The Importance of Inspiring Empathy and Awareness in Children Removed From War
Wars and conflicts, political oppression and genocides, are no doubt some of the most ugly manifestations of the dark facets of mankind. Many of us have spent recent weeks, and indeed years with hearts heavy and minds troubled with the plight of our brothers and sisters around the world.
I believe that one of the most potent and lasting ways to impact change is to educate, nourish and inform next generations. Whether this is through teaching, raising a family, or in my case, writing for children, attention focused on the society of tomorrow is energy well-directed insha’Allah. Perhaps one of the most overlooked yet powerful forms of activism is in holistic tarbiyah and inspiring Prophetic character in our youth. We know well that Prophetic character is rooted firmly in justice, empathy, deep regard for the sanctity of life and compassion for all beings.
The immense suffering of communities around the world is heart breaking. From the Uyghur Muslims to the Rohingyas, Palestine to Kashmir, Ethiopia to indigenous Native Americans, almost everywhere we turn is tainted with corruption and conflict. Sooner or later, young children in our families and communities will be introduced to aspects of these injustices, be it through school, friends, the news, internet or from ourselves. Instinctively, some people feel inclined to avoid the topic for fear of upsetting or overwhelming children, while others shy away because broaching such heavy issues with innocent minds seems intimidating and confusing. This is entirely relatable and understandable, and so here are some points that may help to make the process simpler.
Align YOURSELF with Hope
Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are not easy to avoid when it feels like our voices and efforts fall on deaf ears time and time again. I certainly have felt majorly frustrated and confused at the loud silence of so many while witnessing oppression. It hurts and devastates our hearts, especially when we sit at a distance enjoying the safety and security that we so desire for those who are suffering elsewhere. But the believer cannot despair. We can never lose hope because Allah is our hope. We must reorient our spiritual compass to process the fact that not even a leaf falls without Him knowing it and allowing it, and that He is the most Just and the most Gentle. What we see in this three-dimensional dunya is not the whole picture. His plan is perfect and that is enough. Every atom’s weight of good and evil will be accounted for completely, and our Lord’s power is above all cruelty and ugliness. All you and I can do is figuratively ‘tie our camels’ by using all of our assets to work in the way of justice, and then turn to prayer, patience and hope. This heart work will insha’Allah help us to set a balanced tone in the hearts of the children due to be introduced to topics of war and oppression.
Pure little hearts are easily overwhelmed, so sensitivity is vital. In writing The Little War Cat, I chose the main perspective to be the viewpoint of the cat, which allows the reader to witness, feel, and begin to reflect on a difficult situation from a safe distance. Tenderness must be a key feature of introducing war to children, so they are able to acknowledge the concept of trauma, without becoming traumatised. The details and horrors of conflict situations are best kept well away from fragile young minds, focusing instead on relatable themes and instances. This was another reason that I felt the perspective of a cat would be relevant to young children, and why the acts of kindness that lead to healing in the story are very basic and familiar in everyday life. ‘Darkness’ and ‘feeling scared and lonely’ are much more appropriate for very young children than mentioning bombs, guns and governments. Technicalities of political situations and details of war crimes are far less important at this stage than the underlying concepts and principles. A child will not be able to fully comprehend these details, but is more than capable of feeling mercy and sadness, hope and fear.
Books are your friend (in every instance!). Stories are some of the most powerful yet gentle ways to introduce new ideas and difficult concepts to children. Scientific research has confirmed the formative ability of books to inspire empathy and sensitivity in children, and there are plenty of beautiful children’s books that address issues such as wars, refugees, kindness and love. Use painting, crafts and stories to engage and delight the child’s senses and awaken their imagination while instilling honour and respect for marginalised communities and cultures. Celebrate the miracles of Masjid Al-Aqsa and share the beauty of Uyghur culture. Journey through history to explore the sophisticated civilisations of pre-war Iraq and read some traditional Afghani folktales. Learn about the wonders of 100-year old olive trees and indigenous tribal techniques of living in harmony with the Earth. Resistance to oppression takes many forms, and instilling honour, value, knowledge and worth in children for the oppressed doesn’t need to be boring or sober.
Know the Child Well
There can be no one-size-fits all guidebook for educating on difficult topics, as every single child is so unique and different. A crucial step is for the educator/parent to have a deep understanding of the child’s emotional state, fragilities, personality and learning type. Without this, when bringing weighty concepts to light there will always be a risk of overburdening, and disturbing a child to the point of trauma and distress. Through being emotionally intelligent and intuitive to their needs, limits and disposition, a tailored approach can be chosen, to which the child will naturally be most receptive. If your child is naturally extremely sensitive and prone to anxiety, care must be taken not to overwhelm them, while if your child needs a bit of extra encouragement to consider the feelings of others, you might be more descriptive and guiding in your approaches.
Search for Hope and Aim for Ihsan
When introducing children to war, conflict and trauma, hope is the vital angle. Just like the ‘cat man of Aleppo’ who inspired The Little War Cat, there will always be wonderful instances of hope in the most seemingly hopeless places. Refer to the volunteers, the paramedics, the selfless ordinary people who sacrifice for others. Search and you will always find them, even if it’s two young children rescuing a fish in Palestine during bombing. Find the resilience and survival against all the odds and show your child that the innate beauty within us all can never truly be stamped out. It is so important to empower them to know that even the simplest act of kindness can change someone or something’s life. I tried to depict this God-given ripple of goodness that spreads far and wide beyond our sight line in The Little War Cat, and just as we need hope and action to be fulfilled, so do children. We aren’t judged by the outcomes of our actions, but simply whether we acted. Be it feeding a hungry animal, planting a seed or standing up to an oppressor, the foundations for living with ihsan/excellence are laid at a young age. Show them through your own example how a kind word or gentle touch can change a heart. Incorporate small acts of compassion into your daily lives to develop softness of heart and a sense of obligation to those less fortunate. Turn all discussions and introductions of topics into positive physical action and dua. Avoid despair and overwhelm by always bringing the situation back to the One whose Hands every affair is within.
Be Just and Balanced
Ensure that you are not teaching in a way that is black and white or subtly bigoted. In the Palestine context for instance, it is important that no child believes this is a Jew vs Muslim issue. If details are being mentioned, a child must also know that many Jews stand firmly against Zionism, and that believing otherwise is as harmful as and hurtful as when Islam is conflated with ISIS. Being undignified, inflammatory and reactive doesn’t bring about any good.
The most important thing is to instill empathy, compassion and a sense of justice in children. These seeds will insha’Allah later grow and bloom into the qualities needed for individuals and communities to truly make change and honour humanity. No political lobbying, media engagement or other type of activism can be truly meaningful without these Prophetic principles being deeply rooted. Make the intention to sow these seeds and insha’Allah the rest will be facilitated by Him for whom you intended.
Hiba Noor Khan is a writer, children's author and Physics teacher, though she really wants to be an explorer. Her first picture book, The Little War Cat was inspired by her work in Syrian refugee camps and sensitively introduces concepts of trauma, kindness and healing to young children. Hiba has two non-fiction titles publishing in 2022 with Macmillan Children's Books and Walker Books, and she lives in the UK with more than 40 houseplants.