September 19, 2023

ABUHASHIM | Selective Empathy: Cornell’s Response to Disasters in the Global South

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On September 8th, Morroco was hit with a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that killed thousands, injuring and displacing many more. Only a few days later, Libya experienced a major flood with a current death toll of 11,300 and more than 10,000 civilians missing.  With many students on campus grieving from recent events, it came as no surprise that Cornell chose to remain silent in the face of these catastrophes. No emails of condolences, seminars or support groups were provided. Yet, if these events happened to any country in Europe, Martha herself would send an email to console students and make a statement of Cornell’s support. For as long as I’ve been a student here, I’ve noticed that Cornell has only ever chosen to empathize with catastrophes that occur in the global north.

In the past four years, civil war broke out in Sudan, Pakistan had a deadly flood and Palestine was carpet bombed (twice). Yet, not a single comment of recognition or condolence for these horrific events was given by our administration. Do the students affected by these events not deserve empathy? The moment Ukraine was invaded, the office of the deans sent out emails, support groups/panels were held on campus and the Cornell Chronicle mentioned it in every issue for months. Why wasn’t the civil war in Sudan given this treatment? It’s simple, racism. 

Choosing when to pay attention or empathize with a catastrophe stems from racial stereotypes placed on non-white countries. As an Arab American, I’ve always been made to feel that our suffering isn’t of importance to Americans.  As if we’re used to it, as if we aren’t entitled to grieve, mourn, yearn — almost as if we deserve it. The mentality that brown and black countries are constantly in chaos, war and famine, and thus the suffering of their citizens is trivial, is a common theme in America.

 When Ukraine was invaded, reporters were on national television exclaiming how “[this] isn’t a place, like Iraq or Afghanistan,” “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair … being killed every day” and “We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin. We’re talking about Europeans living in cars that look like ours to save their lives.” Were they implying that Iraq and Afghanistan deserved to be destroyed by Western powers? Do refugees with non-Aryan features not deserve humanity and compassion? Are Syrians not entitled to live peacefully and free from war? These disgusting comments show how viewing areas as conflicted or war-torn strips civilians of their humanity. 

While acknowledging this phenomenon of selective empathy, as a Palestinian-American I was still shocked by how far it extended. When Ukrainian citizens took up arms to fight back and defend their city from invaders, they were deemed heroes and liberation fighters. Yet while Palestinians have been doing the same thing for the past 80 years, we were called terrorists. Is our skin not light enough? Do we not speak the right language, or not follow the right religion to be given the compassion and understanding that Ukrainians are given for fighting for their homeland? Maybe it is jealousy, but it was hard to come to terms with the hypocrisy of the West when faced with supporting the resistance movement of a European country versus an Arab one.

I want to make it clear that I’m not downplaying the horrific events that happened in Ukraine, nor am I saying that Ukrainians don’t deserve our support. I just wish that even a fraction of the attention and sympathy that was given to Ukraine could be granted to catastrophes that occur in the global south. Cornell sent over 40 emails regarding the situation in Ukraine, yet when it comes to countries in Asia, Africa or Latin America, it’s complete silence. Maybe it’s laziness or maybe Cornell doesn’t care about their BIPOC students who are impacted. Whatever the case, it’s embarrassing to watch. 

In light of recent events in North Africa, student organizations such as Arab Student Association, Pan-African Muslim Student Association and Muslim Educational and Cultural Association are hosting fundraising events to provide aid to people affected by the flood and earthquake. Perhaps Cornell administration will follow in the footsteps of their students and, at the very least, acknowledge the events that occurred and offer support to students impacted. 

Malak Abuhashim is a fourth-year student in the College of Engineering. Her fortnightly column Amplifying Silence focuses on amplifying marginalized voices and shedding light on overlooked issues to catalyze constructive dialogue. She can be reached at [email protected].

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