Letters of Love Event Illustrates the Impact of Empathy
On Friday, September 28th, from 5-6:30 pm in Sci 101, the Swarthmore community hosted an intimate conversation with Pooja Pradeep, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Letters of Love. The event titled Letters of Love: Empathy and Compassion in Education, was organized by Lauren Savo ‘20 and Kerry Sonia ‘19 and funded by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). When introducing Pradeep, Lauren Savo ’20 emphasized, “The energy, love, compassion, and empathy [of Pradeep] is contagious and life changing.”
Upon beginning her talk, Pradeep shared her formative experiences of the past year in one minute and invited audience members to do the same, creating a familiarity within the room. As a precaution of the in-depth and heart-wrenching conversation to come, Pradeep told the audience to feel free to leave the room if necessary at any time. Pradeep proceeded to show a video of Lily, a refugee child and her story. Lily’s experiences of military occupation, fleeing bomb explosions, losing her father, and being overcome by uncontrollable adversity mirror the reality of six million other Syrian refugee children.
To further paint the reality of refugee children, Pradeep described individual stories, underscoring the idea that “when one person dies it’s a tragedy, but when a thousand die, it’s a statistic.” From a four-year-old raising his arms as he misinterpreted a camera for a gun, to a deceased child washing up on a shore after his family drowned attempting to flee danger; the heartbreaking stories are endless. Pradeep recalled her own initial reactions to these same heart-wrenching stories, saying time and time again, “I didn’t do anything about it because I thought I couldn’t.”
Unable to stand the frivolity with which people around her treated the refugee situation, Pradeep changed her perspective in 2015, declaring, “I will do something because I think I can.” With the simple, empathetic intention of making a child smile, Pooja began a Facebook page called Letters of Love. Through her connections to Seeds of Peace, a leadership camp for social change, and the help of a small team, Pradeep successfully sent 1,300 letters in 2015.
Explaining the root of our collective complicity in the refugee crisis, Pradeep emphasized to how desensitized we are to large numerical figures. Of 68.5 million people displaced, more than 50% are children; yet, we normalize and become numb to these statistics. Pradeep recounted that as a child she wanted to save the world, but as a young adult she wanted to become an engineer. She claimed, “something stole my empathy,” creating a ripple of understanding within the crowd. Ruby Schlaker ’22, an attendee, related to this, saying, “we have the tendency to desensitize issues like this,” and affirmed the importance of events like this at Swarthmore, as she finds “conversations about human issues lacking in classes.” Schlaker described Letters of Love as “one of the most valuable things I’ve done at Swat,” which left her feeling “incredibly emotional and inspired.” She found it “a cathartic experience that people take empathy seriously, as its own entity.”
Emphasizing the importance of human empathy within her work, Pradeep broke down what her nonprofit organization does. The organization’s first goal, Empathy in Education, began with a classroom in India where Pradeep informed 6th graders of the refugee situation and they reciprocated with compassion and motivation to take action. Pradeep and her team replicated a sensitization workshop in schools across the world, breaking down the rigidity of the traditional education system with critical thinking and finishing each session with students writing letters for refugees. The second part, a Pen Pal Project, was inspired by the friendship between a pair of unlikely Palestinian and Israeli friends that Pradeep witnessed at Seeds of Peace. Lastly, the Student Ambassador Program was inspired by Gaby, a 12-year-old from Alaska, who collected hundreds of letters for Pradeep.
Reflecting on Pradeep’s work, Zoe Jannuzi ‘22 connected with the idea of “humanity and experience not being expressly about politics or finding a concrete solutions, but [how] focusing on a smaller piece is important.” Admiring the simplicity of letters making people smile, Jannuzi resonated with the “lasting effect,” saying, “I want to do that with my life.”
Tying together her conversation by expressing that anyone can do what she does, Pradeep mentioned her failures. Even after all the success of her organization, Pradeep faces a denial of support, a lack of regular income, the emotional toll of her work, and the constant question: why? Lingering on the why, Pradeep concluded, “you don’t have to be a part of the conflict to be a part of the peace.” Her favorite part of speaking in settings like Swarthmore is when students have “the feeling . . . where they actually think that they can do something about any social issue that they are passionate about.” Pradeep encouraged all Swarthmore students to remember, “do whatever you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are.”