In 2021, let’s give our attention to stories of hope, not hatred
The impact of the global pandemic has hit children and families the hardest, particularly girls and children in conflict or fleeing it. After years of giving much of our attention to people who incite fear and division it’s time to give children – and their hopes - a bigger voice.
Here’s why and how.
Back in 2016, a few weeks after the U.S. election, I visited our team in the hangars of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. After World War II this airport was at the centre of the effort to deliver food, coal and other basic necessities to 2.5 million people blockaded by the Soviets in West Berlin. In 2015, it had become the largest shelter in Germany for the hundreds of thousands of children and families fleeing conflict. Save the Children had set up a child-friendly space, an area where children could play safely and receive emotional support, in the hangar.
In 2015, Angela Merkel famously stated, "We can do this" in response to the so called “refugee crisis.” But over the course of 2016, the much-hailed “welcome-culture” narrative had changed. Several assaults and terrorist attacks had further increased the fear of refugees. And this fear had been stoked and amplified by populist voices in Germany and globally.
Xenophobic rhetoric had become acceptable.
And this rhetoric had consequences. As I walked out of the Berlin underground station that day, three Afghan girls about 7 years old were returning from school and climbed the stairs talking to each other. They wound their way through a construction site barrier that narrowed the exit. A well-dressed elderly gentleman came towards them. But instead of letting them go through the narrowed exit, he walked up to the girls and rammed one of them with his shoulder so she almost bumped into the metal entrance. He just kept walking. I followed and confronted him. He looked at me with a condescending smile and said that he had "right of way". And how could I know that "they are German". When I replied that no one should be treated this way, he waved me off.
Instead of immediately devoting myself to the girls and ensuring that they were ok and felt safe, I fully concentrated on confronting the older man and lost sight of them.
This anecdote sums up much of the last four years. It feels like many of us are guilty of giving our full attention to and confronting the hate speech and xenophobia around us. Too many of us have tried to engage with them and reason with them with all of our energy, while other not so loud voices get lost. It can feel draining and futile. However, when we do listen to those not so loud voices, especially those of children, we often find messages of hope, care for the people they love, and a thirst for a better future.
In Germany, Save the Children has continued to work with hundreds of girls and children, just like the three Afghan school girls, over the last few years. We have helped protect and empower them. We have worked with governments at local and national levels to ensure that protection standards apply to refugees and migrants as they do to other children. We made it our priority to listen to children’s needs and dreams and have helped amplify their voices. In 2018, a 10-year-old girl from Chechnya told us: “I dream of becoming a designer. Then I would wish for my own room where I would put my designs. And that my mom buys a toy car for my brother because he likes to play with them. And that my brother is happy - and my mom of course."
Last summer, we surveyed over 25,000 children and families in need globally. As dire as their situation is in the middle of a global pandemic, without education, suffering violence, and their families falling back into poverty, children are still hopeful and resilient.
A 16-year-old girl from Nepal told us: “I know during this time it looks like we have lost the battle with Mother Nature but we are now making amends so that we can make her happy and co-exist again, but it is going to take time and you just need to hang in there okay.”
And a 13-year-old boy from Indonesia wrote about his mum, who is an IT professional and Covid data volunteer, “[mum] is always saying that we must follow the protocols from WHO and your government, to save our life. I believe in my mom, because my mom show the truth of data. So, I suggest you to do so."
Don’t you think that voices like these trump those of xenophobia and violence? These read like public service announcements for good behaviour. They are just more authentic. These children make it very clear what they are expecting from leaders: to improve access to learning and healthcare, to give families support and to protect them from violence. They demand to be heard.
In 2021, after almost a year of living through a global pandemic, with dire consequences and the urgent need for national and global action, these voices are important and must be amplified, listened to, and learned from. This is an individual choice every one of us can make, starting on social media and in personal day to day life. We can decide who we give our attention to.
Remember what the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, once said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Using this space can matter both to our own health and wellbeing and those whose voices need to be heard. Back in 2016, a few weeks after the event at the underground station, I was sitting with a Syrian mother and her two girls, whose story of escape we had just filmed. At the end of the conversation she began to cry. My colleague and I asked her if we had asked the wrong thing. She shook her head and said with a smile, "I'm just so grateful that someone listens to me and tells our story!"
In 2021, let’s make ourselves a promise – let’s boost and amplify the right stories and voices.
Bidjan Nashat is part of the Senior Leadership Team of the children's rights organization Save the Children International in London and led the 2015-17 refugee response in Germany as program and advocacy director.