I just came back to our peaceful home after a trip to Germany. I visited my mum in Freiburg, a town of about 230.000 inhabitants near the Black Forest. It’s a university town with a lot of students and a mix of cultures and backgrounds. People are well-educated, well-fed, and a lot of them would call themselves open-minded. Close to France and Switzerland, Freiburg has always been open to visitors, other cultures and languages, and is “bilingual” with French-German High Schools and a French Quarter. Over 2000 currently refugees live in Freiburg - numbers raising.
People open their homes and help where they can. Community halls and gymnasiums are transformed into temporary emergency accommodation. The army builds emergency shelters. Container cities are established where ever there is space. People are asked to open their homes and/or offer their holiday homes if they own any.
Winter is coming – and refugees who arrive at the Mediterranean coast burn plastic bags to keep warm. City councils and organisations in Freiburg and surroundings are overwhelmed. There is a protocol to be followed, but the case officers are under-staffed, time is ticking, and the stream of refugees doesn’t end…
The feeling of urgency is omnipresent.
And the reaction of the people isn’t unanimous.
There is love, compassion and empathy, people who are willing to share and to acknowledge differences and to abstain from their normal consumption in order to help.
There is fear, anger and frustration on the other hand. People who are scared that their community, country, continent cannot sustain so many new arrivals, that there is not enough for everyone, that crime rates, unemployment and social security is at risk. That their status quo is in danger.
I heard many voices, many stories.
Some based on first-hand experiences, some based on second-hand information and media stories. A very diverse range of perspectives and emotions.
I can see where people are coming from.
As often in life: there is not one answer, one size fits all.
We need to choose which way we go, where we want to stand.
My question is: How can I not share and help in such an emergency? I can see the fears and concerns, however, I personally couldn’t close my heart and door and leave people, literally, standing in the rain.
What would you do if someone knocks on your door – literally or metaphorically?
My brother opened his house to Syrian refugees. He helps them to deal with the authorities, to learn German, to cope with life in a new environment, in a culture that is foreign to them. He is 76 and I admire his dedication to help. Yet he also sees the challenges that come with the current migration flood.
One thing is "emergency care" - to deal with the acuteness of people fleeing their homes with just what they can carry, literally running for their lives, many dying on their way. Another thing is, how to deal with the human condition that makes this possible: Wars are not only a clash of differences, but also a huge money-making business. Hence, there is a lot of interest to keep the war machinery going worldwide. And this is another story...
I see a great opportunity in this: an opportunity for us humans to rise to the next level and to learn and grow TOGETHER. To learn how to communicate with each other despite our differences. To balance each other’s differences and not to fight them.
Tolerance, acceptance, respect, compassion, empathy, gentleness… all those “relationship and social skills” that are so valuable for a sustainable and balanced human community, no matter what culture and background. In the past, humans have not been able to overcome this challenge. Wars and abuse, no matter on what scale, between individuals or between tribes, privately or publicly – humans battled in private relationships as well as in armies against each other. Our harmonizing and connecting skills aren’t that well developed – yet. I feel that this is a unique and precious chance for us all to open our hearts, to look at our fears and worries, to let go of the need to control and to embrace the unknown, to embrace our differences. Easier said, then done, perhaps. Big lessons, but what a gift to receive if we choose to accept it, to experiment with it and to at least give it a go and try.
In the train on my way to Frankfurt, I overheard a conversation between a man and a woman. They were complaining about the number of refugees in their village: “2 refugees for every 100 locals”, the man said, “ this is frightening. They only come here because of the money anyway. We should send them straight back.”
At the next stop a family entered the compartment: A woman with two little children and a baby, and a man. She was wearing a headscarf and they had no luggage apart from two plastic bags. The train was very full, and there were only two seats free in our compartment. The man opened the door, smiled and pointed towards the seats. “They are reserved”, said the woman next to me and waved her hands. I was surprised as I hadn’t seen a sign and stood up to have a look: they weren’t! I signaled the family that they could sit down and offered my seat to one of the small children. They all obviously didn’t speak German, but their beaming smile was reply enough. The mother looked exhausted and her baby was fast asleep in her arms.
The German couple was showing clearly that they weren’t overly pleased about the turn of things. The children didn’t seem to notice. They smiled most charmingly at them, and when they didn’t get a reaction, they asked their mum something in their language. A brief conversation followed, then the man opened one of the plastic bags. It contained some sort of bread that smelled delicious with a red spread on top. The children cheered and thoroughly ripped the bred in small pieces. With their charming smile they then offered the bread first to the man and the woman, then to me who was standing at the door. They smiled and giggled and obviously enjoyed themselves.
It was priceless to see the “dilemma” on the faces of the man and the woman: the conflict between their aversion against “those refugees” and their “good education”. The man refused to take the bread. The woman curtly nodded and took the bread, not sure what to do with it. The children watched us closely, so I took a bite. It was as delicious as it smelled.
“It tastes great”, I said – and the woman carefully nibbled at it. She obviously liked it – to her own surprise. “You should try it – it tastes GOOD,” she said to the man. He reluctantly took a bite from her piece. The children were still watching us closely – and when they saw the surprised look on his face, they hurried to offer him the piece he had refused minutes earlier.
He took it, and – he smiled. “Thank you!”
They looked very content, and their parents smiled as well, offering more bread when we had finished our pieces. They hadn’t eaten yet, and there were only a few pieces left. So I asked them in sign language to eat, too. The children said something in their language, which we didn’t understand. Their father asked: “English?” He spoke no German, but a bit English and was able to explain to me that they had just arrived from Belgrad and where on their way to Hamburg to a refugee home. They were tired and so glad they could sit, as in the last train, they had had to stand for some hours. So they wanted to share their food that they had been given in Munich with us. “People here so kind”, he said. “They help and give us clothes and free ride.” And he smiled.
When I translated his words for the German couple, their faces changed. They smiled, and not just with their mouths. “Thank you”, they both said. And the woman stood up and got a bag with some mandarins out of her luggage.
For the next hour we sat there, sharing food and smiles and the atmosphere completely changed. And when one of the small children fell asleep and the mother struggled with both the baby and a toddler on her lap, the man who had connected with the other child invited her to sit with him. He took out a pen and a notebook and they played some drawing games, laughing and joking without words.
When I left the train in Frankfurt, we all hugged and wished each other a good journey.
The others had another couple of hours ahead of them… who knows what gifts they held for them…