Notes from Germany (one year on) by Alice Su

I’ve held this image in my mind for three years: 25-year-old Mohammad in a chair outside the little unfinished house in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, ‪morning sun warming the hills before him, a thin wall between us as his father urges him, “Think about your future.”

It was Eid al-Fitr 2014. I’d been shadowing M for a story about his Syrian volunteering team, which crisscrossed Lebanon delivering crowd-funded aid to fellow refugees in need. One of the cases was a 6-year-old who needed open-heart surgery. It cost thousands of dollars that the team had taken 4 months to raise. Finally they had enough, and M accompanied the boy to the hospital, sending me happy selfies the whole way. But the procedure was complicated. The operation failed. 6-year-old Nour died. M sent me half-sentence texts. He stayed overnight, arranging the papers so the parents could take their son’s body back to their tent.

The next day was Eid. I came to Bekaa and spent two nights with his family, watching them construct a fantasy of normalcy for M’s 3 and 6-year-old nieces. M and his brother Youssef bought them new clothes and shoes. When the electricity went out, their grandfather took them outside to dance, twirling starlit circles in the dark.

At night, the girls’ mother whispered that her father disappeared into a regime prison in 2012 and hasn’t been heard from since. We smoked argileh at 2 a.m. as her husband, a former Free Syrian Army fighter, said his Lebanese boss was paying him half of the promised salary for his illegal job selling fruit at a street stall. They had no work permits, had just run out of water at their house for the month, and were barely affording the rent, let alone the few hundred dollars refugees must pay for residency in Lebanon each year. 

In the morning, I woke to Mohammad’s father asking him whether I could help him get somewhere, anywhere, to finish his studies or find a future. “She’s American, she can help,” he said. I watched their silhouettes through the window, a 25-year-old taking on all-devouring Death with his friends and a Facebook account, his father unable to protect any of them, two fragile frames against a blazing war just across the border. Birds sang into the summer air.

“Baba, don’t pressure our guest,” M said to his father.

Three years later, I’m reunited with M in Bremen, Germany. It took a year for M and three years for his parents to get out of Lebanon. They smuggled across Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and more in four separate trips with two failed attempts, but they’re here, with 3-year asylum that guarantees them protection in Germany and support for housing, language classes, and job placement. They can’t move out of Bremen or get visas to any countries bordering Syria. But they’re safe, though the family has been spliced apart: the girls and their parents still in Lebanon, while the older parents, M and Y are here.

They are the same family, but the house is strangely void. We keep lapsing into silence, the boys on the couch, staring at their mobiles. M’s father is quiet like before, only transplanted to a German chair in a white-walled home, smoking and staring at the fog outside. M looks different, his dark hair now grown out in a shock of curls, his face paler, the contrast stark. He’s become media coordinator for the volunteers and spends every free second curating videos and pictures from their work in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. He shows me clips of his friends distributing sweets and aid to orphans and injured children in Idlib, in Yarmouk camp, in Homs. It feels like we are back in the Middle East for each video’s few seconds, then we go back to the scrolling and clicking and rain.

I walk through Bremen flanked by four Syrians, the two brothers, their cousin Ahmed and friend Ibrahim, who tells me about being in a boat between Egypt and Italy for 9 days, your whole world just sea and sky and death. “It was a great touristic adventure,” he laughs. It’s raining and grey, a Sunday Eid with the world shut down. The town is all gargoyles and cathedral spires and medieval fairy tale roofs, with church bells ringing as we walk.

M is sullen, withdrawn, until he sidles up to me and says, “Shu malik? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t think you’re happy,” I say.
I’m right, he says. M is spending his days in ausbildung, a German work-study program where he’s learning to manufacture fake teeth for dentist’s offices.
“Sometimes I think, what the hell am I doing here, making teeth?” he says. “Why don’t I go to Idlib? Even if I die, my conscience will breathe better.” But there are his parents, who don’t speak German or English and can only stay home all day, M says. They need him.

On the third day we go sit by the river, look at the ducklings, and watch German families swim. We have Oreo ice cream bars and go shopping for girls’ dresses, which cousin Ahmed will bring to Lebanon next week. Um Mohammed goes into grandma mode and examines every piece of clothing in Benetton, Zara and H&M, declaring it’s so silly that you always see nice things but when you want to buy a gift, nothing good is there! We pass a mattress store on closing sale and spend a long time browsing, Abu Mohammed very serious but Um Mohammed silly, lying on a mattress saying “Tasba7i 3la kheir, Gute Nacht!” to the shop lady. M negotiates the whole thing in German, and I tell his mom I’m so proud of him.

