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“When we become numb to images of pain, fiction can help us feel empathy again”

After volunteering at a refugee centre, author Christy Lefteri wrote The Beekeeper of Aleppo, a novel about a couple – Nuri and Afra – forced to escape after war breaks out in Syria. Here, she explains why stories can make us feel when pictures and media reports numb us to people’s pain.

Stories have the power to transport us, to take us into the heart and mind of someone else, to make us walk in their shoes, to feel what they feel, to see the world for a while through their eyes. In the darkest of times – during war and displacement, loss and devastation – reading and hearing stories can be an important way of helping us to imagine lives that might otherwise be unimaginable, so that we might remember the complexity of human emotion: of fear and grief and of love and hope.

We’ve all seen the images on TV of refugees desperately trying to cross seas and oceans in rubber boats. We’ve seen the footage of Syria, devastation and damage that is beyond our imagination: the crumbling buildings, children pulled out of the rubble, people fighting for their lives. 

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Yet it is not unusual to become desensitised to these images. According to professor Paul Slovic, a leading scholar on apathy towards genocide and decision research at the University of Oregon: “There are several obstacles to caring about distant suffering. One is that we react strongly to individuals at risk…but as numbers increase we lose our ability to engage emotionally. They become numbers…it is said that statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.”

In the summer of 2016, I decided to volunteer at a UNICEF supported refugee centre for women and children in central Athens. I felt compelled to help in any way I could, as if someone was pulling me by the hand, drawing me out of the safety of my life. It wasn’t until I had spent a week working at the centre that I began to realise that I had never really connected to the devastation I had seen on TV. The experience of being there for people during the most horrific circumstances of their lives opened my eyes; it moved me to tears and emotional exhaustion. Every day, new people flooded into Greece – families, lost and afraid, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. In the evenings, I spoke to people in the square and heard their stories. I began to see the power that connecting with real people and hearing their stories could have.

Christy Lefteri at a mother and baby centre at the UNICEF refugee centre in Athens.
Christy Lefteri at a mother and baby centre at the UNICEF refugee centre in Athens.

The children changed as the days went by, and they learnt to play again when they realised that they were safe enough. It is an eye-opening experience to see children in these situations, to feel their arms around you when they are afraid, and equally when they learn to trust you. “I love you,” one of the little girls said to me. She had asked someone how to say it in Greek so that she could speak to me in a language that I could understand. But her eyes said it all. I cried that night, more than I’ve cried for years, and I have had my own losses and my own difficulties. I couldn’t get my head around what was happening in the world, how these children and families were carrying the weight of it. Yes, I had seen some of this on TV, but nothing is the same as connecting with people. “I love you,” the little girl had said. These little words, they broke my heart.

I needed to return to London for work. I’m a lecturer in creative writing at a university in London. But even while I was teaching my students, I could not get these children out of my mind. I returned the following year, and now that things had calmed down a little, I began to really listen to people. 

By this time I had spent a year learning Arabic. My tutor, a translator for the BBC and a refugee from Syria himself, not only taught me the language so that I could communicate a little bit with the people in Greece, but he also described to me Syria before the war. We would have the lesson over a coffee in a little deli in North London. We were safe there. The children of Athens were miles away, the Syrian war was miles away. But they were not, not really, not in our minds. It’s so easy to be absorbed by the safety we feel around us, to forget. I started to get pictures in my mind, everything I had experienced and learnt and absorbed. The emotions, the injustices, the broken lives and broken hearts, and so I started to write. I began to write and I couldn’t stop, I was propelled by a desire to open people’s eyes.

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Professor Slovic writes about “compassion fade” and “psychic numbing,” when we are faced with a higher number of victims; we humans are not good at extending our empathy to large groups.

A story, however, can help readers to engage emotionally, to focus on an individual so that they are no longer just a face in a crowd; it can transport readers and help them to imagine the feelings of fear and loss, of devastation and trauma, and also of love and hope. A story can touch people’s hearts, it can challenge our reactions to the thousands of images, the streams of people. 

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri.

Media coverage often does not give us insight into the life and emotions of people who have been forced to flee their homes; the events of Brexit and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties makes matters worse. I wanted to un-dry the tears so that my readers might be able to feel what those tears meant and where they came from. Storytelling has so much power, it has done for thousands of years. It has the power to evoke empathy, and empathy has the power to propel us into action. 

I had been transformed by the people I had met and the stories I had heard in Athens. So I wanted to take my readers on a journey, into the heart and mind of Nuri and Afra, to make them walk in their shoes, to feel what they feel, to see the world for a while through their eyes.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri is out now (Zaffre, £12.99).

Images: Christy Lefteri, Bonnier Zaffre

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