“Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.” – Sue Monk Kidd
“Why are we going to Target?” inquiring little eyes peered at me in the rearview mirror.
“We need to get some supplies. We are making bags for refugees,” I answered.
“What’s a refugee?”
It was one of those moments when I wished I had taken the time to go through this conversation in my mind before it actually took place. Choosing what you’re going to say, how you’re going to describe important details so that a four year old can understand them, and keeping the discussion on a level that will not cause nightmares are things a good Mommy would have done ahead of time. Unfortunately, this Mommy is also a very busy Mommy and that level of planning just did not happen.
When my friend, Lara, posted online that she was collecting hygiene bags for Syrian refugees through her office, my first thought was that this was such an easy way to help people who really need it. The effort required of picking up a few extra things at Target and popping them into Ziploc bags is negligible, but would show those who had been through so much that they are in the prayers of people all over the world.
As Little Boy S was not in school that day, I knew I would need to find a way to explain to him what we were doing and why we were shopping for these particular items, but I just had not really come up with the words at that point. I took a deep breath.
“There is a place called Syria. It is far away on the other side of the world. There is a lot of war going on there and some people are doing some really awful things to the people who live there. The people just want to be safe and to keep their families safe, so they are leaving their homes. Someone who has to leave their home country because it is too dangerous for them is called a refugee. They have to leave all of their things behind, their clothes and toys, and travel long distances to safety. Because they don’t have their stuff anymore, they need things like soap and washcloths and hair combs and band-aids so that they can feel clean after all that travelling. Mommy’s friend is collecting bags of these things to send to them.”
I could tell S was thinking; he’s the kind of child whose silence and stillness betray his inner monologue.
“How will the bags get there?” he asked after a few seconds had passed. “Mommy’s friend will collect all the bags and put them in a big box and send them through the mail,” I answered.
While in Target, S helped choose each item for the bags. He chose the combs and the yellow washcloths by their color. He smelled the different bars of soap to choose which one smelled the best (Irish Spring). He wanted to pick the band-aids because he said kids would like some band-aids more than others. When we passed a display of stuffed animals, S asked if we could put teddy bears in the bags.
“It will make them feel happy,” he said. I explained that we would have to do some research to find an organization that was sending teddy bears to the refugees.
Our typical Target trips involve S’s repeated requests to go look at the Skylanders and check out the Lego displays, but on this visit, he was all business and mentioned neither of these distractions.
When we got home, he carefully counted out band-aids, toothbrushes, nail clippers and other supplies and placed each of the items in the bags. I was amazed by his continued focus on our task. In the mind of a four year old, most projects have a very limited lifespan.
We finished the hygiene kits and dropped them off at Lara’s home the next day. Lara posted a photo on Facebook showing the numerous boxes filled with the hygiene kits donated by her friends and co-workers. When I shared the photo with S, his eyes got as wide as his smile, “Wow, that’s a lot!”
I expected Little Boy S to be a companion in this project, at best a helper, and to maybe gain a little perspective (as much as is possible at this age) in the process. My heart swelled at the care he took in selecting the items for the bags and his continued interest in the people for whom they were made. He didn’t need to see the horrible photos of the children’s bodies washed up on the beaches before he felt moved to act the way so many of the rest of us did. A simplified story, told in the most basic terms was enough to ignite the empathy of a child.
Several weeks passed and I assumed S had moved on, the hygiene kits fading into his memory the way most things in life do at his age. Frankly, there are times when I ask Little Boy S about something we did two days ago and I’m met with a blank stare.
I found S playing with his stuffed creeper on the couch, “This is Skeletron,” he announced.
“Oh, Skeletron! I thought his name was Stampy, “ I replied.
“No, this is someone else. This is Skeletron. He’s from Syria. There’s war there and he’s not safe, so his Mommy put him in a big box and mailed him to me to keep him safe. I’m going to take care of him now.” He hugged his creeper to his chest and squeezed him, looking down at him with a smile.
After I picked my jaw up off the floor at the fact that he not only remembered the refugees and understood the feeling of a mother wanting to keep her children safe, but even remembered the name of the country from which the refugees came, I gave him a giant hug.
And the best part of it all? He accepted the responsibility of caring for this imaginary little person without question.
It may be an expression of love on the most basic level, but it gives me hope.