“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.”
Seuss’s story, The Sneetches, has long been used to teach children about discrimination. At first, the elitist star-belly sneetches go to great lengths to exclude their plain-bellied counterparts, saying things like, “We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” But in the end they realize that all sneetches have much in common, and the stars are just a detail. They celebrate their shared humanity (or Sneetch-ness, rather) and everyone lives in harmony.
Like the sneetches, we are constantly “othering” fellow humans along divides of race, gender, nationality, class, politics, religion, sports—the list could fill this whole column. At times, this practice can strengthen our self-identities in harmless ways. Consider how we Tufts students are proud of our school and glad we don’t go to stuffy old Harvard (or so we tell ourselves), or how this summer many of us will cheer for team USA in the Olympics. However, othering frequently causes harm, like when Donald Trump lumps refugees together, calls them “a possible army of ISIS terrorists,” and suggests deporting all Muslim immigrants from America. While I don’t participate in this extreme othering, I am guilty of a more subtle kind.
I went to Greece over spring break with with my girlfriend and her family, and we had the chance to spend some time with refugees from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I was excited, but also admittedly a bit afraid of the unknown. I had been warned to be careful, because members of ISIS might be hiding among crowds of refugees, and was not certain whether communication could cross language and cultural divides. I worried there wouldn’t be much to talk about anyway, since I come from a different continent, speak a different language, and would most likely have different religious beliefs.
In reality, we wore similar clothes, used the same iPhone apps, and within minutes we were sharing stories about our families. When I read the news at home, these people called “the refugees” felt far from my world of essays and dining halls. I understood some aspects of their situation in my mind, but very few in my heart. I didn’t feel their humanity and their sorrow, so I didn’t feel compelled to be part of the solution. By thinking of them as a population, rather than individuals, I had built a wall that blocked me from feeling the pain of fellow human beings. I was being a star-bellied sneetch.
Where I anticipated cultural divides, instead I found people who were warmly welcoming me into their spaces and offering me food and tea. Here I was—a comfortable tourist with free mobility—and many of the men and women I met had spent their life savings to embark on a harsh journey to a place where they were now stuck indefinitely, and yet they were trying to nurture me with tea.
We were fortunate enough to play games with refugee children. Toys were scarce, so we played pretend. I pretended to be an alligator, and they ran in circles around me laughing. If I stood still for a second, I became their jungle gym. We didn’t speak a common language, but a few girls picked dandelions from the parking lot, where they were living, and handed them to us. I wondered if these innocent, adorable children understood what was happening to their families.
The answer to that question was an unequivocal “yes.” One girl showed me pictures she had drawn, and among them was a drawing of ISIS and Taliban soldiers brandishing bloodied knives and severed heads. When we made paper airplanes, one child made a paper gun and pretended to shoot the others. I wonder if these subconscious wounds will become psychological pain that plagues these children throughout their lives.
Faizah, a 10 year-old girl, and her father asked that we help share their story. Faizah said that she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. However, their family wasn’t safe in their home country, Iran, so they immigrated illegally to Greece. They want to live in the United States or Germany, but they are now stuck in Greece. Faizah said all she wants is a home where she can study to become a doctor. While Faizah told us her story, her mother was in the hospital, probably giving birth. Faizah would soon have a new sibling. Faizah’s father told us that Faizah’s mother had been pregnant with twins, but one died in the womb while making the journey to Greece.
After I left, I continued to think about these sweet, adorable children who were caught in the middle of extreme violence. I thought about my grandmother, who immigrated to the US to flee persecution from the Nazis at the same age that these children are now. My grandmother’s relatives who stayed in Europe had been forced to wear stars. Now, these families in Greece were doing everything possible to protect themselves and create better lives for their children. At home I had been complacent. “The refugees” were far away, and I was buried in my day-to-day life. But when I met individuals in Greece, I saw each person has unique stories and personalities, and empathy immediately followed. I stopped being a star-bellied sneetch. Shared humanity prevailed.
Seuss’s book ends on an inspiring note.
“[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches. And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches. That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars. And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.”
Subtle sneetching leads to EU/US policy decisions that lumps refugees into groups that are from then on treated as mere populations. Losing sight of the individuality of each person who comprises the whole can lead to policies that don’t properly empathize with the people they involve. The crisis will go unsolved until countries like the US forget about stars on bellies and remember that each group of afflicted people is comprised of individuals who are striving for a better life.
I wish it had not required a trip to Greece for me to stop othering refugees, and I know full well that not everyone can go to Greece. But regardless of location, everyone can take the small step of imagining the populations we see in the news as individuals. When we see groups, we are likely to demonize. When we see humans, we are likely to empathize. And when we empathize, we forget about stars.