I want you to think really hard about this question: Is there one thing that you’ve done that feels vividly amazing?
Something that changed your life?
Or changed someone else’s?
It isn’t every day that we get a chance to do something extraordinary. As hard as we fight it, “home” eventually becomes boring and we stop seeing the wonder in everything around us (one reason I love traveling is because home seems so much more exciting when you return).
Last year, 2015, was the height of the refugee crisis. People had been fleeing for months now, but most Syrians still have hope of a resolution then. It became clear that things weren’t going to get better, so they fled in mass.
During the first trickle, no one noticed them. I remember picking up Isabel from the bus station after a weekend with her dad and seeing groups of dark-skinned people in dirty shoes in the street. Are they cigani? Sometimes the gypsy orchestras would park down there. But these people had no instruments…
Not long after that, the park started to fill up.
People camping out in tents.
Dirty laundry strung up.
Lines by the water faucets.
Most of them still had some money left that they’d budgeted for the trip. However, bureaucracy made wild animals out of them all. Even if you had money for a hostel, the hostel owners weren’t accepting refugees. The few hostels which did accept refugees were long overbooked.
The weather was still warm then, so honestly I wasn’t that worried for them. What did worry me was how the city was collectively ignoring them as non-human.
In every single news story or donations advertisement, it was always the same. A child, preferably female, injured in the street. Sometimes they would show the mothers with the children. As Paul Rutherford talks about in his book Endless Propaganda, this guilt-tripping is not a new tactic.
He calls it, “the most important promotional sign that the charity offensive can deploy in its effort to provoke guilt.”
Here’s the problem with the guilt-tripping approach:
People detach themselves from bad situations.
If I see an image of someone suffering, I want to believe, “That couldn’t happen to me.”
The self-preserving part of myself says, “They must have done something wrong to deserve that.”
My mind then puts them in a separate group. The “Not Me” group.
They are no longer people just like me who, because of the arbitrariness of birthplace, found themselves in a very shitty situation.
So I decided I would go to the park and give the refugees what they really needed, which was to be treated like human beings.
I’d do an art project with them. I’d talk to refugees and learn funny, happy memories from their past. When people read these stories, they would be able to relate and realize, “Oh shit! That could have been me!”
That project never did come to fruition. I sat with this one 19-year old boy (so he was 15 when the war started). I asked him to tell me a happy memory from his past. He literally could not remember a single happy moment. I’m sure he did have some happy moments – but the point is that, at that moment, life was so bleak he couldn’t remember it any other way.
Though this nice guy from I think Aleppo told me a story about how he won a medal for Good Behavior while in primary school. At the same time he was getting his medal, his younger brother was vandalizing the bathroom. So his parents had to come pick both sons up at the same time, one for a medal and the other for discipline.
Two minutes after he finished the story, I met the bad younger brother. 🙂
It wasn’t a big transition to go from talking to refugees to hosting them. After Isabel’s 5th birthday party, we took the leftovers to the park and made a picnic with 5 women traveling with 5 kids. I figured I’d spoil Isabel with the birthday party and then remind her how lucky we are the next day… The ladies asked if I knew of any hotel or cheap accommodation (remember that most accommodation wouldn’t accept refugees).
Why didn’t I invite them home right away? I wasn’t ready yet.
But a few days later, I changed my mind. I was in a jam-packed bus with people on their way to Beer Fest. The bus of partygoers passed by the jam-packed park with refugees. What a disparity!
I went and say my friends at Beer Fest, but let early. On the way back, I went to the park and started asking if anyone needed a place to sleep.
First I asked the women, but most were with huge groups of 8 or more. I couldn’t pack that many people into my apartment (or so I thought at the time 😉 ).
Strangely, no one wanted to go with me. I finally found one very nice English literature student named Majd. He was reluctant to go with me alone, so we found a boy to come also. Funny how he was scared to me.
I offered them caj at the apartment. Then realized I might as well offer them a beer. Majd didn’t drink, but I got the young one drunk. We stayed up all night talking and joking. The boy was supposed to meet his family in the park in the morning. I wasn’t sure whether to wake them because, when they finally fell asleep, they passed out of fatigue.
He was awaken by his concerned mother screaming through the phone. They ran off before he got in bigger trouble. 🙂
There was the Iranian couple who had just gotten married, ran off, had their money stolen. The girl was so excited about not having to wear the veil anymore. I gave her a bunch of my clothes.
