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Empathy in narratives of British humanitarian workers assisting Spanish Republican refugees at the time of the retirada: Esme Odgers, Audrey Russell, Richard Rees and Lilian Urmston

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The history of humanitarianism has typically focussed on organizations or key players in establishing these organizations, with little attention paid to fieldworkers, ignoring what might be considered a “bottom-up” approach to humanitarian history. This article uses personal narratives of fieldworkers to analyze their actions through the lens of emotions, which allows their motivations to come to the forefront, rather than assuming they carry out actions to fulfil the orders of the organization for which they work. This article comprises four case studies (Esme Odgers, Audrey Russell, Richard Rees and Lilian Urmston) based on personal narratives covering the often overlooked period between the end of Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II, when half a million Spanish refugees fled into France in what became known as the retirada. It will explore how aid was given on an individual level and what this can tell us about the larger story of transnational aid movements. These personal narratives show that all of these four aid workers sympathized with a specific cause, while continuing to profess in public the neutrality and nonpolitical nature of their activities as expected of those engaged in humanitarianism. Their shared experiences culminated in feelings of solidarity and empathy with those they aided, rather than sympathy, compassion or pity – emotions often associated with humanitarianism.
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Keywords: Humanitarian aid workers; Spanish Civil War; empathy; personal narratives; solidarity

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, UK

Publication date: October 1, 2020

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