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The Power of Empathizing

By Jean Bosco Muhire

"When you start to develop your powers of empathy, the whole world opens up to you.” - Susan Sarandon.

Many organizations - UNHCR, AHA, PAM, and others - show empathy towards refugees. There are also a number of individuals who have demonstrated this characteristic. One such person is Nadia Asmal, the Associate Director of Livelihoods & Advocacy for the Global Education Movement at Southern New Hampshire University. Her work focuses on helping refugees gain work regardless of their refugee status.

Here are two compelling statistics demonstrating the impact of her team’s work:

- More than 95% of GEM students take part in professional internships before completing their studies at Southern New Hampshire University.

- Over 88% of students secure employment within six months after they graduate.

Prior to joining SNHU, Nadia’s previous work was with Jesuit Refugee Service, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the US Embassy in Malawi. After speaking with Nadia, you will quickly hear a passion in her voice for working with refugees.

''I think my interest in working with refugee populations may have started from my family,” she said. “When I was younger, we had a very close friend who was a refugee from Rwanda. I think hearing about his experiences in the camps in Kenya made me realize how many refugees are in the world and also how few services are available to support them.”

This empathy for refugees was further nurtured after her four-year work stint in Malawi managing different higher education programs.

“Students were getting degrees and certificates,” she explained. “On one hand it was terrific to hear about all this wonderful education, but in Malawi, refugees don't have the right to work. I found it very frustrating that someone could study for four years and then not be able to improve their livelihood with any extra money because of their refugee status.”

One story that was particularly moving for Nadia was an experience she had with a SNHU student based in Malawi's Dzaleka Camp.

“The student completed their Bachelor’s degree and dreamed of pursuing their masters,” recalled Nadia. “But he didn’t have permission to work in Malawi because of his refugee status and couldn’t earn money to pay for continuing his education. After he graduated we were able to connect him to an online employment opportunity and eventually he was able to pay for his admission into the masters program he had always dreamed of attending.”

This experience further inspired Nadia’s willingness to serve refugees by sharing with them different job opportunities. “Many in education consider graduation as the finish line,” she said. “But to me, I consider the finish line to be employment; it enables you to better yourself, your family and your community by getting a job that you care about.”

Nadia’s statements capture the meaning of empathy. It is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view and imagine yourself in their place.

It is rooted in her experiences interacting with refugees. Nadia puts herself in the shoes of her refugee friends and she is able to be genuinely moved to transform their lives by bringing them hope and an opportunity to reach a quality standard life. This relates directly to innovation as empathy serves as a catalyst to solve people’s problems.

Importance of Empathizing and my Key Takeaways

Being more empathetic is crucial in our daily lives. Nadia is truly doing the best she can to help refugees because she truly empathizes with the challenges of employment. Empathy can:

  • Improve communication

  • Enable us to develop a positive mindset

  • Foster innovation

According to Nadia, the key to developing empathy is to fully engage yourself in listening to people and put yourself in their shoes as the best way to understand their concerns. It also requires passion.

From my discussion with Nadia, I was able to glean new ideas on the importance of empathy and putting yourself in someone’s shoes. Empathy is a better way to assess and address societal challenges. This is because with empathy you can truly understand others’ feelings. I want to make it a point to practice this as I pursue my career goals which include giving back to my community. This will require me to fully understand and listen to the community, part of the advice Nadia shared. Through empathizing, innovation is more likely to occur. By better knowing more about an issue and “feeling it,” we can have a better idea about how to address a problem. Let’s adopt empathy as part of our culture to understand and better serve our communities in the way that best supports them in addressing their challenges.

Nadia Asmal is an Associate Director of Livelihoods & Advocacy for the Global Education Movement at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Jean Bosco Muhire is a student at Southern New Hampshire University through the Kepler Program. He is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication with a concentration in Business. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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