Compassion and Solidarity: Les Miserables and the Plight of Syrian Refugees

President Francois Hollande of France announced yesterday that his country will continue to honor its commitment to settle 30,000 refugees over the next two years. This is in stark contrast to the bigoted and racist responses from various U.S. Governors and GOP presidential candidates, many of which have called for Nazi era registration ID cards for Muslims and the closing of mosques, effectively torching the First Amendment on the spot.

Navigating through all of the hate and ignorance towards the millions of people that are fleeing war can be depressing. In this moment it seems appropriate to invoke some lessons from the literary masterpiece that is France’s own, Les Miserables. 

At the beginning of the book the noble peasant, Jean Valjean, is leaving the galleys after spending 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s seven children. He spends 5 for theft and the rest for repeated escape attempts.

Jean Valjean

After many miles of traveling on foot seeking refuge he is taken in by the gracious Monsieur Myriel, the Bishop of Dinge. What happens next is one of the most beautiful acts of compassion and goodwill in all of literary history:

The bishop, who was sitting beside him, touched his hand gently and said, “You didn’t have to tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is Christ’s. It does not ask any guest his name but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And don’t thank me; don’t tell me that I am taking you into my house. This is the home of no man, except the one who needs a refuge. I tell you, a traveler, you are more at home here than I; whatever is here is yours. Why would I have to know your name? Besides, before you told me I knew… your name is my brother.”

One would like to think that somewhere deep in the French spirit and the spirit of the world the words of Victor Hugo reverberate from the past and continue to have a lasting effect on the way we treat one another. Whether we have read this book or not; whether we live in the West or the Middle East or South Asia, our humanity shines brightest when we show compassion and solidarity in the darkest of times, this is something that Victor Hugo illustrated so well in his grand epic about a poor peasant that stole a loaf of bread.

Photo: Frontispiece of Les Miserables via archive.org

Reading of this section available here at Awesome Stories

Advertisements