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The cost of compassion

Imagine what it would be like to be cast out into a world at your throat, a world in which the most capable and wealthiest nation has shut its borders to you. Imagine facing a world where your life’s value is assessed in dollars and by the potential financial burden of giving you aid.

This past Monday’s Day of Action made us imagine this scenario as an opportunity to discuss issues in our country and around the world. One of the main topics of discussion was the issue of refugees and their resettlement.


One group of students showed a recording of a Skype conversation with Nawar and Yaseen, two Syrian refugees sponsored by various student-led fundraising activities. To many students who felt isolated from this international issue by the insularity of the Orange Bubble, this event put a face to this global crisis.

This is in tune with what Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert meant when he once wrote that “imagination is the instrument of compassion.” It can be difficult to feel connected to the current refugee crisis when Princeton frequently assaults us with urgent assignments and responsibilities. Yet hearing the stories of individuals like Nawar and Yaseen allows one to imagine the reality of distant struggles, and thus to feel compassion.

This raises the question: what is preventing much of the United States, including the current presidential administration, from imagining the thousands of distinctly human faces at the other end of our policies? Where is the compassion in the American response to the current crisis?

The main answer to this question seems to be that financial reasons have obscured the nation's compassion. In the national conversation surrounding the issue of refugees, one of the main concerns of those supporting the current refugee ban is the financial burden that refugees may place on the U.S. economy.

From a financial perspective, it initially appears that admitting many refugees would incur a cost. After all, each refugee requires a certain amount of money to be resettled.

Jeff Sessions, the current U.S. Attorney General, estimated the lifetime cost of settling 10,000 refugees to be $6.5 billion, which is not an insignificant amount. But, when put in perspective, one realizes the absurdity of weighing human life by cost. Recently, President Trump announced the addition of $54 billion to U.S. military defense spending — this is almost a 10 percent increase from the $597 billion spent on military defense last year. In light of this, the cost of helping refugees is relatively miniscule.


On top of this, viewing human life through a purely monetary perspective trivializes life's value. To say that financial burden of sheltering refugees is not "worth" it is to imply that money is worth more than human life.

Some would say that we should focus on fixing our own hospitals and crumbling infrastructure before attending to the needs of non-Americans. Yet the money to aid these refugees need not be money that is taken away from the American people. If we could make do with a nine percent increase of the military budget instead of ten, then the remaining percent could be used to fund 10,000 refugees — 10,000 living, breathing, beautiful people.

Compassion should not come with a price tag, and neither should human lives.

Sometimes we need to see the faces behind the numbers to help us realize this. We need faces like Nawar’s and Yasseen’s to spur us on towards compassion. Listen to their stories. Look at their faces. Let your imagination be the instrument of your compassion.

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Jack Bryan is an English major from Lindenhurst, Ill. He can be reached at