Building Empathy on International Youth Day

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on August 12, 2019

Nasro_LargeSince 2000, the United Nations has championed International Youth Day as a time to bring young people’s issues to the attention of the international community, and “celebrat[e] the potential of youth as partners in today’s global society.” Though all young people face difficulties as they cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood, how they navigate the challenges of youth is shaped significantly by their identities, the histories that inform them, and the disparate contexts in which they live around the world. And the high degree of complexity can make it difficult for teachers to build empathy across divides. 

At Facing History, we know that the key to posing weighty questions and keeping students emotionally engaged is leveraging the power of story. And we’ve got a wealth of resources to help teachers bring powerful stories into the classroom, including our guide to Girl Rising’s award-winning short film, Brave Girl Rising.

Through the use of a poetic voiceover crafted by poet laureate Warsan Shire, the film tells the true story of Nasro—a 17-year old girl living in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. Nasro voices her existential fears, hopes, joys, and yearnings against a backdrop of refugee displacement, global migration, barriers to educational access, and sexual violence. Moving seamlessly from Nasro’s particular experience to universal themes, the film invites a wide and multigenerational viewership to develop empathy for Nasro and broaden their thinking about others’ experiences.

Nasro speaks Shire’s poetic rendering of her experience in the film:

“What type of loneliness is it,
when you’re between two places
but belong to neither one?
I vibrate between this world and the next.
I vibrate between girlhood and womanhood.”

Nasro offers this reflection on being “between two places” in multiple registers—the geographic in-betweenness of the refugee; the developmental in-betweenness of the young person as they come of age; the psychological in-betweenness of feeling that death may be imminent; and the existential in-betweenness we all experience when we strive for social belonging and fail.

Though a student viewing the film may not share comparable experiences of displacement and violence, Nasro’s move from the universal to the particular—and back again—offers students an empathetic on-ramp that provokes deeper curiosity about the experiences of others. And while Nasro’s words invite empathy, her narrative does not culminate in a declaration of absolute loss and unending marginality. Amid the many threats she faces, Nasro insists: 

“Love always finds a way to exist,
Even in here.
Joy is ours to find and keep.
Tenderness is ours to raise.
Love is not a myth.
Loss is not our mother tongue.

We will be our own mothers.”

Thus, we also see Nasro as someone with agency and resilience that she is determined to leverage to reshape social conditions around her. Rather than someone awaiting rescue, student viewers are invited to regard Nasro as an inspired peer inviting others to glimpse a wider reality, and perhaps even support her cause through acts of solidarity. 

A key takeaway for educators is that when we explore vast, complex webs of violence and injustice in the classroom, we gain from weaving in human-scale stories that invite empathy; surface a targeted person’s resilience and self-determination; and evoke the possibility of acts of solidarity in students. When all of the humanizing stories are flattened into statistical figures, we lose these transformative opportunities.

On International Youth Day and every day, educators have the opportunity to leverage the power of story to build empathy, deepen students’ knowledge about other young peoples’ experiences, and urge them to begin exploring strategies they can use to disrupt injustice. Brave Girl Rising’s layered visual and auditory narrative has the potential to touch the hearts of students and ignite their desire to offer solidarity to fellow young people near and far. 

Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to use our Teaching Idea, “Brave Girl Rising: A Refugee Story” to spark rich dialogue and reflection on the themes presented within this short film.

Access Tools for Educators

Topics: Film, Poetry, Refugees

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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