They buy two mattresses, which the men take home, leaving me with Um Mohammed. We walk to a supermarket, talking about how Chinese New Year is a huge relative-filled event, and how much she misses having all her sisters and cousins together for Eid in Syria. I help Um Mohammad pick out groceries. “Milk, because Mohammad drinks milk in the morning,” she says, as if her 28-year-old son is still a boy.

At home, we embellish frozen pizzas w corn, bell peppers, olives, mushrooms, curried ketchup and remoulade. Mmm, so delicious, Um Mohammed says, and M tells a story about how the Germans make egg sandwiches with remoulade. I’m still on my last piece of pizza when Abu Mohammed mentions, did you hear there what happened today near Damascus? No, she says, and he goes on. It was in this specific area, an explosion of some sort, a lot of people injured but nothing serious mostly, but one death – and it’s from these families – do I know them? Um Mohammed asks – yes, he says – they’re from this family – and she is gasping. The room seems sucked clear of air and light as she grabs him, “Not Ghsoun?” He says allah yarhamha. Her sister’s daughter has died.

Um Mohammed’s head is under her arms in a wail. The seconds pass like photo flashes, her sons snapping to her side. M sits next to her. Abu Mohammed puts his arm on her shoulder. Both have prayer beads in their hands. Ahmed and Yousef are leaning forward. She gasps and sobs and they say, all the men, firm, naseeb, naseeb, naseeb, it’s fate, fate, fate. Sulli 3la nabi pray to the prophet, shaheed hiya estashhedtma mattat, shaheed! She didn’t die, she’s a martyr. Thanks be to God, she was surrounded by her family! That’s the end of her life, that’s it, don’t cry. It’s fate. Be strong. 
Make yourself stronger.
You have to tell your sisters now, breathe, say thanks be to God, pray, get up, yalla wash your face and pray, we’re going to make calls.

I’m breathless, watching
How she fights to catch her breath
The men, her sons, their father, like un-crying rocks around her.

Their faces don’t flinch as they get up and clear the table, tell me to keep eating, make coffee and set the table with ma’moul and change the bed, put in the new mattresses like nothing has happened, come back into the living room and sit around their mother, still flicking through social media on their phones the whole time.

She mutters prayers to herself, taking deep breaths as she begins to call. No one is looking but everyone is listening. She leads into conversation with the first sister, how are you how is Eid everything is fine… We are all well thanks be to God… Yes one thing has happened but it’s not big... an explosion... the children are all fine… Abu Mohammed motions, shui shui, don’t tell too fast… and then “Yes, Ghsoun,” and we hear a howl on the other side.

It’s been 15 minutes since we were chatting about the pizza and remoulade
Now Um Mohammed is resolved, commanding, speaking strength over the phone to her sisters in pieces on the other side - this one in Bulgaria, then a few more in Syria, one in Romania, others in Dubai and Lebanon and Berlin, flung across the world like every Syrian family that has not been able to see their loved ones all together in years - this is fate, naseeb, it’s the end of her life! Wash your face and drink some water. Go outside, breathe, pray, read the Quran, say thanks be to God. It’s fate.

I go to wash the dishes because I am afraid to intrude, though I’ve been sitting in the middle the whole time. Ahmed comes to tell me to stop and I ask, are you not allowed to cry? Would you be crying if I weren’t here?
He says no, no, we’re used to it. Welcome to Syrian life. This happens every day. It’s been so many years.
We found out while you were shopping, but we didn’t want to tell her outside.
We can’t let her cry because she might fall sick. You don’t know how much it might hit her. You know it’s trauma, shock, but we’re used to it. It happens every day, he says.
Not always to your family, I say.
If not our family, our neighbors, our friends, someone we knew, anyone, he says.
It’s so much sadness, I say.
Leave the dishes, he tells me.

Later, I curl up on the couch with Um Mohammed and she shows me pictures of the dead cousin’s baby daughter, just 5 months old. She shows me Ghsoun herself, only in her mid-twenties, petite and smiling in a family photo. She shows me the Eid gifs Ghsoun had sent her, a cheesy “Eid Mubarak” with flowers and fireworks exploding in the background. She scrolls through WhatsApp records to see the exact date of their most recent call, but it’s already been pushed out of memory.

