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Don't Have to Live Like a Refugee...

August 29, 2015

Did you ever ask why Europeans follow American news so much?  

 

In American political discussions and news banter, when European nations endorse a candidate, there's always a giant backlash from the Far Right.

 

But here's your answer:

 

Because our actions in recent years have had gargantuan consequences for the rest of the world...

 

 

 

Mind you, the Arab Spring isn't America's fault.  There are several other factors contributing to the present re-shuffling in the Middle East. When we lived there when I was a boy, it was still far behind.  We were treated extremely well, but we were still a curiosity.  With television and the internet, and even going back to the Shah of Iran forcing Western values on his people, a backlash occurred.  It's kind of like what has happened - even as advanced as we Americans claim to be - when the President and Supreme Court made a push on gay marriage.  It's gotten a bit wobbly here, hasn't it.

 

Roll it back 2,000 years, and that's about where the Middle East is in some of its cultural groups.  It's a war between modernity and an out-dated religion...  a huge power struggle between progressive change - or digging in the heels and going Stone Age on people.  I think you know which route ISIS has chosen.

 

But as for Uncle Sam, we are not the innocent by-standers...

 

We took the lid off of Iraq and exposed a host of sectarian differences and resentments.  I'll never forget the quote by an American military expert...

 

"We had an invasion strategy.  We didn't have an occupation strategy."

 

The spillover in the region has been significant.  It is reminiscent of the collapse of Yugoslavia - with all of the ensuing ethnic bloodshed.

 

This massive refugee crisis is drawing lines in European politics and putting a strain on some European countries, once under the thumb of the Soviet Union, that are barely on their feet.  It's creating tensions between the darlings of the EU, even.  

 

So yes, America.  Europeans are keenly aware of our elections, our economic appetite, and our religion - and it's not because they want to be like us.  

 

It's because we make the loudest noise when we get angry.

 

 

 

***

 

I'll never forget my first up-close encounter with a family of this current wave of refugees.  It completely changed my perspective on "refugees."  A personal encounter always has a way of doing that...

 

I was making my way back to Munich for a flight back to the States after two months of tours and a bit of fun in charming villages, well-kept farms, and sparkling cities of Great Britain, Wales, Ireland, Germany, France, Belgium, and Austria.  

 

And boarded a very packed Sunday train, full to the brim with hikers, bikers, and weekend tourists, who were all heading back to the wonderful Bavarian capital and hub city of Munich.  I was heading back to catch my following morning's flight to the States.

 

I didn't pay much attention until the father lost his seat and came over to sit by me - his family of four across from us.  We were sitting in the last open seats on the train - in the back part of the coach, where people can bring on bicycles or park their wheelchairs.

 

I began examining the family.  The wife wore a veil and a dress, but she had blue jeans underneath them.  The little boy and girl were full of wonder and happiness.  They had no idea what was in store...  but they were with Mom and Dad, so the rest didn't seem to matter.  The older boy was high school age.  He was more cocksure - and at the same time more leery...  a bit of facial stubble and eyes like a wolf.  He was old enough to have seen and wrestled with a very different side of life than the younger ones.  Just catching glimpses of him got me thinking...

 

I wondered about other kids his age, living in the wrong region, with the wrong influences...  How many of them have been turned against Western Civilization because of horrible teachings or threats of family torture...

 

And how many have been turned because of our own actions.  Israel's response in recent enough months certainly came to mind.  

 

What would I do differently if I was his age...  in his environment?

 

***

 

This family had very little idea what they were doing.  The father saw me playing a game on my phone - which I tried to do to pass the time on a long, less-than-cozy train ride, as more and more people piled on at each stop along the route.

 

He finally leaned over to me and made hand signals, pointing at my phone and showing me a phone number.  I had the three second, American "is this call going to put me on an NSA terrorist list?" reaction, but I quickly offered to text the guy.  I didnt care...  I certainly have nothing to hide.

 

After several text message attempts, I simply let him call his friend in Frankfurt.  No success, but he left a message.

 

The man remained worried...  

 

He was appreciative of my kindness, but I saw the stress in his eyes...  a father, and four people in his care.  He was a fish out of water.  

 

He had zero German speaking skills (can't blame him one bit, most Americans wouldn't fare much better, except that Germans can speak English).  He was unsure about the time and even the language, because our writing is vastly different. He spoke two words of English, "Please" and "Thank you."  But we could read each other's eyes.  I saw his desperation and sincerity, and he saw my understanding and warmth.

 

He kept showing me his train ticket.  I looked it over and kept assuring him that he was on the right train.  

 

It brought me back to a few random moments in my life when I've truly been off the grid and not had a phone - or been in a crisis far too far from home not to remember what it's like to feel like a castaway on the ocean.

 

But I've never gone through anything remotely like this man's ordeal...  Not in a million years.

 

My phone rang after about 30 minutes...  it was his friend.

 

After a hurried conversation in Arabic, the man pulled the phone from his ear and closed his eyes.  He turned to me, and his face broke into one giant sigh of relief and peace.

