The role of compassion – A mother’s story for National Refugee Week

My daughter has been learning to swim for around two years now. For approximately the last two years, my husband and I get up at the eye-wateringly early time of 7am each Sunday. We pack her swimming things and we head to the swimming pool, where other blank-eyed parents wrestle their children into swimming costumes with frills and superhero logos just as we do. By 8:30, we sit to one side, watching and waving, offering a thumbs up when she masters a new swimming stroke and reminding her with elaborate pointing gestures to listen to her teacher. Whenever she has done something that she’s proud of, her little face twists around to see if we’re looking and once, after a particularly impressive dive, her voice rang out sharp against the distorted noise of the pool “Hey guys! Did you see THAT?”

It hit me this week that these are the parts of caring for someone that are seldom spoken about or celebrated. Nobody writes songs about the way that care can be getting up early, grumpy and cantankerous. You don’t see glossy Hollywood comedies about that morning at the swimming pool. They don’t talk about that moving moment when their child needed a snack and somehow, someone found one. In our wider worlds, there are no films about that kind gesture of getting a workmate a coffee, or helping out a stranger with a smile. ..And yet, in so many ways, this work is what caring really is. If I were an alien looking for evidence of compassion in the human species, I think my local swimming pool at 8:30am is a great place to start: you would see families of all shapes and sizes taking care of their most vulnerable, with a patience and a tolerance that, while imperfect, is the best they can offer.

I think that something we have forgotten in modern society, is that it is hard work to care. The Covid-19 pandemic has made us more sceptical of countries (communities) beyond our own. The threat of the climate crisis makes us all too aware that resources will be scarce at some stage and we want to avoid it being us and our own going without. For many of us in the UK, the cost of living crisis is already making many struggle to make ends meet.

Not only that, but in the past decade, we have seen a steady rise in technological short cuts that mean the human race has to work less hard than ever in most developed countries. We can have meetings from our living rooms. We can click a button and someone brings us our shopping, our favourite television shows. Our fashions are fast, attention spans shorter, our entertainment increasingly taking place online or on a console. Even our food has been modified to improve the dopamine hit that we get from it, being sweeter and more enhanced for maximum satisfaction. We worry about what is inside our homes, not what’s outside our borders.

The complexities in that picture show when we look at what should be a corresponding rise in happiness. Studies show that depression in young people has risen by 25% in the UK since 2010, now totally nearly 41% of those surveyed (Depression among young people in the United Kingdom 2021 | Statista). An interesting study showed that young people in the uk feel more disempowered than their peers in India (Children in the UK feel more disempowered than those in India | Global development | The Guardian) whilst one in five young people interviewed in one study describing concerns about the future (One in five 15- to 24-year-olds globally ‘often feel depressed’, finds Unicef | Global development | The Guardian). If we are all keeping our resources safe, and if all of these advancements make life easier for us, where is the problem?

The problem is that human beings are wired to care. It is innate to our happiness and survival as a species and caring takes work. If we think of our key “feel good” hormones, these are all stimulated by something effortful. If we consider endorphins, the hard work of exercise precedes it . When we consider oxytocin, it is generated and increased by time spent caring for and with other people. Even serotonin, the chemical most associated with depression, it is associated with the work of a good diet, exercise and daylight. Caring for

things takes work. On a small scale, it is the work of individuals to build healthy mindsets, communities and relationships. On a larger, it is the work of policies and Governments.

In this National Refugee week, the Welsh Centre for International Affairs would love to hear your stories of everyday caring. Where have you witnessed people reaching out beyond what is easy or familiar, to make a difference to somebody else. Tweet us at @WCIA_Wales and we will share your stories. And what do you think would happen if we all reached out with a bit more care?

WCIA has a number of themed resources on migration which can be found here: ChangeMakers – Welsh Centre for International Affairs (