No one really sleeps.
I dream some restless sequence of walking through exhibits of grief, rooms with some kind of tragedy or tomb inside each one, but with Ahmed leading me, telling me how to see this but accept it - this is fate, this is fate, we accept it, this is the only way to live.
I wake up over and over again, thinking 1) it’s true 2) could I not fill those rooms myself with scenes from my own memories, from Gaza and Sinjar, from the Ethiopian suicides and the girls I’ve met in jail, from South Sudan, from Syrians, from the sea?
I’m thinking 3) though I don’t believe in Islam, I will always respect the faith of Muslims, for giving hope and strength to those with nothing else to hold, 4) I would never take that away from them, 5) on the contrary, Lord, be with them more, 6) when will this all end?

In the morning I say goodbye to Mohammed, who’s up at 6 a.m. and out by 6:45 for ausbildung, to work on more false teeth among 18-20 year old German kids, while his friends visit orphans in Syria, and his parents swallow their mourning in a quiet home.

I have coffee with Um Mohammed, who tells me she didn’t sleep either, staying up thinking about all her conversations with Ghsoun. Alhamdullilah. Yousef joins us and I say, you know he’s totally changed - he was so quiet when we met in Lebanon, but mashallah how amazing he is now with German, how confident and joking, how grown-up! Y grins. Um Mohammed pauses. 

Al-ghorba tet3alam,” she says - alienation teaches. You’re a stranger, then you’re a man. You’re crushed by loss, thrown into a foreign world, alone, or alone with your brother, you’re forced to survive - you grow. You learn. You drown, or you become stronger.

We kiss goodbye, and Yousef walks me to the train.

On journalism as witness by Alice Su

Two weeks ago, the Pulitzer Center asked me to speak briefly at the National Press Club for their student fellows on why crisis journalism is meaningful, albeit difficult. "Make it personal," they said. They didn't know that I'd been wrestling with this question for months, trying to face the mental health impact of engaging with trauma and suffering nonstop without losing a sense of purpose and grounding. I'm thankful because articulating all this helped me to figure out why it's worthwhile to keep going and to keep our eyes open.

On religion & refugees by Alice Su

Here's the video of a panel I was on at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs last week, co-sponsored with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Watch it for my 25 minutes of speed talking about religion and refugees in Germany, and how a better way to frame the narrative around displacement and integration might be to move away from "Is Islam incompatible with the West?" and to ask instead, "When people come to our Western countries, are they afforded the same agency over their religious beliefs and practices as we are?"

Also check out the excellent work of my colleagues Robin and Ben, who likewise received support from the Pulitzer Center and used it on fascinating, important reporting re: Syrian integration in the U.S. vs Canada and human trafficking/smuggling routes across the Sahel in Africa. As always, it's an honor and encouragement to be with people who give their time and energy to those living through crisis and trauma, and who believe in the importance of bringing their stories to the public.

Burning building by Alice Su

I love this piece for its confrontation with so many realities: the irrational hope that faith can bring to people living in real danger; the twisted nihilism of believers who say their religion is about “love” but then exult in fantasies of war and destruction; the irresponsibility of apocalyptic escapism, the idea that the world is burning but thank God, we’re in the “saved” group that’s going to get out.

I grew up within evangelical Christianity, often hearing that humankind was trapped in a burning building with only one way out, and that it’s the job of Christians to pull everyone through our escape door, whether they think they’re on fire or not. Muslim, atheist, Buddhist, agnostic - whatever they are, if they’re not in our group, they’re damned, and they’re going to be left behind. I’ve only recently figured out why this idea disturbs me: it’s a worldview that’s already given up on this world, that lets the poor be poor, the blind be blind, the children lie slain on the beach, the chemical attacks continue, and the lucky few get away. It’s linked to the kind of vile, slickly cynical temptation that tugs at me in weeks like this, when we grieve the deaths of bright, brave colleagues in submarine horror or amid the unending killings in South Sudan - the voice that says, What’s the use of bearing witness? Everything is burning and you’ll only burn along with it. Give up. Turn away.

