You know those annoying “memories” that Facebook tries to make you recycle? Well, I usually don’t, but this one is as relevant now as it was when I wrote it a year ago, so it will serve as this week’s Wednesday Vignette. A few months after I wrote it, I spent a month in Sweden, and got to meet some of these Syrian refugees myself. Who knows where they are, and what/how they are doing today… It is my hope that they have managed to rest awhile, have managed to gather their remaining family members around them, and recuperated at least somewhat from the horrors that forced them to flee their homes. It is also my vain hope that their new countries are adjusting positively to the infusion of this new, and different culture. At least to some extent. I know that in some places quite the opposite is true. Since I wrote this, Brexit happened in Britain, and in the US, we have Trump whipping up fear and xenophobia – with surprising success, considering we’re a melting pot nation, built on immigration and cultural diversity. So, here goes. To those of you who have read it before – please forgive the repeat…
I spoke with my father today. The little town of about 14,000 people in Sweden where he lives with his wife, have received 200 Syrian refugees, and are slated to take on 40 more. The house where my parents live, is a quaint old apartment building with a decent-sized garden, bordering on a canal, and was constructed as worker housing in the earliest years of the last century. It is quite idyllic. My dad and his wife have made two thirds of the ground floor theirs. The remaining apartments are small (1 or 2 rooms + a kitchen) and are rented out. Three of the Syrians, dad told me, are renting apartments from them. He told me about one of the first Syrians to move in. A nervous wreck of a man (quite understandably), until – finally – his family safely arrived. Overnight, his entire demeanor changed, as he didn’t have to be sick with worry anymore. Granted, he and his family have lost everything that was once theirs, and are starting over again in a completely foreign country. If they ever were to return to Syria, chances are that they would need surveying equipment to figure out where they once lived, since it has all been bombed to smithereens, and is beyond recognition. But, at least they are alive.
We’ve all seen the news reports. Closed borders, law enforcement, political talking heads, despairing humans, drowned children. Still, it’s relatively easy to think of “refugees” as a collective, faceless phenomenon, threatening our status quo, when in reality, they are all as individual and distinct as the rest of us. Stories such as the one my dad shared made it all the more real. Without exception, the people we call refugees have witnessed unspeakable horrors – much of it in the span of a few months – before they made the painful decision to leave everything they knew behind, and head into the unknown.
A year ago, SverigeDemokraterna – a piddly little political party on the outer margins of decency, and essentially the Swedish Neo-Nazis – shocked the world by garnering enough votes (almost 10%) in the election to earn entry into the governing organ – the Riksdag. This morning, Swedish newspapers report that if that same election were to take place today, the Nazis would take home over 20% of the votes. The main source of contention is how the refugee problem is being dealt with, by the federal government. Fear is human, but compassion is greater. More than ever, the saying that urges one to “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” comes to mind. I don’t think any of us can even come close to imagine what these humans have been through. If the 20% could see beyond their fear of change, and recognize that even though their government is not going about it perfectly in every way, at least they are trying to share the abundance of the collective – perhaps then they would begin to see. If they could all mentally put themselves in the position – even hypothetically – that they too were to loose everything, and have to flee to save their skin – where would that put them? Perhaps living in the US for a while would help? Here, entire families can be out on the street in a matter of months, simply because someone became ill, or lost their job. Seeing all the homeless I see here, has rendered me much more compassionate than I used to be.
With compassion comes understanding, and with sharing comes joy, hope, and strength. My two retired uncles have both reached out to the refugee community. With the help of words – in whatever language that works – hand gestures even, and (when available) books, they are offering Swedish lessons to new refugees. (Sweden teaches ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ as part of their assimilation process, but ironically, you have to have reached a certain proficiency to be able to apply for the class.) Both declare that reaching out to the newcomers is the most rewarding act either of them has ever performed. Rather than a one-sided arrangement, it has become a mutual exchange of culture, ideas, values, love and learning, that has endlessly enriched the lives on both sides. My uncles, as well as my father and his wife, have realized that reaching out and sharing is a gift that rewards the giver manyfold, and new friendship bonds have been tied.
The refugee crisis is mostly a ‘crisis’ because so many of us have fearful, closed and petty little minds. Mind you, even in the best of times, embracing such a vast population shift would probably never be an easy process, but the ‘crisis’ is there because of the limitations we construct – consciously or not. All day long, I have thought about the Syrians in my dad’s apartments. They were luckier than most, but yet have huge obstacles to climb – among them the antagonisms of the growing 20%, surrounding them. I thought about how even in this small but idyllic scenario, it will likely take a while for them to settle in, and to feel safe, and start healing. For now, asking more would be asking too much. As their wounds heal, and new impressions become the norm, we could all learn from this. And, the learning will be easier if we remember to think of them as ‘humans like ourselves’ as opposed to as ‘refugees’. As politicians everywhere are discussing border closures, and the best ways to keep immigrants out, I can’t help but think that the most treacherous border of all, is the one in our own minds.