5 Valuable Characteristics a Westerner Can Learn from a Refugee


While it’s easy to watch a difficult refugee story on the news and feel as though there’s no possible personal connection to identify with, the wisdom they carry invites a positive perspective shift.

1. Minimalism Mentality

As wildfires and hurricanes continue to force longtime residents to leave their homes, we often ponder what we would take if we had to part ways with both our home and our belongings. Many people default to phones, laptops and a handful of sentimental photos and trinkets.

Refugees fleeing not just their houses, not just their cities, but their very home countries, do not have the luxury nor the time to choose what is most important to bring. Iyad, a Syrian refugee I interviewed while helping execute the Tech Over Trauma program with Roads of Success, had finally settled into Switzerland after crossing the ocean via Turkey. Iyad’s main concerns were hygiene essentials. Toothbrush, toothpaste, water and his birth certificate. Yet even one’s simplest desire, a tangible proof of identity, had to be sacrificed while crossing. Every ounce of weight on the small boats mattered, and so Iyad, after throwing out his hygiene essentials, with hesitation but a determination to survive, also released his birth certificate into the water. All that remained was the scrappy clothes on his back and the air in his lungs, and with just barely enough, he made it to shore.

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As Iyad expressed, “I felt like a modern-day Tarzan, simply attempting to survive,” but somehow it was that acceptance of simplicity, that allowed him to live.

5 Valuable Characteristics a Westerner Can Learn from a Refugee

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As Westerners, consumerism, in many ways, consumes us. While our economy flourishes from the constant purchasing of products that are usually not necessary, the price we pay, more often, is the illusion that we actually need such things. The mentality of “more” has infiltrated not just our overall culture, but also our psychology. When we feel we do not have “enough” comparison kicks in, and thus does the way we internalize our value as citizens. Not to mention the severe effects it has had on our environment—waste always goes somewhere.

If we carried even a tiny portion of the minimalism mentality that has allowed millions of refugees to overcome the tragedies they have encountered, we could create a cleaner, kinder and more peaceful environment.

2. Compassionate Communal Thinking

Abu Raj, a refugee and artist featured in Killing the Rock, a Sypher Films production, beautifully illuminates this point. Abu Raj declares zealously in the film: “I want them to know there was someone standing alongside them.”

Survival for oneself, vs. survival for the whole tribe, makes surviving a world of a difference. When you are fighting to live because you’re living for your kin, the endurance in that fight increases tremendously. Collectivistic cultures, as we see in the East, focus on the well-being of the group, and it is that emphasis which has fueled the perseverance of war-survivors.

Now if refugees carried a culture of individualism, as we frequently see in the West, chances are, their drive to survive would decrease. When individualism escalates to the point of solitude, and there’s no one to live for, it is difficult to uphold the same motivation that a community-minded person carries. Our primal and spiritual nature was made for community, but sometimes our commitment to hyper-productivity causes us to place such needs lower on our list of priorities.

Upholding more of that communal spirit can transform an environment and even a whole country.

3. Astonishing Adaptation

Parents in the West are often hesitant to relocate while their children have been at the same school for several years. Why interrupt a good thing, and traumatize the child with the idea of “starting over” somewhere new? As humans, it is easy to become attached to our environments, and remain in a state of comfort—sometimes even stagnant, comfort.

Upholding more of that communal spirit can transform an environment and even a whole country.

Well, “starting over” “somewhere new” has become the very DNA of a refugee, and an art that they have mastered. War-survivors who have been displaced from their homes have adapted to the languages and lifestyles of new countries almost immediately. Although cultural transitions for older generations have been challenging, overall, refugees who have fought to survive, are now also fighting to adapt and evolve as their new seasons of life unfold.

Ezdihar Selim, who was a Professor of Child Development in Homs, Syria, misses everything from the great mentorship she used to provide to her students, to awakening early in her neighborhood to the fresh smell of hot mint tea and mana’eesh in the morning.

Nonetheless, rather than dwelling on “the good old days,” as a new California resident, she has now chosen to take courses to expedite the English learning process and renew her credentials so that she can contribute to academia here, in the United States.

Lesson learned? Sometimes growing pains hurt, but with the right perspective, your positive growth could be endless.

4. Raw Resilience

The unspeakable tragedies that survivors of war have endured cause one to question the true strength and capacity of the human spirit. We hear horrific stories, but rarely take the time to process how that impacts the very soul of a human.

As Westerner’s living with an incomparable degree of privilege, our spectrum for resilience is, well, to put it simply, different. When something as minute as traffic or the wrong drink order disrupts the positive flow of our day, we must question how on earth we would ever handle the complexities of war.

Thankfully we are not currently cornered into that reality; however, there is much to learn from a refugee’s resilience, and the ability to move forward.

Even if the offender does not ask for forgiveness, the declaration of forgiving, grants freedom to the one affected.

Revisiting Abu Raja’s real-life narrative, we see in the film Killing the Rock that his strength came, in many ways, from his craft. As a sculptor, instead of letting the pain and anger of the war erupt within him, he released it through his art. Creating masterpieces that reflect images of peace and victory, Abu Raja remains alive and resilient.

If we opened our eyes to the many forms of creative expression that could solidify our resilience and are openly available to us, many hidden wounds that we carry could also, be healed.

5. Unfathomable Forgiveness

As Individualists, trust is one of those priceless gifts we give only to certain people who have earned it. If it is violated, it becomes extremely difficult to backtrack and forgive.

5 Valuable Characteristics a Westerner Can Learn from a Refugee

Image courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc., Used By Permission.

Yet as refugees, who’ve faced perhaps some of the worst, bloodiest injustices that are humanly possible, the idea of forgiveness is still, somehow, not out of the question. For many, in fact, forgiveness has become not just a possibility, but also a priority.

Abu Raja, who’s greatest desire is to rebuild Syria, knows that in order to rebuild, one must forgive. You cannot build on a foundation of bitterness.

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Even if the offender does not ask for forgiveness, the declaration of forgiving, grants freedom to the one affected. It does not validate what the offender did, nor does it invite them into a place of trust. It is, however, a voluntary choice to remove the weight of yesterday and look ahead to a new day.

If they can do it, perhaps we too, are capable