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Coping with Compassion Fatigue: Strategies and Insights

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Balancing Opposite Worlds: Life During Global Crises

On a recent day in January, I woke up to a world made white with new-fallen snow. I checked messages on my phone while snuggling with my toddler under the warm covers, then sent him off to daycare with his dad, made myself a mug of gingerbread spice tea, and sat down at my laptop for another marketing meeting that had been taken over by the genocide in Gaza.

On my break, I posted about the snow on Facebook. I posted about Gaza. I posted about how excited I was for the new vacuum cleaner I’d gotten for Christmas and how bizarre it felt to reach that stage of life where a new vacuum cleaner was worth getting excited about. And I wondered if anyone would take my posts about Gaza seriously when I was also posting about vacuum cleaners. And what kind of person was I anyway, to be excited about a new vacuum cleaner when body bags the size of my toddler were piling up? And yet I knew that if I thought too long about those body bags, I’d crawl back into my warm bed and refuse to come out. Posting about the vacuum cleaner made me happy. And besides, if I didn’t post about anything but Gaza, how many of my Facebook friends would unfollow me and never see any of it?

After all, I myself had started avoiding social media posts about Gaza.

When the war started, I sought out the feeds that showed what was happening in Gaza, convinced that if enough people saw them the madness would stop. Then I stopped sharing them. Then I started scrolling past them as fast as possible. It was hormones, I told myself; as a mother, my brain just wasn’t structured to handle photos of dead children. Then the number of dead would tick up another digit and I’d share another headline, leave another message for the White House, draft another newsletter, and run the vacuum cleaner.

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “compassion fatigue” as “apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as the result of overexposure to tragic news stories and images and the subsequent appeals for assistance.” Coming up on Day 100 of the war on Gaza, I was suffering from a serious case of it. I didn’t want to think about millions of people starving while bombs rained down on their heads — I wanted to hug my toddler, drink tea, and watch the snow fall. How would making myself miserable help anyone? I’d already donated what I could afford and left messages with both my senators, but the bombs were still falling.

A Google search for “how to avoid compassion fatigue” turns up a host of articles, most of them directed at medical professionals, caretakers, and educators. The tips mostly seem to involve leaving work’s problems at work, practicing self-care, and relying on colleagues for support. But no matter how much suffering they encounter, a nurse can go to sleep each day knowing they have delivered pain relief or made a sick child smile. It was a lot harder to tell myself I had made a difference for Gaza. There’s not much on dealing with compassion fatigue when your job is simply marketing language services — even services delivered by refugees.

How do you avoid compassion fatigue when you’re just trying to be a decent human being while remaining sane?

Mari Andrew’s Wisdom: Poetry for Difficult Times

Comfort and counsel can come from surprising places, and a few weeks ago, a Facebook memory brought back a certain poem: “I am washing my face before bed while a country is on fire. It feels dumb to. It feels dumb not to. It has never been this way, and it has always been this way. Someone has always clinked a cocktail glass in one hemisphere as someone loses a home in another while someone falls in love in the same apartment building where someone grieves. The fact that suffering, mundanity, and beauty coincide is unbearable and remarkable.”

I first encountered these powerful words in the opening days of the war on Ukraine, and at the time I think I assumed they had been written for that occasion. After Google failed me on compassion fatigue, I tried the opening lines of this poem and found the whole text, as well as the author Mari Andrew’s own reflections on its writing. To my surprise, it wasn’t about Ukraine at all; it was written in reference to the literal wildfires that had consumed the country of Australia in January 2020. (“How is a person supposed to do ordinary things like fall in love when a quick phone scroll is both advertising discount designer socks and informing me that 12 million acres have burned?” she asks.) But the words, the author said, had carried her through the ensuing Covid pandemic and beyond for the same reasons they continue to circulate on social media today: I am not the only one feeling trapped between the horrific headlines, the vacuum cleaner, and the new-fallen snow. We are all struggling.

