Learning to cultivate genuine sympathy
I started volunteering at Worcester Refugee Assistance Project (WRAP) at the end of my first year and met some refugee families from Myanmar. For three hours every week, I would read with children. Working with children is tiring in general. However, I felt more exhausted because in my head, I was feeling extremely guilty all the time.
You see.. while I was in Yangon, I never paid any attention to human rights violation in the north and I even thought it was an exaggeration of proportions. Now I see the situation myself and I was constantly asking myself how I could help them. I felt pressured to make it up somehow. Really I was too self-absorbed and was wallowing in guilt.
Eventually I stopped going because the fake, self-centered sympathy that I had did not last very long. Also it was tiring because of my self-inflicted guilt.
I got involved again with a refugee family in the summer after my sophomore year. Every week I would accompany and interpret for a social worker who was visiting a Burmese/Karen family. This was when I started to build a different kind of sympathy, a more enduring one.
As I talk and interact with this refugee family, my sympathy became less paternalistic. I stopped asking myself what I can do for them. I stopped assuming that I am the most important person who can guide them towards success. What a load of BS!
Once I get out of my head and put my attention on someone else, everything became much easier. I realized that’s all I needed to do. I listen, I ask questions, sometimes I might give one or two suggestions here and there. I felt freed and could start to see how I can better show kindness to everyone around me.
Families, no matter their income, are resourceful and have found ways to provide for themselves and their children, in spite of circumstances. There are so many issues that they deal with. For example, applying for funds to pay electric bills in the winter, making endless phone calls for free health insurance and appointments, applying for food stamps, overcoming language barriers to find jobs, navigating scammers, and assimilating to an entirely new country. And of course, taking care of their children, which is an enormous responsibility in itself. I am thankful for this family who taught me to see past my BS.