Belonging to each other

Belonging to each other

Photo courtesy Miriam Nabarro, London

‘We belong to each other’: these old words of wisdom remind us to care for and to hold sacred all that unites us, all that binds us together. Acknowledgement of our intimate and inescapable human connection—long forgotten, ignored, or denied—has now been forced upon us by a virus we barely understand, cannot yet contain, and, above all, fear.

Fear can be a powerful foe, or the greatest of teachers. In this unique and fleeting global moment we have an opportunity to confront our fear head on. To look deeply into its eyes and to see—if we are brave enough—reflections of ourselves, of our societies, of what we have become, and of how we have forgotten to be.

It was only a few weeks ago, on 2 March 2020, that a shocking Euronews video clip documented the Hellenic Coast Guard using prods and warning shots to push away a dinghy carrying desperate human beings in search of safety and hope. They were denied at the borders of a European ‘civilization’ once proud of its Herodotean ideals of fairness and equal liberty.

That basic and universal aspirations such as safety and hope should regain their meaning in a global pandemic gives pause to the sense of entitlement that has prevailed among the world’s fortunate few. As entrenched international and national systems falter and business-as-usual is no more, we have a rare opportunity to reconsider the societies we want. From such terrible circumstances emerge the possibility to imagine different ways of being, for we know that there are so many better ways we could be.

Yet the possibility of transformation can be terrifying, so the obvious default option is to resuscitate defunct systems and reinforce corroded ideals. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What we need now more than ever is courage—of the most basic and universal kind—to see into the darkness of this unknown how we are also being given a chance to save ourselves.

Feeling where it hurts

Feeling where it hurts

Ruby Sales, civil rights-era luminary and leading theologian, once asked a young sex worker who was battling out her daily survival on the margins of segregation-era America: ‘Where does it hurt?’. Into gently listening ears, the young woman’s story flooded forth: a personal chronicle of family abuse and intimate violation, transposed upon the history of entrenched social injustice. These co-occurring hurts lived in the same territory of pain.

Where is the pain, and what does it tell us?

With my yoga students, we enter these questions anatomically: to work through collapsing spines and exhausted minds, I offer postures and sequences aimed to strengthen and to ease. With my university students, we enter these questions analytically: to understand political economies of inequality, we consider how global, historically entrenched practices of material consumption are driven through (explicit and invisible) patterns of systemic violence.

Our pain tells such eloquent stories, and sometimes they converge:

Sixteen-year-old Ibrahim has an inspiring capacity to easily integrate the teachings of yoga alignment that have taken me decades to learn. He balances on his hands with a lightness and grace that evoke something like awe in me. But usually it’s the simplest postures that cause him pain. One day he brought me the x-ray image showing that his humerus bone is fractured close to the shoulder joint. I asked him how it happened.

‘I was still in Libya then. One day I was trying to escape a beating, but I fell as I was running away. I raised my hands to protect myself from their batons. That’s when my arm was broken.’

Is it in our pain that we realize how much the same we all are?

Tibetan Buddhist scholar Pema Chödron writes: ‘Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.’ Perhaps this is why equality feels like an ache as well? That it is in its absence that the possibility of equality hurts so much?

‘I cannot feel the last three fingers of my right hand,’ another young yoga student explained one day as I guided the class into Adho Mukha Svanasana. We knelt together on his mat to examine his open palm: deeply scarred, irreversibly wounded. ‘They set dogs on me as I climbed the fence at Ceuta. But somehow I managed to get over to the other side.’

This is raw, shared pain and it is profoundly troubling. So I anticipate the first question: ‘What should we do with it?’ There are endless ways to begin healing such pain, but before we start, the hurt must first be acknowledged.

Courage (denoting the heart)

Courage (denoting the heart)

As I climbed the small flight of stairs on the Nice-Ventimiglia regional train, the rhythms of Naija’s summer hits wafted down. At the top, a young man who I would come to know as Abeo danced to Joeboy’s ‘Baby’. The train began to move along the glittering coastline, and as the compartment emptied of its Sunday afternoon beachgoers, Abeo strolled down the aisle in search of anything useful but forgotten or unwanted. Eventually he stopped next to me, and asked with disarming grace: ‘Signora, mi dai un po’ d’acqua?’ I extended my half-finished bottle of San Pellegrino and replied, in English: ‘I like your playlist.’ With what appeared at first like disbelief, then perhaps relief, he collapsed into the empty seat across from me. As we continued our journey, for now together, Abeo shared a little of his story.