At the same time, I realized that I had never actually seen the entire poem. It’s usually the opening lines that get shared online because those are the lines that convey the emotion without making reference to specific circumstances. And yet Andrew isn’t just pouring out her heart with this poem; she’s also working toward solutions. “I despair with an exhale, then I refuse to despair, with an inhale. … ‘I must choose between despair and energy—I choose the latter.’ — Keats. What does it look like to state in the midst of smoke: I choose energy? For starters, I choose to finish washing my face. Then…” Andrew goes on to elaborate a list of concrete actions she is taking: eating less meat, buying new music, keeping money in her pocket to give away to someone who needs it, buying from an Aboriginal-owned business and attending a birthday party.

What’s interesting about this list is that not all of these activities had direct bearing on the wildfires. Eating less meat is, of course, an established way to combat climate change, and one can see how buying from Aboriginal-owned businesses becomes doubly important when Aboriginal communities are burning. But why does she decide to give $5 to a needy stranger? How does celebrating a friend’s birthday help? “I choose to do the things that I may think are too insignificant to matter, because sometimes protesting is an act of grieving and small choices toward energy keep me from despair,” she writes, “because grief and celebration often happen in the same night.”

I believe that all of us, whether this year’s fight be climate change, Covid, Ukraine, Congo, Gaza or whatever 2024 and 2025 have in store, can benefit from Mari Andrew’s wisdom. In that vein, I’m going to finish by sharing a few practical ideas for combating compassion fatigue that I have developed over the past few months, as we all struggle to be decent human beings while staying sane.

Combatting Compassion Fatigue: Practical Tips

  1. Continue to do the things that bring you joy. Go to the birthday parties. Drink the tea. Hug your children, and watch the new-fallen snow. You are not helping the people of Gaza or anywhere else by adding to the world’s sorrow. You are not betraying them by feeling happy. Your emotions make no difference to Gaza one way or another, so you might as well laugh with those who laugh.
  2. Make space to mourn with those who mourn. Reach out to those who are hurting. Take time to send a message to one of NaTakallam’s Palestinian Language Partners or the countless other Gazans who continue to cling to the Internet as their only window out of a living hell. Let them know you are thinking of them, or praying for them, or fighting for them. Make sure they remember that they are not alone.
  3. Set up a recurring donation. Instead of thinking in terms of a single grand gesture, then feeling frustrated because the $500 you emptied from your vacation account (or didn’t) isn’t even a drop in the bucket of Gaza’s need, decide what you can afford to give on a monthly basis — even if it’s just $10 — but keep doing so. Most of us get income on a regular basis, and most charities make it easy for you to have regular donations deducted from your bank account. After you’ve made your decisions and set up the automation, don’t spend more mental energy on it. Not sure where to donate? We recommend Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Tech for Palestine, and Jewish Voices for Peace, or you could donate to this fundraiser to support NaTakallam Language Partner Shahd, who lives in Rafah and whose family is currently sheltering several others who have lost their homes.
  4. Make decisions in advance about your spending habits. Agonizing over whether you’re a terrible person every time you buy a latte or a new music album is just going to make you avoid giving altogether. Instead, after you’ve set up your recurring charitable donation, decide on two implementable changes to your everyday shopping habits. This can involve choosing to buy less or shop elsewhere — such as by participating in the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement — or patronizing Palestinian businesses such as those listed in our 2023 Impactful Gift Ideas. Making the decision now will save you from worrying later on. In my case, seeing our local supermarket chain on the BDS list was the push my family needed to finally commit to shopping at at the organic supermarket instead. I like that by doing so we can contribute to two causes at once.
  5. Set a reminder on your phone for one weekly action. This can be attending a protest, calling your senators, writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, asking a major company to divest from the military, or any other action you choose — what matters is doing something. If you don’t have time to attend a protest every Saturday, you can still take two minutes to email a corporation. Once you’ve decided which actions to take, get everything set up. Put your elected representatives’ numbers into the contacts list on your phone (they should probably be there anyway). Write out a short script for yourself — your message should take no longer than 30 seconds to deliver. Bookmark a few “letter to the editor” forms on both major and local newspapers. Or save an email template asking for divestments.

