A conversation on dignity at a refugee home

Human dignity is a very simplistic term that appears in almost very often in discussions around humanity or in day-to-day life. However, when we look at the governments and how our nation states endorse it as an important value for our society, we see it appear as “Article 1 – Human dignity” or the well known Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It is very clear that everyone understands the concept of worth of a human person naturally, however, we also make a very common mistake of assuming that the world revolves around us, and the “I” is very important. Somehow the “I” is so important that we are constantly fighting to keep the “I” very special, unique and most of the times “better” than the “other” person. It is very easy to give in to our emotional state and fall prey to discrimination, alienation and distance from what is different to us, i.e. the other. Emotions, Identity, Collective worth etc. all matter here.

citation
Forgas, J. P., & Fiedler, K. (1996). Us and them: Mood effects on intergroup discrimination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 28–40. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.1.28

All of this probably makes us conduct a value assessment of “human worth” on the other person as less deserving than the “I”, because the “I” is special, unique, more deserving, more hard working (better, bigger, faster, stronger). As I continue to read on dignity, “Us v/s Them” (refer more academic readings: one, two, three), I am also trying to write on conversations with friends which I find having the same meaning and helps us understand these concepts.

I love my friends who have kids, as there is a lot of simple stuff going in their lives and so much to talk about. The incident involves two moms, each having a daughter (let’s assume they are both of the same age). The local citizen, city living mom (let’s call her Mom A) takes her daughter and visits the local refugee home to give away some of clothes, toys etc. which she does not need or can do away with. After giving away the stuff to the homes, while walking out she bumped into the second mom who was a resident of the refugee home (let’s call her Mom B). Mom B was with her daughter who looked at the other girl wearing a teddy bear school backpack. She (Mom B) asked Mom A if she can have the same backpack for her own daughter or if she can give the one her daughter was carrying to her.

tedd
The bag probably looked something like this.

Mom A, was very reluctant to give away the bag from her daughter and told Mom B that she just dropped off a lot of stuff and maybe there’s something she can use from there. Mom B was insisting that this is a very lovely bag and her daughter will be very happy to have the same one, now that she can see that another little girl like her as something pretty and shiny. Many assumptions can be made here as to what happened in the head of these moms but, our conversation went into the discussion on what is dignified and not, and the idea of “left overs” was a starting point.  Using this as an example of worthiness and humanity in general, simply put, the other person had enough already and it would not hurt much to just give away the bag. Mom B can go and buy a new one, and it would have made the Mom A and her daughter happy, at least for the moment. Maybe even made them feel like normal equally deserving humans for that short time. The question I asked was a simple one, Why do you think the other child wasn’t deserving enough to have been given that bag?

However, I used a simpler and more visible example of how crowded the refugee homes were to further the conversation. In this given society, you have a certain minimum standard of life that is considered as a basic human right. I mentioned that when I had to apply for a German residence permit here and provide proof of accommodation the officer told me that my address had too many people and not enough space for me to be living here, so I was told to find another apartment and re-apply.

Basically, every member of the family over six has to have twelve square meters of living space, members between two and six need ten square meters, members under two years old are exempt from the regulation. In addition they must be able to share kitchen, bathing and other facilities.

A quick search gave me this explanation as it being a “policy recommendation” and not a law. But I used it as an example to support my argument that, if there is a certain standard that is a given here in this society, then the same should be applied to refugee homes? Of course the answer is not simple when we talk about realities like, enough houses, money to build it, infrastructure etc. But we are talking on a moral level right now, and ignoring the realities. Things like justice, dignity etc are all moral concepts which our society constantly deliberates on shaping our realities.

In the example of the girl and the bag, it is very simple to assume that for some reason the refugee mom felt like she wanted to be treated as an equal and her daughter should have the same bag. While the other mom, was probably in a tricky situation to sacrifice her way of living, at the cost of her daughter’s emotional attachment to the bag. Both are very valid human responses and expectations. To which I posit, a little bit of naive idealism, that once everyone has enough of what they need, and we combine the sense of happiness and empathy to that equation, it is very easy for people to “give” away so that others can have the same. Also when we create the inevitable distinction of Us v/s Them, we dehumanise the other and distance ourselves as the better deserving or worthy. Which essentially means, the moment we are using labels like them, others, refugees and move away from our way of referring each other as just humans, we are going away from the concept of dignity at it’s core. What would it take to work towards a “One Of Us” definition rather than the “Us v/s Them” is something I am sure a lot of people think and work towards.

There are other questions, to be written at another time, on the approach to integration, aid in the context of refugees that come to my mind. If you remove the word “refugees” from its technical, legal definition, we are all migrants, immigrants of some form looking for “safe havens” and have a “better life”. Even an academic looking for that tenure position will have to move to a different city or country is looking for something better, stable and secure to have a good and meaningful life. The alienation and distancing here is real, and at times the refugee homes are mainly located outside of the normal civilisation even in regular cities. There are enough empathetic and willing local citizens and communities who are willing to help and support and work should be done in allowing the locals to accept and invite people into their localities to help integrate well. Most of the refugee aid work done by agencies is in “containment” mode and keeps them away as the “other” and a lot of integration efforts needs to be done right.

 

 

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