 

He started trying to make jokes, as his own simple act of repayment, and got a laugh out of everyone packed around us when he pointed to his wife, his children, and then made a gesture like he was in handcuffs...  I got it.

 

He even pulled up his wife's long dress to reveal her pair of Chuck Taylor's and blue jeans.  I think he was trying to remind this big American dude that they could be Westerners too...  It made me laugh.  The kids were howling with laughter, and the wife was laughing too.

 

He was a good guy.  And now I had made a connection to this family, and I now became worried for them.  I wanted them to make it.

 

***

 

When we arrived in Munich, I was heading to a hotel and then the airport.  They had to switch trains to get to their final destination.

 

As everyone got off the train - the end of the line for the Salzburg - Munich express, they stayed in their seats, frozen, afraid, and determined to feel safe.

 

I knocked on the glass and motioned for them to follow.  They hesitated.  I went back on the train and looked him in the eyes...

 

"You must come! You must come!  I show you!"

 

They still hesitated, but he saw the look on my face.  He mustered the troops, and they followed me out of the train...  me the confident American with his bag and backpack, his expensive Salomon hiking shoes, his iPod, his Samsung phone...  and a dad clutching his little girl, the mom scurrying behind with the little boy clutched to her chest - the older son keeping step.

 

I walked them over to the right platform and showed him his ticket, the clock, and the platform sign.  He understood.  I asked him if I could buy them some food, something that had been gnawing at me since he had approached me on the train to use my phone...

 

I knew they had nothing.

 

I made hand gestures, and patted my belly.  

 

"Food?"  "Food?"  "I want to buy your family some food!" I said - as though he could understand a full sentence any better.

 

He refused.  He shook his head and with embarrassed eyes and a quivering mouth, kept repeating "Thank you, no."  "Thank you, no."

 

What could I do?  Drag them?  I relented.  I stopped and smiled and at him, and I bowed to his wife, before waving to his two sons, and darling little daughter.  She wasn't a day over six.

 

I walked back over to the kiosks where one can purchase food.  I ordered a sandwich and sat there eating it, feeling like a glutton.  With every bite, I began kicking myself even harder.

 

"Don't ask them, David.  Just buy the damned food and drop it in his lap..." I vowed.

 

I quickly finished and went to stand in line to order a second time.  The guy in front of me took forever.  I wanted to shove him out of the way.  I didn't want that window of opportunity to close. 

 

Just as it was about to be my turn, as I kept scanning back to see that they were still safe on the platform where I left them, their train rolled in.  People began spilling onto the platform, and they disappeared, hopefully onto their next train.  

 

My last little opportunity to help had passed.

 

***

 

My take on immigration:

 

I get the issue with "anchor babies."  That sweet little cherub will one day grow up to be a citizen of the state - whether it is productive or not depends on a host of factors.

 

And maybe Europe will collapse or change for the worse over time with the influx of foreigners it is taking on board.  But we have politicians who are talking seriously of building a wall.  That those same heads love to talk about their faith is a giant source of irony and disgust that is not lost on me.  We apparently read it differently...  They read the part about the steps to salvation.  

 

I read the part that I have never forgotten...  "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me...  to God, to creation, to life itself..." 

 

A huge part of me wishes that money we love to spend on the military and the future funds that will go to a wall (it is coming, I do believe) was instead diverted into helping rebuild an infrastructure and an economy in places who need it.  I think of all of the wealthy, educated Americans I know who are repulsed or intimidated by the thought of having to live in England or Germany.

 

Try a completely foreign climate, alphabet, religion, skin color, and a wide swathe of related cultural differences...

 

It takes a great deal of fear and suffering for people to leave their homeland, their language, their culture, and their roots...

 

They won't be boarding a flight back home anytime soon - if their home is even standing, and Mom and Dad aren't dead.

 

*** 

 

Our wars have helped generate a flood of refugees like the family I met.  I think it's a cop-out to turn a blind eye or demonize.  At the same time, I understand the desire to preserve one's own culture and place an undue burden on an economic system that doesn't do a great job of taking care of its own...

 

But I will say this:

 

We are Americans.  We are the original refugees and outcasts.  It seems like we're better known for waging wars these days than being a safe haven and a peace-maker that we long were known for around the world.

 

We once were an open-armed melting pot of people whose sole common denominator was freedom and a chance.  

 

Too often, these days, it can feel like a gated community full of entitled people who wave flags about principles they have long ago forgotten.

 

***

 

But keep calm, Conservatives.  There is hostility and resentment in Europe as well.  I can see the attitude in train conductors towards Caucasians and towards Arabic peoples.  It's palpable.  It's understandable.  They know what this will mean...  taxes, potential violence, CHANGE...

 

I simply hope this situation gets resolved in some intelligent and humane manner.  I'm not a bleeding heart - but I'll be damned if I'm going to be a selfish, ignorant ass.

 

 

And I hope that whenever you read about refugees or immigrants in the future, you can put this story to the moniker.  These people need help.

 

And yes, ISIS has to go.  

 

 

 

 

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