More Preparation = Less Energy Needed Later

For all of these tips, you’ll probably notice a trend: the more you prepare now, the less effort you’ll need to expend later when you’re feeling less motivated. Emotions can be powerful as agents that drive us to act, but it’s our actions that matter.

And now I’d like to close with another bit of poetry: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” American Rabbi Rami Shapiro is the author of this famous passage, paraphrasing the Mishnah. For me, that last line has become key when fighting off compassion fatigue. I am not going to save those children in Gaza. The fate of Gaza rests in hands far larger than mine. I am only called to do as much as I can do. But I will do that much.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Kelsey Holmes, NaTakallam’s Marketing & Communications Manager, has a background in international development, politics, social impact, and entrepreneurship, Based in Paris, you’ll also find her exploring the outdoors, enjoying creative hobbies like pottery and painting, and discovering new talent at Paris’s music venues.

Coping with Compassion Fatigue: Strategies and Insights Read More »

man wearing keffiyeh with meanings of symbols

The Meaning of the Keffiyeh

Reading Time: 6 minutes

With the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, many people are eager to show their support for Palestine. One popular way to do so is by wearing the keffiyeh or kufiyyah (كوفية), a cotton or wool fishnet-patterned scarf. It can have different color variations but is usually a white background with black or red embroidered details. But what is the meaning of the keffiyeh? Its exact origins are unknown, but many Arab countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, have their own preferred way to wear it. In the Palestinian context, however, it’s not just a fashion item — it’s an iconic symbol of Palestinian culture and identity.

woman wearing keffiyeh and carrying Palestinian flag

In the 1930s the keffiyeh was worn mostly by farmers and lower-class people from the villages, who used it as a headdress to protect themselves from the harsh weather conditions. This was seen as a symbol of social inferiority and backwardness by the upper class and townspeople, who wore a Tarbuush (طربوش; often called a “fez” in English from the Turkish fes): a rigid, red, conical hat. But during the Arab revolts against British forces, rebels started wearing the keffiyeh to conceal their identity and urged upper-class and townspeople to start wearing it too, so that the rebels could blend in when entering other cities. The British tried banning them, but this only encouraged Palestinians from all social backgrounds to start wearing the keffiyeh collectively as a form of resistance.

In the 1960s the Palestinian فِدائيّين (feda’iyiin; guerrilla fighters) resumed using the keffiyeh as an emblem of national struggle and unity, while the Palestinian politician Yasser Arafat popularized it to a broader, global audience. Its symbolism became even more fundamental when Israeli authorities banned the Palestinian flag in 1967, and throughout the ’60s and ’70s left wing students and activists from all over the world started wearing it as a symbol of sympathy towards anti-imperialist and anti-war causes.

It was at this point that it became a fashionable garment. Mass manufacturers started producing and selling it to broader audiences, who were often unaware of its meaning and wore it for aesthetic purposes (which has led to accusations of cultural appropriation). For Palestinians, however, the cultural significance of the keffiyeh remains strong despite its commercialization.

The patterns on the keffiyeh have many different meanings and interpretations: the fishnet pattern can represent the Palestinians’ connection to the sea, while the bold lines may represent the trade routes which made Palestine an exchange hub in ancient history. (Others believe the lines represent the walls that surround the land.) The oval stitches along the borders represent olive tree leaves: olive trees are of great cultural significance to Palestinians. They play a vital role in the Palestinian economy through oil and wood production, but the olive tree is also a representation of Palestinians’ resilience and attachment to their land. It’s important to note that the keffiyeh doesn’t have a religious meaning and that people wear it regardless of their religious beliefs, social backgrounds, age or gender.

girl wearing keffiyeh with olive tree

The keffiyeh’s patterns are a classic example of Palestinian embroidery. The Arabic word for embroidery of any kind is تطريز (taTriiz), but in English the word “tatreez” has become synonymous with the unique style of embroidery indigenous to Palestine, traditionally done by women.

