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How my first-world problems sparked the activist in me

My problems were isolating me from greater world issues and holding me back from impacting the lives of refugees.

Growing up as a teenager in the West meant living with “first world problems.” The biggest struggle I had in high school was the lack of a cell phone. It was enough to make me feel like I was poor. I guess the list just grew as I grew. Now it’s a car, house, and a $100k job.

Really, it’s just too easy to be ungrateful and unhappy when you have so much. I read a Global Happiness Report two years back stating poor people are happier than those who are wealthy. Countries such as Indonesia, India, Mexico, and Brazil were rated happier than Western nations.

Although I love being Canadian and can say I am happy to be here… I honestly feel that people back home (for me, it’s Pakistan) are happier and more carefree. Perhaps it’s because they hug more, don’t live to work, or just spend more quality time with each other. However, Pakistan is essentially a country with one race. Canada is multicultural, so perhaps it’s the lack of connection and understanding between cultures and races. Either way, the lack of happiness can be fairly evident in the populace of the West in general. 

I’ve often been told by others that I shouldn’t speak of my first-world problems.  They tell me: “everyone goes through a hard time. The idea of first-world problems makes people feel guilty about their own issues.” Well there’s no doubt that everyone goes through tough times – that’s life. My beef with first-world problems is how they isolate us from greater world issues, which are our problems too. We have become self-centered and ignorant. 

Take the Syrian Refugee crisis. The biggest refugee crisis since World War 2 is happening as you read this. Yet, the debate taking place in several governments around the world is whether or not to accept any of the displaced. Is being human a choice? Arguments such as “we lack adequate resources” are absurd. We have plenty of space in numerous countries around the world. Sure, it takes effort, and there will be a need for education and aid in settlement and integration, but in the end, refugees are human beings. They are perfectly capable of giving back to a society that gives to them.

Take Germany and Canada, for example. They did a great thing by accepting refugees. The German economy is looking to be in great shape, as productivity is excellent and Europe’s problems have kept its currency at a reasonable level. Germany did a good deed and they will benefit greatly from it in a few years. Canada, on the other hand is currently going through a recession, but they also understand refugees will help boost their economy.

But, even in Canada (“the most tolerant place on Earth”), accepting 35,000 refugees didn’t come without negativity and racism. There have been numerous hate crimes against Syrian refugees that have taken place. From physical attacks, bullying in school and workplaces, to graffiti, anti-refugee feelings have shown up across the nation.

So how do you tackle the ignorance? The answer is simple: education.

There have been all kinds of attempts to do this, be it through fundraising talks, dinners, or peaceful demonstrations. However, all these attempts involve other people speaking on their behalf. The impassioned activist speaking for the small child, the mother, the hardworking father. While these are great – and absolutely necessary – I want to see something different. I want refugees speak for themselves.

The #ICameAsARefugee (linked) does just that. By highlighting six different refugees who came to Canada, the campaign gives them the power to tell their own stories. Giving refugees the power to speak for themselves flips the narrative of the “submissive, needy refugee” on its head. That’s the thing – in order to understand the struggles of refugees, you have to understand just how hard they work to contribute to our society.

It really doesn’t take much to be educated about the world around you. Sometimes it just takes a heartfelt conversation with an open heart. And though first world problems may not be as severe as others, you can still feel hurt. And hurt, I’ve found, is the best of teachers. For it wasn’t until I was hurt, that I started thinking about others and what they must be going through, making me humble and wanting to help.