‘Four years ago, I decided to take my chances to find a better life. Nigeria offered me no hope at all for improvement, no opportunities, no possibility to realize my dreams. So I made my way across the Sahara… you can imagine. Near Tripoli I managed to find work as a transporter. (Those Libyans, they have so much money, oh!) Life was good there. I would have stayed to keep working, but then there was the war. I was arrested. In prison I nearly died… The war got worse. Eventually I managed to escape. I made my way here.’

For Abeo, ‘here’ is the [f]rontierland between Italy and France, where, for him, daily existence is rarefied to the basics of finding a bed for the night and a meal for the day. His most valuable possession is now a plastic id card issued by the Red Cross that sometimes gets him out of a visit to the police station but that most tangibly sustains his hope that he might one day be allowed to stay. Then he could work, contribute to life (here, and ‘there’), and simply get on with realizing the shining possibilities of his dreams. For it is in his dreams that he finds the courage to face the excruciating uncertainty and hardships of each day.

[Courage: Middle English (denoting the heart, as the seat of feelings): from Old French corage, from Latin cor ‘heart’.]

‘Do you know that usually when I ask people for something here, before they’ve even heard my question, they just say: ‘No. No. No.’ Sometimes I’ll just be asking for something like directions, and they’ll reply ‘No’. Or they look away then walk around me, putting as much distance between us as quickly as they can. At first, I wondered to myself if something was wrong with me. Did I smell? I didn’t understand why I was so frightening. Eventually I stopped asking them for help. I got used to being ignored. But I still haven’t understood why I seem less human to them.’

Humanity. Our shared human experience: an acknowledgement that requires tremendous courage in this world today– this, our burning, fleeing, hating, denying world today– and yet, it is the tiny act of shared humanity that we all most urgently need, and that we can so easily realize, here, today.

In the space of the unanswered question

In the space of the unanswered question

In 1784, Immanuel Kant asked: ‘Was heisst Aufklirung’, a question Michel Foucault rendered relevant for us: What is this world, this period, this precise moment in which we are living?

Opportunities to reflect critically on this question are always present, offering us pathways to engage in our world. In the words of Roshi Bernie Glassman, the powerful space of the unanswered question provides fertile terrain for deep listening and appropriate social action.

Last week, there was much public debate on the duty to protect life versus the respect of laws and frontiers. On 29 June, Captain Carola Rackete forcibly landed Sea Watch 3 at Lampedusa, Italy. Her boat, sailing under a German flag, was carrying 42 people who had been rescued off the coast of Libya earlier in the month. When the survival conditions on board had become critical, Rackete forced the boat’s landing in contravention of an Italian naval blockade. She was arrested, but then released several days later when a judge affirmed her duty to protect life.

On the same day as Rackete’s release, double air strikes on the Tajoura Detention Centre in Libya killed more than 60 people and injured scores of others, just one more massacre among so many in the ongoing contest for control of Tripoli’s criminal-militia nexus. Among the civilians detained in Tajoura were migrants arrested by Libyan forces—part of an EU-crafted policy response to manage human smuggling across the central Mediterranean and to prevent the hundreds of thousands of people who are (in this precise moment) trying to make their way to Europe.

That human smuggling will remain a booming business should surprise no one in our interconnected global political economy of suffering. Tragically, frustratingly, both contemporary EU policies and great acts of individual courage shriek their futility when considered in light of the many millions of people expected to migrate in the next two decades due to conflict, climate change and hunger. From the Mediterranean to the Rio Grande to the endless frontiers separating the penury from the plenty of our world, today’s migration patterns are simply the nexus between inequality on a global scale and the inextinguishable desire for human dignity.