Then there was Muhammed and his family. I have never been impressed by anyone as I have by Muhammed. He was safe in Sweden but went back to Syria to get his family. He came with his mother and two brothers.
They actually found me because the cousin is on Couchsurfing. I posted in the Syria CS group that I had a free, safe place for anyone to stay. The cousin sent me a message and I met the family in Belgrade when they arrived and took them home.
Coffee. Tea. Laundry. A bed to sleep in.
The rest of the family was fine, but Muhammed was a nervous wreck. He insisted on going back to the train station to find out what his friends were doing. I went with him and am super proud that I was able to talk his anxiety down on the way:
“Is your family safe now? YES.
Is your mother resting? YES.
Have you done everything you can? YES.
Are we going to see your friend now and make a plan? YES.”
The friends were a man who’d lived 20+ years in Denmark and also went back to Syria to get his aging mother and father, and a (I’m guessing) 12-year old niece.
They had bought train ticket for Budapest that night, with the hope that the border guards would just let everyone – all refugees – on the train.
Of course Hungary canceled all trains from Serbia that very day, and the ban continued for weeks (the way Hungary treats refugees makes me angry with the country). What sucks is that scalpers had bought up all the Belgrade-Budapest tickets and sold them at double price to refugees. I helped some refugees get a refund on the ticket, so at least they only lost half the price instead of all.
Everyone had sat over 24 hours in the cold rain at the border for some bureaucratic useless paper. Yet they didn’t even ask for help from me. It didn’t even occur to Muhammed to ask if his friends could stay with me. Instead, he was making plans to continue the journey right away – even though they’d done laundry and all their clothes were still wet.
Of course everyone could stay.
We ended up making a great dinner together, Syrian style. The moms liked my lentil balls. 🙂
Well, then it got crazy. Did I mention that my apartment at the time had 2 rooms plus a small kitchen between them? It was all of 50 sq meters.
Someone else contacted me from Couchsurfing! She was Australian and her boyfriend Syrian. He was on his way through with some friends. Yes, of course he could stay!
I didn’t expect them to arrive so quickly. But they decided not to wait for the worthless paper at the border and journeyed without it. (in the end, they didn’t need it). As’ad, Majd, and Mahmoud – very good artists – arrived at 2am. Thankfully they had sleeping bags (I was out of blankets) so they slept in the kitchen.
In the morning, the mom couldn’t even recognize where her sons were because there were so many people crowded into the apartment. She gave me a pat on the back when she saw I’d taken in three more people over the night while she slept
The Syrian families came up with a good plan while we ate dinner. Since Muhammed and his Denmark friend had visas, they could rent a car and drive to the border. They’d drop everyone off at the border so they could walk across. They’d cross the border with the car then come and pick up the family on the other side.
Of course the Hungarian police caught the family as they crossed over. So began the process of sitting in the dirt for hours until a bus came to ship you off to spend days or weeks in a literal cage called detention.
Muhammed and the friend grabbed the family members one-by-one and brought them to the waiting get-away rental.
Hours after they’d left, I got a call from them. When I answered the phone, they shouted out, “We made it!! We made it!!!”
I burst out in tears, flooded with joy.
I’m so glad that I was able to help them. If they hadn’t had that moment to relax and strategize, they would have eventually got to their destinations – but only after going through weeks of hell.
This is one of the very few moments in my life where I know for sure that I did something good, that I truly helped someone.
The artists and I hung out that day (and had a bad confrontation with the police who wondered what the hell refugees were doing in my neighborhood; I charmed my way out of it). I’d really love to see them again, and Germany should be thankful to have them. Since they were traveling with two journalists, I ended up with my picture in the news story 16 days in the life of a refugee on MSNBC. It shocked me to tears when my family members shared it on their social media. The feeling when your family is proud of you…
I’ve hosted a lot more refugees since then, but none of the experiences was as intense as hosting 11 people in one night.
We could all go and make a big difference if we tried. Yet the truth is that everyday life wears us down. It leads to apathy. We stop seeking out human contact and opportunities to do make a connection by helping people.
So if a chance to make a difference falls in your lap (as it did with me during the refugee crisis), act on it. This amazing feeling you get makes it all worthwhile.
What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever done?
Title image credit: Refugees at the Serbian/Hungarian border. Image by Freedom House