I love this piece for its quiet refusal to look or walk away from our world, for its assertion that even with eyes wide open and chests breaking apart, there is Life worth living. It reminds me of an idea a dear friend posed to me several weeks ago: maybe we are in a burning building, with a task not to run away but to stay, join hands, go deeper, go where it’s hot, put the fire out, try to grow a garden. Isn’t that what Christ did - come straight into the fire, spilling water into every untouched corner, kneeling down, washing feet, leaving those who thought they were Chosen and Good speechless?

尋家 by Alice Su

這次準備來台灣分享時,主持人問了我最近在報導什麼,能不能找一個 theme 來說。我回想一下發現去年我關注的題目好廣泛,好 obscure: 中國穆斯林、中東的外籍移工、歐洲的新來穆斯林難民。最終我發現可以說關注的都是少數群體,活在社會邊緣上的人,也是往往容易遭到主流社會偏見與排斥,甚至欺負或虐待的人。

每次來台灣看到那麼多人真心想要了解離這裡那麼遙遠、奇怪的題目,我都很感動。這次出乎意料的是在分享之中,聽眾朋友問了比較 personal 的問題,想知道我對於自己的身分有什麼認識,是不是因為也是少數或者外人所以特別對這些人群有興趣。我回答的時候是第一次跟你們,也是第一次跟自己說出來:從小到大我跟著爸媽一直搬家,從美國到台灣到香港到上海,哪裡都沒有歸屬感,到今天還是無法回答 “where are you from” 這個問題,無法說出究竟哪裡是家。小時候我很無奈,記得我先是害怕搬到美國會被欺負,後來又拼命禱告說不要搬到上海,覺得自己因為沒有資格說任何一個地方是徹底屬於我的,所以我似乎有種根本的缺陷,因為永遠是 alien 所以永遠不完整。

很多人問我說為什麼要去中東,為什麼關注難民,難道不怕,難道不想家嗎,等等之問題。我這幾天在分享中才意識到,其實我在過去這幾年的報導中已經回答了自己小時候對自己問的問題:沒有家的人還是有價值嗎?無家是不是就等於無價?當我和難民、移民、少數人群和每一個獨在異鄉為異客的人相處、採訪、認識的時候,我清清楚楚地看到:許多人最深的痛苦是缺乏歸屬感,被主流社會鄙視、撇開、忽略。但同時我也發現,其實“家”不是一個地理問題,也不拘束於某個文化、語言、國家。我之所以一直被這些 alien 群體吸引,也許是因為我跟他們在一起的時候發現,只要找到能夠互相看到、聽到、願意同行的人,不管再多陌生的地方,都能找到家。即使我們不屬於任何地方,但是我們屬於彼此。我相信許多嚴重的社會問題,包括年輕人極端化、各種種族歧視、宗教衝突和(我個人最討厭的)ethnic nationalism 除了出於政治家為了自己私利的操縱以外,也出於我們自己因為孤獨、害怕、不安全所以也沒有主動去了解身邊也許一樣渴望歸屬、渴望“家”的人,反而強調自己的超越性與獨特性,想要尋找被接納的資格,即使踩在別人頭上也無所謂。

我在想,假如有更多人能夠改變想法,從“我要保護我的家,不讓外人進來”變成“我的家不是我的私產、護照、和祖籍,而是我和你雖然不同,但能夠超越差異互相接納、認可、了解的那種 magic”,世界有多少絕望的人會被鼓勵,多少黑暗的地方會突然有光?
想下去,其實這不是假設,而恰恰是我在這幾年裡所看到而且被此感動所以離不開中東,一直樂於繼續在這些地方和這些人待在一起的原因。在一個受民粹主義與民族主義影響下越來越愛關門、劃界、建墻的世界中,他們教我如何以人為本、以心為出發點,在傾聽與同行中找到了更大、更美、更能在深心中感到歸屬的家。

On women hurting women by Alice Su

The Atlantic | May 24, 2017

AMMAN, Jordan—I got my first glimpse of what it’s like to be a Filipina migrant worker in Jordan on an October day in 2013, shortly after I’d moved to the region. I was walking down a street in western Amman when a police car pulled alongside me on the road, the officers inside rolling down their window and beckoning me to stop. A man slouched in the passenger’s seat looked me up and down, then said, “Where is your passport?”

I was confused. I’d left it at home, as usual, I told him. He said, “Where do you live?”