Palestinian tatreez

Just like the keffiyeh, tatreez has humble origins. Village women used to gather to decorate clothes, scarves and other textiles and pass down this art form to the younger generation. In general, geometric forms and subjects from nature are the most common motifs, but most of them reflect ordinary items from rural women’s daily lives, such as food (apples and chick-peas), animals (cow’s eyes and scorpions) and implements (mill wheels and ladders). Other motifs symbolized basic elements in nature like the sun, moon, stars, trees, mountains and water.

The colors used in the embroidery were just as important as the design, and color schemes were chosen in reflection of a woman’s feelings and stage in life. For example, in the Hebron region, purple threads were preferred by older women, while girls opted for red and green. In some Bedouin tribes, blue embroidery was meant for unmarried women, while married women used red to represent their status as wives. Older women or widows who were interested in remarrying combined the color blue with red flowers and sometimes intertwined figures of children with blue embroidery on the back panel of their dresses. However, red also symbolized happiness and life more generally and so could be used in almost all Palestinian embroidery, alongside other bright colors for accentuation. The dyes came either from Greater Syria or, later on, from Europe.

Some patterns and colors were originally only used in certain areas of Palestine (palm trees from Ramallah, or orange blossoms from Beit Dajan), whereas other designs were stitched everywhere in the country. After the 1920s, however, transportation improved and differences between regions started to decline. 

symbols of Palestinian towns
The symbols of prominent Palestinian towns embroidered in tatreez.

Following the forced mass displacement of Palestinians into refugee camps post-1948, regional differences disappeared altogether. From the 1950s onward, practicality became essential in clothing, which featured plain decorations, but Palestinian women realized that they could make an income through their embroidery work. In the aftermath of the 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, display of the Palestinian flag was forbidden, but that didn’t stop women from stitching red, green, white and black designs into their embroidery. The words انتفاضة (intifada, “uprising”) and فلسطين (“Palestine”) were skillfully integrated into cushion patterns, serving as symbols of passive resistance and expressing Palestinian nationalist pride.

As a final note, tatreez today remains a powerful vehicle of self-expression in the face of generational trauma, and some artists are taking its imagery into the digital domain. Click on the image to the right to see an animated explanation of one Palestinian artist’s digital embroidery at the end of the first month of the Israel-Hamas war.

woman wearing keffiyeh waving Palestinian flag and making peace sign

To learn more about Palestinian culture, consider learning Arabic with one of our Palestinian language partners! Here at NaTakallam, every language session contributes to the livelihoods of our skilled tutors from refugee/displaced backgrounds and their host communities. Book a session today, or start with a few key phrases: learn the meaning of inshallah, some common terms of endearment, or how to wish someone happy holidays.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

The Meaning of the Keffiyeh Read More »

New bundle updates and features.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Starting November 1st, 2023NaTakallam is restructuring its language bundles according to the following schema:

NaTakallam Bundles 2023

These changes include:

🚀 Phasing out our 1-hour package; users can now discover NaTakallam with a FREE trial!
🚀 Bundles of 3-hour10-hour20-hour and 30-hour sessions, coupled with the option to pay by installments.
🚀 A new freeze period of six weeks for 20-hour and 30-hour bundles.
🚀 Certificates of completion upon request, to demonstrate the time and effort you’ve invested.
🚀 Language placement tests in the coming year — to demonstrate your language level to employers or other third parties.
🚀 A content library of exercises, flashcards, and other resources to support your learning (launching initially with a beta version for Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French and English — coming soon for the rest!)

Not sure which to choose? Consider the following questions:

🧳 If you’re just starting out with a language, or if you just want to practice before an exam or a trip abroad, consider the 3-session bundle.
📚 If you’re a committed student hoping to maintain a regular schedule of weekly classes, check out the 10- or 20-session bundles.
🧠 If you have a bit more time available and want to really beef up your skills with two classes a week, go for the 30-session bundle.

