Humanity: what are the value and worthiness of a human life?

Humanity is a peculiar thing. It is one of the universally applied concepts that transcends political, religious and social divides. It is a concept that everybody seems to know, but that nobody seems to be able to define. Everywhere in the world are people that act in the name of humanity. Humanity is supposed to be universal, something where everybody is a part of. However, if humanity is a universal concept and so many hands act in the name of it; why then do some people seem to be more included in humanity than others?

Still there are daily messages in the news with pictures of small, rickety boats that traverse the Mediterranean or Aegean sea towards Europe; still there are people that sleep in unheated tents in the camp on Samos while it is winter; still there are many people in the camp on Samos with teeth and eye problems who cannot be helped on the short term; still there are many people that cannot wait to develop further, but have no resources to do so in the camp; and generally speaking, still there are so many people that have to live in this camp on Samos, just and only because they made the journey to Greece in nothing more than these small, rickety boats.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt (1951) states that currently, now that we live in a world that is ordered into nation-states, the concept of humanity is closely intertwined with the concept of citizenship. Furthermore, she argues that when you are human, only human and nothing else, you are in a very vulnerable position. The practicalities of humanity do not seem to be as universal as the concept does imply. Every day I realize while I am distributing cups of tea in the window of the milkroom, that the situation where we find ourselves in is so incredibly poignant. For me the camp equals practicing and performing the concept of humanity. By shaping a refugee camp, you also shape, at least in my opinion, how you think a refugee life should look like after they have traversed the sea in small rickety boats. To me it illustrates that the camp is not only a setting where you apparently have to live when you are a refugee, but is also a setting that structures opportunities and developments. For me shaping and designing a refugee camp equates the making and shaping of refugee lives.

I feel that when you take that one step into that small boat towards Greece, you lose a part of your humanity and you distance yourself from belonging to this concept. It is also because of this I consider the work that so many people from different organizations in the camp do, is important. We are not only doing this, because we want to make the situation in the camp more endurable and more livable. But also, because we want to send a message to the world to wake her up. If only could our mouths say to every ear: hey, there are so many people that live in a situation that could be much more humane. Also we act in the name of humanity and every day we make ourselves hard for those who have temporarily lost their citizenship due to their trip in small boats and find themselves in a position where, as philosopher Hannah so beautifully says, they are only humans.

I am unable to give an answer to the question that I started with – what are the value and the worthiness of a human live. What I can write is that I think it is of major importance that all these people working in the camp keep on doing what they are doing. That we all keep on recognizing the camp’s habitants as full human beings that all belong to humanity. It are these hard workers that provide an answer to what the value and meaning of a human life are, by making the practicalities of humanity as universal as possible. Especially those small cups of tea, the boiler suits that we distribute, the doctors that take their time to see sick camp habitants, our daily child’s activities, the lessons that we provide in the shelter for minors, the conversations that we have, all form a message for the world and all contribute to make the concept of humanity more universal and more inclusive.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel
Hannah Arend 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Meridian.
Photo: Bas Bakkenes