The Case for Empathy

"America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." -- Alexis de Tocqueville

America's collective shrug over the refugee crisis originating from the Middle East calls to mind de Tocqueville's observations about the American people almost two centuries ago. Our identity as a nation for so long has been hewed by our acts of goodness, our capacity to open our hearts to succor the oppressed and downtrodden, and our willingness to put the larger good before our own personal benefit.

Our empathy.

And yet, episodes of the recent past -- and our reactions to them -- threaten to reshape America's image. There is a growing sense that as a nation we are reaching the limits of what we can do to help. Notwithstanding the fact that we are among the richest nations in the world, some would suggest that our priorities should be focused inwardly, that the problems beyond our borders are best addressed by other countries, or that people in distress in distant lands should somehow resolve their pressing challenges themselves.

Over the past several months, you likely have heard the same refrains. When the Ebola crisis reached a fever pitch a year ago, the overwhelming response was not to send much-needed aid to the West African nations at the center of the epidemic. Instead, major public officials called for the U.S. to basically lock down our borders, even imposing a ban on flights to the United States from countries that actually have no flights here. While concern over the health of our people at home is understandable, that inward-focused concern eclipsed our willingness to help others. As a result, the aid typically generated for such disasters became woefully suppressed.

Last summer, when tens of thousands of children from Central America sought to find sanctuary in the United States by unlawfully crossing over our southern border, the visceral response -- especially from states dealing directly with the young refugees -- focused more on the illegality of their presence and less on the underlying causes for their migration. Thousands of children were fleeing lives of destitution in Guatemala and Mexico while thousands more from Honduras sought to escape the gangs, drugs and violence that make up the world outside their doors. I have worked in refugee camps in the past, and I appreciate the burdens that a mass influx of people can put on local jurisdictions. But simply returning these children to their former lives ignores our moral obligations and belies our most compassionate traditions.

In both of these instances, I'm proud to report that ChildFund International was on the ground providing a range of assistance made possible by our generous donors and sponsors. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, we worked with government ministries to open interim care centers, safe places for children who had lost parents to Ebola. During their required 21-day quarantine period, the children in the centers were provided not only housing and meals, but counseling, programs and activities designed to give children a sense of security and hope -- and opportunities to simply be kids.

Last year, our work to address the needs of migrant children crossing our border with Mexico also made their well-being a top priority. Many had been traumatized by their experiences. Counseling and psychosocial support were key ingredients of helping children and their families cope with the experiences of the past and the uncertainty of the future. ChildFund's ongoing presence in many of these Central American countries is helping to improve the underlying conditions for these children.

Most recently, we have turned our attention to the refugee crisis in Europe. ChildFund International and our partners at ChildFund Alliance will be working through a partner organization on the Macedonia-Turkey border to help those seeking a haven from the violence that has invaded their lives.

To be sure, that situation, along with others before it, presents difficult, complex and confounding challenges. But as leaders around the world work to address them, we in the United States should remind ourselves of our legacy of support to those in need. Our response to these conditions must continue to be rooted in empathy toward the dispossessed.

There are organizations working around the world to provide care and comfort to those with few places to turn for help, and their work relies on the compassion and generosity that has been a hallmark of American life throughout our history. We cannot overcome the complicated by turning a blind eye to it. We cannot let our inability to help everyone prevent us from helping someone. Rather, we must let "the better angels of our nature" -- as Lincoln described them -- continue to drive the American character.

Above all, our goodness must define our greatness.