I’ve done this before, so why were there knots in my stomach as I waited for the time of last night’s press conference to arrive?
Perhaps because it was the biggest event of my public relations career to date.
This morning, I was invited for an interview on Al-Jazeera America which was canceled at the last minute. They had wanted to ask me about the story of the Syrian Scientist and why this particular Humans of New York story inspired such widespread global response.
So since I did not get the opportunity to share my insights with the world on TV, I’m going to share them here with you. And this is what I think…
The power of social media is vast and immediate, but what makes one story go viral and another hardly noticed?
Did you know, there are 19 million refugees in the world today, and only 4 million of those are from Syria? Refugees are nothing new, and there is nothing new about this fine nation being the world leader in welcoming refugees to move here and begin life anew, in safety.
It is what this country was built on. The Pilgrims and the Puritans were refugees themselves, fleeing to a place where they could safely observe their religion in their own way. It is part of the founding fabric of who we are as Americans. I’ve been honored to learn so much about refugee resettlement by doing the public relations for Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, the state’s largest resettler of refugees and the nation’s fourth largest.
So why this story, now?
First, Mr. Refaai Hamo, a.k.a. the Syrian Scientist, is a highly educated successful and intellectual man whose rags-to-riches story is admirable, and enviable. As told through striking photography and concise narrative on Humans of New York, in seven parts, his story wrenches at the hearts of anyone who reads it.
Here is a man who had everything thanks to his hard work and perseverance, who lost everything because of the cruelty of his own government. He could be you. He could be me.
There is the mistaken notion that refugees are poor people who have nothing and nowhere to go. They have nowhere to go, correct. But nothing? Refugees are people – some lived in meager settings while others lived among abundance.
They are you. They are me. They are struck by the unfortunate and unfair circumstances of the politics around them and for whatever reason, a refugee by definition is someone who has to flee their home to seek refuge, safety, security, somewhere new.
They are at the mercy of the world’s generosity.
The picture so many have of a refugee is of a poor downtrodden person and while I have met many who are all incredibly worthy, inspiring and kind, this story is of a family who ascended the economic and educational ladder in ways that many do not – and then plummeted to the ground, hard, fast, sudden.
I believe that is one reason this story caught so many hearts.
And then, there is the candidness of Mr. Hamo’s admissions – that his stomach cancer might be from the trauma he and his family endured. I believe that, too, that the illnesses we step into come from our own discomfort in the world and in our souls and that perhaps we make ourselves sick in the wrong environments.
He shared tragic details – of his children carrying out pieces of their dead mother and sister after the missile attack on their home. You don’t forget details like those. You can’t.
Beautiful images. Tight, descriptive story. A humble voice. A plea for fairness and safety and compassion.
That is what made this story spread.
It also helps that a famous actor, Edward Norton, jumped on the bandwagon to raise money for this family, and President Barack Obama’s savvy social media advisories encouraged him to comment as well.
What I hope from all of this is that the larger issue of refugee resettlement is what emerges as our primary focus – not just one family.
What Mr. Hamo said over and over again last night was, “I am human. I do not want to be known as just a refugee. I want to contribute. I want to be a citizen who gives to others.”
He said it does not matter in what discipline his PhD focused – if he cannot use his education, it means nothing, he said.
He steered the conversation away from himself and toward the bigger picture, the global picture – of helping all humanity to have equal opportunities, equal access, equal care and dignity.
That is his message.
And so it should be ours.
There are 19 million refugees in the world today, 4 million of whom are from Syria. Why this crisis over any other atrocity? I can’t say that there is a good reason.
Any conflict that causes people to flee their homes, their roots, all they’ve ever known for safer havens in strange and distant locales is worthy of our attention – for if we cannot stamp out hatred and danger, then we have done nothing to build our world.
Let this conversation be the spark that ignites a worldwide flame of compassion – where all humans are treated as such and none are left to wander unaided, alone, in their darkest hour. That is the work I feel so fortunate to be able to do. That is the calling to all of us who have the means to help.
Brandon Stanton, the man behind the Humans of New York blog, book and social media effort, said this: “I’ve rarely been shaken by a story more than the scientist’s. His life had been so tragic, but throughout the entire interview, he kept returning to his desire to help mankind. He didn’t want to die before making a contribution to humanity, and he felt that he was running out of time.”
Isn’t that the purpose of our lives, anyway? Make your mark – before your time is up.