Disclose, diffuse, deny

Disclose, diffuse, deny

Just two weeks ago, Disclose, an investigative journalism NGO, released ‘Made in France’, an exposé including leaked documents from the French Ministry of Defence detailing the use of French-made tanks and missile systems on the frontlines of war in Yemen. The news was not surprising: the global manufacture and trade in conventional and small arms is vibrant and growing, generating billions of dollars each year for the world’s wealthiest economies, fuelling the continuation of violence on a global scale despite international regulatory efforts to increase transparency and reduce abuse.

What surprised me was the total lack of public outcry that followed.

In the silence of the non-response, I recalled the work of Stanley Cohen, of his quest to understand how individuals can know about the perpetration of terrible injustice and horrific violence, and yet do nothing about it. In States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Cohen reveals the troubling human capacity to render invisible that which is morally compromising, from the Holocaust to apartheid to the Rwandan genocide to all the everyday violences in between. This individual cognitive capacity to deny violence is socialized and normalized, thus diffusing the collective outrage required to redress such violence.

The situation in Yemen today is just one manifestation of our collective capacities for denial. On reading the Disclose file, I wrote to my courageous Yemeni friend, Yasser Alemad, to ask him what he thought. A humanitarian medical worker toiling on the live-and-die frontlines of the international war being fought in Yemen, he replied: ‘These are the Absent Truths, the realities that have destroyed every beautiful thing in this country. Four years of war have changed everything: Yemen’s nature, our history, our motivations and our dreams. We were a country of coffee and pure honey and now we are country of cholera, malnutrition, starving, and siege… The suffering has no limit.’ Yasser, so full of goodness and once so full of faith in humanity, sees no end to the suffering. And yet he continues to risk his life each day, to try to save any lives he can while the war continues to wage all around him.

I used to think that senseless human suffering continued because people just didn’t know enough about it. Based on this belief, I threw myself into years of work investigating and documenting grave human rights violations in zones of active conflict. I was led by a faith that in uncovering and then denouncing injustice, those who could make the required changes would.

Now, many tired years later, I accept that it is not a lack of knowledge that allows such unconscionable human suffering to continue. We know exactly enough about human suffering to take the required actions to end it. Yet contemporary expressions of denial are articulated with a heavy-hearted sense of hopelessness: ‘But what can we possibly do? It is all just too complex/political/big/far away for me to ever be able to do anything to change it.’

Denial justifies defeat and inaction. Silence takes hold.

The shame of such silence is resounding, while the excuses of overwhelm among otherwise good-hearted individuals are unconvincing (even other primates show more altruism in reacting against injustice). Today I read that the Disclose journalists have been summoned to a hearing, accused of compromising national security. The diffusion of collective outrage seems well on course to continue.

Yet it does not need to be this way. There are infinite possibilities for each of us as individuals to choose to act to redress injustice, to contribute to reducing human suffering. These choices are personal, nearby, and always present.

Idealism as a subversive act

Idealism as a subversive act

Lately, idealism has begun to feel like a form of rebellion, a subversive act to push back against the rising tides of cynicism and fear.

As centenary commemorations mark the end of the ‘Great War’, the catastrophic hatreds of old feel worryingly contemporary. Rising economic precarity threatens so many people living at the margins as they struggle to hold on, their fears seized by populist politics and essentialist discourses. Seventy years after the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inconceivable wealth coexists with abject poverty, while closing borders reveal how the universal guarantees for dignity and inalienable rights are accessible only to a fortunate minority. Meanwhile, the crisis of climate change continues unabated, waiting for decisive political leadership and individual consumer will to at last halt its rapid advance.

In such bleak times, hopelessness would be the easy answer. Yet for those of us lucky enough to still have so much, the urgent and compelling moral imperative is to contribute to alleviating suffering and to reducing global harms. The Myth of International Protection: War and Survival in Congo – just published by the University of California Press—is my contribution to the systemic revolution our world needs now more than ever. Based on a decade of work as an international protection actor and ethnographic researcher in the DRC, this book is my testimony of the denial and dysfunctions of the international aid system.

Rather than adding one more cynical critique to so many others, my intention is to offer the space for critical and honest reflection among the legion of international aid workers, development policy makers and humanitarian practitioners who are committing their lives to making the world a better place. To join the conversation, please apply to write a guest blog at