I beckoned in the direction of my apartment, still perplexed until he said, “Where are you from? Filipina?” His colleague in the driver’s seat smirked.

I looked at the men. “No, I’m from America. USA.” The two officers sat up quickly, glancing at each other. “Welcome to Jordan!” one of them said as he rolled the window back up, his partner already driving the car away.

That incident repeated itself several times, always with the same progression: Men followed or pulled alongside me on the street, asking, “Philippines?” When I told them my nationality, they quickly backed off.

There’s a neighborhood in Amman nicknamed “Manila Street” where many migrant workers live and congregate on their days off, setting up Filipino food markets, buying phone cards, and visiting the Western Union to send money home. Many of the Filipina women who live there are “runaways,” meaning they lack regular papers and can be arrested or exploited on the streets at any time. When I visited the area, a Filipina woman at the street market explained why police kept pulling me over. “They will try to make you their ‘girlfriend,’” she said. “Sometimes they are police and sometimes they are just pretending. They say: ‘You have iqama [residency papers]?’ If you don’t have, they ask you for money, or drive you somewhere to do fucking. Or else they can send you to jail, or back to your country. I hear too many stories like this.” Several other migrant women later told me the same thing.

I’ve been reporting on migrant domestic labor in Jordan and Lebanon since January, visiting shelters, women’s prisons, and overcrowded neighborhoods where migrant women flock together for survival, often cramming as many as a dozen people into a small apartment. Jordan has about 50,000 migrant domestic workers, of whom the largest subgroup are from the Philippines. Lebanon had nearly 170,000 registered domestic migrants in 2016. Most of them—about 105,000—are from Ethiopia, but Filipinas are the second-biggest group, at roughly 18,300.

In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are specifically excluded from labor laws, which means they have no legal guarantee for basic rights like a minimum wage and maximum work hours or days off, and nowhere to appeal when they are verbally or physically abused. Their work contracts require that they live in their employers’ homes. When abuse happens, they have nowhere to go. A startling number of migrant women jump off balconies, dying in either suicide or failed escape attempts. Lebanese General Security, the government’s intelligence and security agency, told me that the bodies of 110 migrant women had been repatriated from Lebanon in 2016 alone. That’s more than two a week. As of mid-April, 28 more women had died in 2017.

I’ve learned to tense up every time strange men ask me if I’m Filipina, and to quickly announce my U.S. citizenship, even as I feel sick for wielding my privilege as self-defense. I didn’t think about how trapped it feels to be a migrant domestic worker until I was exposed to leering men trying to exploit me because of my Asian face. My own response has been to report on what’s happening and try to understand and expose it. But in his essay “My Family’s Slave,” Alex Tizon went beyond exposure to self-exposure, which is why his story moved me.

Reporting on systemic injustice—analyzing a broken policy and telling the stories of its victims—is crucial work. But it offers a certain kind of psychological safety: Even as you expose yourself to heart-wrenching injustice, you write about it as a professional observer, removed from any guilt or complicity. It’s much harder to tell a story of injustice that—without excusing or explaining away evil acts—nonetheless acknowledges the humanity of the perpetrator, and admits that we all have the capacity for cruelty. Confronting the conditions that can lead someone to choose evil is an important part of understanding and preventing exploitation.

I recognize in Tizon’s descriptions of his mother and “Lola” a pattern I have seen in my reporting: how one exhausted, single immigrant mother turns all her fury and shame into abuse of another, weaker woman in her emotional and physical bondage. They remind me of a Filipina woman I met in a shelter here, who told me how her madam had starved her, threatened to turn her over to the police, and beat her so badly she jumped out of an upstairs window, injuring her hip and spine, to survive. I wrote all of that in an article, but couldn’t fit what she told me about her madam: that she was also a lawyer, single mother, and bulimic. That she used to cry, binge, and throw up at home every day, and that the worst beatings usually came after angry, screaming phone calls with her estranged husband. For months, I’ve been watching and wrestling with how to articulate this specifically cruel way that women can dehumanize and harm other women. I’ve often wished I could include a footnote to these stories: Sometimes the victimizers are victims themselves.

