The Borderlines of Empathy

This presentation was given by Bayan Itani at the Refugee Hosts International Conference. The presentation addressed empathy as a common motivation for supporting Syrian refugees. In so doing, it questions the ‘borderlines’ of empathy, and the reasons behind its decline, within the context of people from Syria seeking refuge in Lebanon.

The borderlines of empathy

by Bayan Itani, Researcher, Refugee Hosts

“We are helping refugees because we could be in their shoes.” This is a common answer received during the Refugee Hosts project’s fieldwork in Hamra neighbourhood of Beirut, Lebanon. Empathy is a humanizing factor that has always motivated communities to support disadvantaged groups. In this presentation, we dig deeper into the concept of ’empathy’, questioning how it is used by members of the local Ras Beirut community in the context of the Syrian crisis. We further question the ‘borderlines’ of empathy, whether it fades, ends, or even turns into a negative notion.

We address the historical, geographical, and sociocultural factors that have resulted in empathizing (or not empathizing) with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In addition, we present some manipulative practices euphemized as ‘empathy’, such as underpayment and child labor. The question of when and why empathy ends is raised, as well as what feelings may replace it.

The presentation picks on several indicators from Lebanon to trace how the peak of  empathy with Syrian refugees declined and gave rise to hate speech. The efforts that have been made to maintain empathy or a minimum level of humanization for ‘the other’ in Lebanon are addressed in the conclusion.

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If you found this piece of interest please visit the recommended reading list below:

Reflections from the Field Series

Representations of Displacement Series

Faith in Displacement Series

Ager, A. (2017) Sounds from Hamra, Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Disrupting humanitarian narratives?

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Reflections from the Field: Introduction to the Series

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Poetics of Undisclosed Care

Harsch, L. (2018) Historical Photos of Hamra, Beirut

Itani, B. (2019) The importance of identity – reflections from fieldwork in Hamra, Beirut

Rowlands, A. (2018) Faith and Displacement:  Introducing the Series

Stonebridge, L. (2018) Undoing the Meaning of the World: Creation and Decreation in Contemporary Refugee Studies

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