These changes will also benefit your tutor, through:

🌟 A 20% raise in line with global inflation, plus milestone bonuses.
🌟 Access to a special instructor’s content library and language resources to enhance non-curriculum-based sessions.
🌟 Additional training and upskilling to improve our language partners’ teaching skills and long-term employability.

Some things will stay the same.

🎉 The Integrated Arabic Curriculum at US$750 for 25 hours
🎉 Arabic for Professionals at US$350 (currently with $100 OFF)
🎉 Arabic for Francophones starting at US$8/hour (currently with 50% OFF)

PLEASE NOTE: The new changes will take effect on Wednesday, November 1st, 2023 – however, any purchases made today through October 31st will also benefit from the new features in November.

New users can purchase here, and current users can repurchase on their student dashboard here.

We remain at your disposal for any questions relating to these changes, feel free to reach out to our team at [email protected].

New bundle updates and features. Read More »

Update: An eight-year milestone & changes to our bundles.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Eight years into our journey, the global displacement situation has only gotten worse. Exponentially worse.

When our co-founder Aline Sara used to pitch NaTakallam in the early days, she’d open with a slide on how we were facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with over 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes.

Today, that number is over 110 million.

Global-displacement-2015-1

While we’re proud of what we’ve built, we remain committed to keeping NaTakallam a sustainable social enterprise.

In the post-Covid era, economies are still reeling — and many of our language partners don’t have the right to seek alternative work in their host communities. Beyond that, online language learning now competes with in-person work and studies. That has, unfortunately, meant that since January 2021, our language partners have experienced a dramatic drop in student sessions, thus impacting their livelihoods.

As a result, starting November 1st, 2023NaTakallam is restructuring its language bundles according to the following schema:

NaTakallam Bundles 2023

These changes include:

🚀 Phasing out our 1-hour package; users can now discover NaTakallam with a FREE trial!
🚀 Bundles of 3-hour10-hour20-hour and 30-hour sessions, coupled with the option to pay by installments.
🚀 A new freeze period of six weeks for 20-hour and 30-hour bundles.
🚀 Certificates of completion upon request, to demonstrate the time and effort you’ve invested.
🚀 Language placement tests in the coming year — to demonstrate your language level to employers or other third parties.
🚀 A content library of exercises, flashcards, and other resources to support your learning (launching initially with a beta version for Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French and English — coming soon for the rest!)

Not sure which to choose? Consider the following questions:

🧳 If you’re just starting out with a language, or if you just want to practice before an exam or a trip abroad, consider the 3-session bundle.
📚 If you’re a committed student hoping to maintain a regular schedule of weekly classes, check out the 10- or 20-session bundles.
🧠 If you have a bit more time available and want to really beef up your skills with two classes a week, go for the 30-session bundle.

These changes will also benefit your tutor, through:

🌟 A 20% raise in line with global inflation, plus milestone bonuses.
🌟 Access to a special instructor’s content library and language resources to enhance non-curriculum-based sessions.
🌟 Additional training and upskilling to improve our language partners’ teaching skills and long-term employability.

Some things will stay the same.

🎉 The Integrated Arabic Curriculum at US$750 for 25 hours
🎉 Arabic for Professionals at US$350 (currently with $100 OFF)
🎉 Arabic for Francophones starting at US$8/hour (currently with 50% OFF)

PLEASE NOTE: The new changes will take effect on Wednesday, November 1st, 2023 – however, any purchases made today through October 31st will also benefit from the new features in November.

New users can purchase here, and current users can repurchase on their student dashboard here.

Remember: Each NaTakallam language lessonclassroom session, and translation service sold contributes directly to refugee livelihoods.

We remain at your disposal for any questions relating to these changes, feel free to reach out to our team at [email protected].

Update: An eight-year milestone & changes to our bundles. Read More »

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