Two weeks ago, I visited a women’s prison with the Jordanian police’s anti-trafficking unit. They were interviewing detainees to determine whether any had been victims of trafficking. One Syrian woman started sobbing as soon as she saw the police. She was a refugee and single mother, she wailed, whose husband had been killed in the conflict and who just wanted to see her children again. The investigators told her to stop crying. Then she admitted that she had allowed paying customers to enter her unit in Zaatari Camp and rape a 15-year-old girl, another refugee even more vulnerable than herself.

My insides curl at these stories, the ones of hurt women hurting others, empathy and horror churning against one another. I meet mothers and sisters and daughters with such capacity to nurture and heal, but such ugly potential to be monsters as well. I wish they came in neat categories—the wicked stepmother versus the kind princess, the brave heroine versus the jealous queen—but they don’t. So often they are good and bad at once, which doesn’t in any way vindicate the bad, but rather helps us to comprehend it.

When I report these stories, I am terrified by my own understanding of the abuser and abused. I want to feel like I write: in third-person, distant from the villains, certainly incapable of the unforgivable crimes they commit. The power of Tizon’s approach—an openly guilty one—is that he turns the culprits from they to us. He uncovers his own shame instead of pretending that only certain people are evil and exploitative. His story strikes at my secret fear: that we are all capable of cruelty, dehumanization, or self-blinding complicity with injustices from which we benefit. He writes not about good people versus bad people, but about people who can do good or bad, and who give in, tragically, to the latter. How fearful to acknowledge that we can go either way, I think. But then again, how freeing to realize that we have a choice.

On protest, more words for today: by Alice Su

Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out for longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.
— Wendell Berry, "A Poem of Difficult Hope"

رجعت by Alice Su

The quickest of updates to note that I've returned to Amman, Jordan, and am at work at several projects related to migration, religion, minorities and extremism. The same topics I've focused on for years and see as increasingly important in this age of nationalism, borders, wars and walls. I'll also write more about and from the perspective of women this year inshallah. Amman is likely the only place where I'll ever be happy that most of my friends are gone, resettled to Germany, Canada and the U.S. It's also where I came to understand the goodness of discomfort, sorrow and anger at injustice, if only to move us into action against it. It's very good to be back. I've got many words and not enough time to share at the moment, but here are some from a wiser man that I have felt for the last few days:

It is tragic to see how the religious sentiment of the West has become so individualized that concepts such as ‘a contrite heart,’ have come to refer only to personal experiences of guilt and the willingness to do penance for it. The awareness of our impurity in thoughts, words and deeds can indeed put us in a remorseful mood and create in us the hope for a forgiving gesture. But if the catastrophical events of our days, the wars, mass murders, unbridled violence, crowded prisons, torture chambers, the hunger and illness of millions of people and the unnamable misery of a major part of the human race is safely kept outside the solitude of our hearts, our contrition remans no more than a pious emotion.

Can we carry the burden of reality? How can we remain open to all human tragedies and aware of the vast ocean of human suffering without becoming mentally paralyzed and depressed? How can we live a healthy and creative life when we are constantly reminded of the fate of the millions who are poor, sick, hungry and persecuted/ How can we even smile when we keep being confronted by pictures of tortures and executions?
I do not know the answer to these questions.

Maybe, for the time being, we have the accept the many fluctuations between knowing and not knowing, seeing and not seeing, feeling and not feeling, between days in which the whole world seems like a rose garden and days in which our hearts seem tied to a millstone, between moments of ecstatic joy and moments of gloomy depression, between the humble confession that the newspaper holds more than our souls can bear and the realization that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility. Maybe we have to be tolerant toward our own avoidances and denials in the conviction that we cannot force ourselves to face what we are not ready to respond to and in the hope that in one future day we will have the courage and strength to open our eyes fully and see without being destroyed. All this might be the case as long as we remember that there is no hope in denial or avoidance, neither for ourselves nor for anyone else, and that new life can only be born out of the seed planted in crushed soil. Indeed God, our Lord, ‘will not scorn this crushed and broken heart’ (Psalm 51:17).

When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. There we can feel that the cruel reality of history is indeed the reality of the human heart, our own included, and that to protest asks, first of all, for a confession of our own participation in the human condition. There we can indeed respond.

The movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement that allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions for a conversion of heart, which makes our responsibilities a vocation instead of a burden, and which creates the inner space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow human beings becomes possible. The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out to our innermost being to find there our great healing powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as a gift to be shared with all human beings.
— Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, published in 1975, words for today.