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How can Heroic Leadership Make a Difference for the World’s Refugees?

By Michelle Werning, February 12, 2016, Heroism Today

Countries around the globe are dealing with the refugee crisis and, like most countries, Germany has a process in place to help them – from the time they arrive, until their status has either been approved and they are allowed to stay, or not, and they are returned to their home countries. The influx over the past year has pushed all of these processes to the breaking point – some regions in Germany are handling it better than others. I wouldn’t say that no one saw this coming – one politician said over a year ago that it was just the tip of the iceberg. Another politician said “After years of exploiting the African continent, we should not be surprised when the suffering knocks on our door.” I agree with this last statement. The foreign policy of most major countries for far too long has been focused around what can be taken from these countries without giving anything back. Poverty, war, unrest are the result – what kind of situations motivate a person to travel such distances under the most grueling of circumstances, risking their own lives and that of their families?

In the short term, heroic leadership involves communities coming together to take care of those in need. The situation is difficult at the moment. There are so many people, primarily men, from a culture that is vastly different from our own. The rhetoric is the same as any other crisis in history where people from another culture flee war and famine. There are those who see only fellow human beings in need, those who see the downfall of society as we know it, and everything in between.

The fact is, people are here and they need our help. It doesn’t matter if you believe they are all criminals, or if you believe they are only here to live off social services, it doesn’t matter if you believe they are here to work, and it doesn’t matter if they are only here for a short time. They are here and they need to eat, they need shelter from the cold, and they need contact with others.

Our small town has taken in around 35 refugees. They come from Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Some are Christian, most are Muslim. I volunteered to teach German – I wanted to do something to help, but more importantly I wanted to confront my own fear. News reports are full of frightening stories, but deep down, my logical mind knows that most people, regardless of where they are from, are good and only want to live in peace.

My experience up until now has only confirmed what my rational mind knows. The men and women who live in our village shake my hand when we meet, they try to tell me their stories, they share pictures of their families. Their children go to school with our children. I can feel, under the surface that they are sad about being away from their families and traumatized by the things they have endured in their home countries and along the way to this country. There is also a steadfast determination by most to learn the language – some travel into the city (often enduring dirty looks and snide comments) to take extra classes that are being offered for free. I see the success that comes from people interacting on a personal level. Underneath the skin color, the culture, and the religion, we are all human beings who need compassion, empathy, friendship, and a purpose. The refugees I have met want to work and take care of their families.

They would prefer to go back home. I speak from personal experience when I say that resettling in a foreign country is not easy – and I am indistinguishable from any other German. No one knows that I’m not German until I start talking, and because I’m from a western country, I am accepted unconditionally. The same cannot be said for the refugees. The events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have made their stay here even more difficult. All cannot be judged by the actions of a few. Those few must also be held accountable. But what happened in Cologne, where large groups of refugees are packed together with little contact with the local population, only confirmed what I already guessed – the best way to deal with the current situation is to bring small groups of refugees into small neighborhoods where they can learn the language and the culture. This contact is also important for us. I may not have all the answers – but I do know that sharing stories and learning about each other is the only way to eliminate prejudice. Being kind is the only way to change hearts and minds and build relationships.

At the global level, heroic leadership looks a lot different. The refugee crisis, poverty, and war stem from a lack of heroism at a global level by those looking to profit and a society that is comfortable turning a blind eye. There is corruption in most of the developing nations, corruption that is fed by a global system of exploitation. There are large industries looking to profit from war by selling weapons, industries looking to profit by providing goods to countries cheaper than the citizens of these countries can provide their own goods – at the head of all of this are trade agreements backed by governments that are unfair and designed to take as much as possible but give nothing back.

Doing the profitable thing instead of the right thing.

This flood of refugees is also a problem of our own making, a product of laziness in not knowing (or caring) where our products come from and under what conditions they are produced, of not knowing what our governments do behind closed doors when negotiating trade agreements or waging war, of not holding our companies accountable for what they are doing in other countries.

We too are guilty of doing the profitable thing instead of the right thing.

‘What you do makes difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.’ Jane Goodall

So what is to be done? What can each and every one of US do every day? YOU and I can choose to do the right thing instead of the profitable thing. We can make the right thing profitable, but only if we choose to. I implore you to ask yourself a hard question every time you make a purchase. “Did a person, animal, or the environment suffer so I could buy this? Where will this go when I’m done with it? Is the company paying fair wages and responsibly sourcing its products? What is my government doing at home and abroad?” YOU and I can make a choice to consume less and make our purchases fair and humane. Are there good solutions out there? You bet! Find them, support them with your money for the things you need, volunteer your time for things that matter to you! Most importantly, demand heroism from those in charge and from those who provide our goods and services. A better world is the knock-on effect of letting companies and governments know that you will no longer support a profit only system. There are no refugees fleeing peaceful countries where there are good jobs, a social safety net, and safe streets.

Heroic leadership means taking care of those in need in the short term and making good choices every day for a better world in the long term.

About the author:

Michelle Werning is a heroism promoter and educator based in Germany. Michelle’s background is in Communication Science. She has taught English language, Business Communication and Business Ethics for the Legal Department at the Christian-Albrecht University in Kiel, Germany.  Michelle’s journey as a heroism educator started in 2009. Since then, she has been translating heroism education material from English into German for application in primary schools.


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