The connection between literature and the refugee’s crises

תמונה10Vered Cohen Barzilay speech at Bookcity Milan 2015


Ladies and Gentleman, distinguished members of the panel, Mr. Ruggero Gabbai.

It is an honor for me to return to Bookcity Milano and stand here again in front of you.

2 Years ago, we conducted our first event in Italy – the “Power of Literature and Human Rights”. We discussed the war in Syria and expressed our hope for a rapid solution. We even allowed ourselves, and the audience, to dream about a new middle east offering our own personal ME background as an evidence for a regional peace that is not beyond the world’s ability.

Nevertheless, reality got different plans for our dreams. Syria’s civil war intensified and became to be the worst humanitarian disaster of our time. 220,000 people have been killed so far, half of them are believed to be civilians, and hundreds of them are children. The U.N. estimates that 7.6 million Syrians’ are internally displaced. When one is also considering refugees, more than half of the country pre-war population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the borders.

For too long the world has been silent. World’s leaders hoped that Syria would resolve its internal crisis without interrupting world order. They even overlooked the deadly journey to safety in Europe that refugees had to endure on a daily basis.

However, the war in Syria continued as well as the Middle East instability, and so the number of refugees grew enormously until the world could not ignore them anymore.

It is easier to close our eyes to horror especially when we de-humanize people. When they do not have a name, an image, a story, people become just numbers and even if millions of them needs our help or protection, we are not able to understand or identity with their suffering.

Over 60 million people were killed, in WW2, which was about 3% of the world population at that time. Millions of them murdered because of a pure hate for strangers. When the war ended people asked: how did it happen? How is it possible that we did not hear or knew anything about the Nazi murderous machine? Well…the answer is that we always have a way to know but in most cases we choose not to know.
This behavior is Denial as Stan Cohen’s claim in his monumental book “States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering”. Cohen shows how organized atrocities – the Holocaust and other genocides, torture, and political massacres – are denied by perpetrators and by bystanders, those who stand by and do nothing.

Dante Alighieri claimed: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

This kind of behavior is not restricted to a person, a country or a nation.  Therefore, Hell is an option for all of us. 🙂

The connection between literature and the refugee's crises

In order for us to help others, we must feel high empathy, otherwise we will turn our back on them or only help from a self-ego motives (“I act because I gain something…”).

In low level of empathy, most people will choose to ignore, even a suffering victim.  In a study, phycologists increased people’s high empathy reveling them that the woman they observed, has similar values and interest as they do. Later, they have been told that she suffers from post trauma after she was thrown as a child to electric fence. As part of the research, she received electric shocks in front of their eyes in which she indicated that are painful for her. The high empathy group rushed to help her, while the other group, which felt low empathy after been told that she has different views and interest from them, choose the path of ignoring her suffering.

Our ability to feel empathy and take care of the other, even if she or he are far from us or in other countries and lands, even if they have different religion, different skin color, speak a different language or have other sexual preference.

Outreachתמונה3ing to the other, and helping him/her – is not only our responsibility but also what defined us as humans!

The photo of 3 years old Aylan Kurdi’s body forced us to open our eyes. In his death, Aylan was no longer a number. He had a face, a name, a body. He looked like one of our children. He became human again and by that, he broke the world’s wall of silence and forced us to stop ignoring the refugee’s crises.

We live in a global world, the internet connects us and produces massive amount of information to read and react. Every minute people around the world email more than 205 million messages, upload more than 48 hours of YouTube videos, tweet more than 100,000 times, and almost 700,000 of them share something on their facebook wall. Every single minute…

That leaves us with enormous volume of information and not too much energy to deal with it. So we got used to not reading, or reading briefly only one of two paragraphs. Rushing from one website to another. It effected immediately literature which demand from us a free peaceful time to dive into a 300 pages average novel.

Who has the time for it???

So…Literature became irrelevant especially in the eyes of the younger generation.

According to Italy’s National Institute of Statistics in 2013, 57% of the population in Italy had never read a book for nonacademic or nonprofessional reasons—indeed, about 10% of Italian households reported not owning a single book. According to the 2013 Survey of Adult Skills by the (OECD), nearly 70% of the population in Italy are unable to “understand and respond appropriately to dense or lengthy texts.”

If it’s any comfort, then, the numbers in Italy are not very different from other European countries or indeed in the world.

Since we do not read anymore it is harder for us to reach to other people and feel empathy to their needs. In fact, the disappearance of literature from our life enables us to close our eyes and de-humanize the other, thinking about those distant humans as numbers again. Literature brings characters to live; it tells their story and helps us feel high empathy. According to research only through literature, we are able to deeply identify with a situation as if we have experience it on our self.

Dictators, by the way, are very aware of these powers, and usually burn books, as well as pursue authors.

For these reasons, literature is so important. Especially now!

And it is also the reason that I founded Novel Rights.

For the past 3 years, we remind the world how powerful literature is, and use its magical powers in order to spread values of human rights. To bring the unheard voices of the de-humanized people as to make them humans again in the eyes of the world.

I think most of us, weather if from personal experience or family story, know how difficult it is to be a refugee.  Why people never choose lightly to run away from their homes and lands. Why it is always a ‘live or die’ question.

Many refugees do not have even a country to flee for. Palestinians still live in refugee camps, as well as the Kurdish who struggle for an independent. In similarity the Yazidi’s, Roma’s, Somali, and many more are constantly persecuted and attacked, sent to prison or even executed.

Novel Rights authors, could choose an easier life, and to write: sixty shade of gray or some romantic novel that has no human rights perspective (Although some say that sex is a very important right J). It would have probably bring them more publicity and money…

But they listened to their inside truth and they took their obligations as authors and humans very seriously, writing novels that probably will not be very light to read but more thought-provoking and engaging.

Novel Rights holds a great meaning, both to the authors and the readers as well. In order for a book to engage us and mobilize us for action, whether it is in a direct or non-direct way, we must have – socially sensitive, high empathy authors that write human books.

And, the readers that understand the meaning of literature in their life and why it is not only worth this “waste of time” but essential for our children’s lives and ours.

In less than 3 years, Novel Rights managed to leave an enormous impact.  When we first started no one even consider to use literature as a human rights tool for action. Research about literature and human rights were rare.

We identified the genre of Human Rights literature, adopting the French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre “engaged literature” concept. We published Human Rights stories and produced events around the world in order to encourage discussions and researches on this topic.


We are very proud in our achievements – especially by the warm embrace, the academic institutes and book fairs such Bookcity , gave our events and genre.

However, as I first said the reality is stronger than our dreams even if they come true.  Even if we manage to frame literature as important for human rights values and work, as an answer for terror or an important solution for the refugees crises.

The world is changing, and it increase people’s fear. The fear nurtures hatred and low empathy. Knowing this, we must welcome human rights literature in every saloon, in every house, this will make sure we always remember to see others in an empathic, human eye and offer ways to reach out for them.

By doing this, we will not only feel good – but literally will make the world a better equal place to live in!  


Purchase Novel Rights new eStory “Don’t Frighten the Children” inspired by the Refugee’s Crises

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