The Ant and The Elephant

08/10/2017 16:21 PM

Pain and empathy

When the ant looks down at the elephant

by Kiki Tzeggai

The Ant and The Elephant

When I go through a rough time in my life (too many to list and most uncalled for), I think of where empathy can be found.

We all think about empathy because it dribbles into each of us one time or the other.

In my life as an Eritrean woman and refugee with the advantage of having right to an European passport by birth, I never stopped watching other women struggling in the West as much as Eritreans. Some with health conditions, children, financial strain and husbands imprisoned for decades back home. Language barrier one of the most hunting obstacles. If I think about myself, I analyze the way I internalizes pain and try to give it a new understanding.

While I see others’ pain, I learned to manage my own and focus on ways to make my kids not face similar situations I had to navigate on my own. There is no manual to survive pain. There is certainly no manual for refugees’ wellbeing and adapting to a new country. Women and men alike. Kids too. Age has no chapter when there is no manual.

Many years back, I was comparing myself to the Romanian woman at my part-time work place; she and I did menial jobs. At our break time, I would read my kids’ school papers and she would learn English as a language. She slowly made it to utter words in English, put herself through ESL night school. Reach up to a master degree and today she is a member of one of the Departments of State in Washington DC. All this makes me wonder if empathy is the twin sister of recognition of self. I think it is.

My co-worker and I had a comparable intelligence wave. She would tell me stories of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, later executed by firing squad in Romania. I would tell her stories of Ethiopia occupying my country and how my husband walking to his eternal jail told me “I will be back” but never made it.

I told her that the manager asking us to do extra jobs and when work was low to vacuum her car parked outside was not our duty. She and I encouraged others (mostly poor women from El Salvador, Mexico, Iran) to write a collective letter to the owner and had her fired.

We later knew that she could not find a job, but only employment at a funeral house…doing menial jobs herself!! We felt empathy, but we also gave each other a high-five for letting poor women know about rights and rules of law.

In an astonishing way, perhaps a combination of narrative, empathy and determination never to see our kids doing this kind of work and when we were told – but refused - to call each other “cleaning woman” and never by our first names, made us become elephants looking down at the ant cleaning mortuaries. Pain and I became friends encouraging each other to make it out. Sometimes to face new pain with courage and ready to take over a chance called hope. Managing my own pain made me ready to look at others’ and try to help.

I look back and remember the Iranian lady with sunglasses and bags costing in the thousands of dollars and yet searching for little change as a tip to me and my Romanian friend. I learned never to leave the little change on the back room’s table, but to save it in an old chocolate box at home. The kids and I called it “funds for the un-expected”.

The change from the lady holding a Louis Vuitton bag and rolling her Botox inflated lips made me and my Romanian friend look down at her. I would tell her “remember we are the ants today, but strong enough to look down at this elephant wearing Luis Vuitton boots. When we will become the elephants, we will never crush her”.

My friend would laugh and many times around asked me what I eat in Eritrea to have this kind imagination. I would say “Well….breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner was always determination and pride. Mortal combination for anyone looking down at us” You add to that a Greek mother, it creates a mine land for anyone daring to despise me. Let them be holding a Louis Vuitton bag or a driving a loan-bought Mercedes.

We all live along pain, a daily dosage is present in our lives. But I learned that pain galvanize me and gives me broad-mindedness; I created a mental defense against being injured by pain.

Emotional pain is a sphere of our own for refugees. We are so many times emotionally hurt by those that forgot their roots planted on immigration. Physical pain heals, but emotional pain takes a lot of steps to be corrected and maybe never heals. It is damaging. Sometimes I lost objectivity when I was hurt emotional by people I did not expect to hurt me at all.

It took – and still take long time- to heal. The lack of empathy from others and the consciousness that lies in what we expected do not make it easy to walk out of crushed emotions.

Refugees’ pain so often takes time and grow old, some of it dies, and some stay with us forever. We wear it under a layer of smiles. The bottom line is that we appreciate pleasure and happiness more after we met pain.

Dedicated to all refugees. From Eritrea, to Romania, to Burma, back to Somalia and Syria.

Kiki Tzeggai
October 07/2017


"Of all the forces that make for a better world, none is so powerful as hope. With hope, one can think, one can work, one can dream. If you have hope, you have everything."

" Peace is a wall we will all create by building it brick-by-brick together". (Trade mark)


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