About three months after we moved to Germany, my daughter was invited to a new friend’s house. Being the overprotective American that I am, I went with her and awkwardly tried to make small talk with the friend’s father while the girls played.
“So, what brings you to Germany?” I asked. He looked at me with a mixture of contempt and kindness before replying: “We are refugees from Myanmar. We had to leave.”
Suddenly, I saw the apartment in a new light. The sparse furniture (I was sitting on a deck chair). The bare walls and broken toys. I sheepishly looked at the floor, hoping he wouldn’t ask why we were here. I couldn't imagine telling him that we came for the adventure and we could go back to our family and homeland any time we wanted. The silence deepened. I didn’t know what to say.
The truth is, I still don’t. There is nothing to say to people who have lost their homes and families and possessions.
“Why are you crying?”
A few months later, I came across a woman crying in the hallway at our church.
“What's wrong?” I asked in English. Her face lit up. Although English was not her native language, she explained she knew it much better than German; I could tell she was relieved to finally be able to express her feelings, even if it was to a near-stranger.
She wiped her eyes and told me that she, her husband and two sons, ages 6 and 8, had arrived a few weeks ago from Syria. The German government had assigned them to live in a school gymnasium with 12 other families. They were not allowed to look for work until their paperwork was processed and their kids couldn’t start school. She and her husband slept in shifts to keep guard over their meager belongings and food. She knew she should be grateful for the free housing and monthly stipend of 1,000 Euros but the isolation and limbo were destroying her family.
We don’t need money. We need school and work and our own place to live.
“I was trying to do what was best for my boys but maybe we should have stayed in Syria,” she told me.
“What made you decide to leave?” I asked.
“Our house was bombed.”
At that, I started crying too. We hugged. I offered her money (the only thing I could think of to do). She turned it down.
“We don’t need money. We need school and work and our own place to live. That can’t happen until our paperwork is approved and no one knows how long that will take,” she said with a sigh.
I felt helpless. She felt helpless. She was supposed to feel lucky for getting out but starting over is never easy.
Amid the crisis
As you’ve likely heard, the refugee crisis has reached new heights in Europe. In 2015 alone, more than 1.3 million people applied for asylum in Europe. At least 500,000 of those asylum seekers have come to Germany thanks to Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel’s open door policy.
When refugees began pouring into Germany, I felt proud of my new home. Germans lined train stops with welcome signs. I overheard one old man say how grateful he was that Germany was finally a place people could run to instead of from. But then the crime rates started climbing and many Germans felt frustrated and uneasy with the sudden influx of people and cultures.
Then came the bombings and shootings.
The mall shooting in Munich left me in tears and then just a few days later, a machete attack happened in a town 30 minutes from my home. For the first time since moving here, I didn't feel safe, and I briefly wondered if we should move back to the States.
Coming to Germany is hard on refugees. It is also hard on the country. I see it. I feel it. And I can understand why so many Americans seem to fear allowing more refugees into the United States. It is not without risk. But my fears were put into perspective a few months ago.
My second grader came home from school with a new assignment: Draw a picture of her greatest fear. My daughter drew a bee with a giant stinger. Most of her classmates drew pictures of war.
Out of a class of 24, my daughter could only think of two other children who didn’t say war was their greatest fear. Think about that. In America, war isn’t even on the radar of most of our kids — exactly how it should be.
Kids deserve to grow up without worrying about bombs and wars. Kids deserve to have their greatest fears be nothing more than bugs. Kids deserve to feel safe.
Of course, I still have fear, but whenever a news story makes me uneasy, I think of all those second graders and friends who are refugees. They, and their safety, are worth the risk.