ISIS links only because she is Muslim.”
Her younger brother is attending school and has been repeatedly bullied, has taunts shouted at him in the playground and has no friends, again, purely because he is Muslim.
Sharifah is understandably worried for her family and is now wracked with guilt as they went to America on her advice.
“I feel very guilty for sending my family, now they live in fear. I don’t dare to encourage other people to go now,” she said. “It is a horrible topic as it is affecting our whole family. My hands are tied, I’m unable to protect them as I’m too far away.”
It seems, as is the case of Rohingya’s in Malaysia, refugees have the choice of being hopeless and marginalised here or living in a world of fear and suspicion in their new homes.
As anti-refugee sentiment grows, this conundrum is only likely to get worse. Life will become increasingly difficult if refugees are viewed as the dangerous ‘other’ as some politicians would like us to believe.
We need to remember that for every headline and every shocking photo there are real experiences and real people hidden behind them.
Our empathy and outrage cannot be fleeting, it must be sustained and be heard as a call to action.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent