The fourth and final installment of the Hunger Games franchise is finally leaving theaters with this flick rounding off the series earnings to $3 billion. While living under the fearful reign of a tyrannical leader who is detached from the day-to-day reality of the commoners of the fictional nation of Panem, the citizens struggle to maintain their basic needs. They live in constant fear for their safety and wonder whether they might wake up to bombed remains of their existence, or, worse yet, lose their lives or watch their families lose theirs. The Hunger Games is fictional, of course, but the strife, struggle, and destruction that is portrayed in the Hunger Games universe is akin to what is lived as reality by those in Syria daily.
Over the past four years, under the fearsome reign of a dictatorial leader, Syrians have struggled to meet their basic needs, with millions clamoring for safety across borders as refugees, risking their own lives to do so under grueling circumstances. It has been cited as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II by the UN refugee agency with no suggestion for any improvement. It seems we would rather focus on tractable problems of imaginary people, like the oppressed citizens of Panem, than on the intractable problems of living human beings like Syrian refugees.
According to a recent Bloomberg poll, most Americans oppose the re-settlement of any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees planned on in President Barack Obama's refugee policy. Nearly half of the governors in the United States are attempting to bar Syrian refugees from re-settling in their states, and in a sweeping house vote, the intent to deny entrance to these desperately needy individuals was reaffirmed.
Why do we seem to care more about imaginary people than real ones? Part of the reason may be explained with behavioral science. The "identifiable victim effect" is one of the strongest predictors of how much aid people will offer to others. We help specific individuals with names and faces more than we help groups of unidentified individuals--even if we could do more good by helping groups. Psychologically, a single victim is a tragedy; four million is a statistic. The Hunger Games gives us one compelling and faultless victim, Katniss Everdeen, to root for and identify with. Among the Syrian refugees, there is no Katniss. No Malala. They need a face and a voice. But they may not get one.
For reasons of privacy and safety, we don't hear enough stories of Syrian refugees. And when their stories are told, we rarely see their faces, making them less identifiable, and we are therefore less sympathetic to them as victims. Furthermore, language barriers mean we typically read printed quotes from Syrian refugees rather than hearing their actual voices--and written text rather than verbal speech has been shown by University of Chicago researchers to make speakers seem less thoughtful, competent, and intelligent. Less human, even. But in the rare cases when Syrian victims are identified through photographs and by their names, help does increase. The shocking image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned while fleeing the conflict zone, prompted a hundredfold increase in donations to aid organization Migrant Offshore Aid Station.
It is understandable that we need stories sometimes not just for compassion but also for escape. Through the Hollywood depiction of illusory catastrophes in movies like those in the Hunger Games franchise, we can escape and perhaps relieve some of the psychological burden and stress of our own lives. But let us not imagine that watching suffering on the big screen absolves us of attending to real suffering. And let us not convince ourselves that feeling involved by keeping abreast of the news is any kind of substitute for taking action.
As we enjoyed the Hunger Games and look forward to a year full of promise, we should remember, too, those who are living in horrific situations with little hope of relief. And if we find ourselves cheering for Katniss fighting against the capital so that her people can have a home again, perhaps that's a reason to consider our compassion for a Syrian refugee with nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, who doesn't get to have a Hollywood ending.
Christine Ngaruiya, MD, MSc, DTM&H is faculty in the section of Global Health and International Emergency Medicine in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Yale New Haven Hospitals and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. With thanks for contributions from Drs. Zoë Chance and Deepti Pradhan.