I watched a video yesterday that struck me in a way I wasn’t prepared for. It was a video showing a large rubber raft landing in Greece full of people fleeing Syria. It started small and then got larger and I could see there were children and elderly and men in the prime of their life and women my age and younger. And volunteers in Greece were greeting them, carrying people from the boat to the shoreline. Removing cold, wet clothes from children and wrapping them in blankets. And this was heart-warming.
But then I saw a girl of about 12 get carried to the shore. Everyone else who was dropped on the shore was instantly wrapped and cared for or being hugged by others on the beach before them. But this girl began to say a name repeatedly. She looked frantic and panicked and then a volunteer with a three year-old and seven-year-old boy called to her and she turned and saw what I could only assume were her brothers and the relief that flooded her face broke my heart and sent me into a crying jag that felt cathartic.
Because I recognized myself in that girls face. And it was through watching her face light up with relief and love at the sight of her brothers that I saw my own past differently. Because I was her, once upon a time. I was a twelve-year-old refugee. I didn’t flee an oppressive regime. I fled a father. I fled a father with my mother and my two brothers who were the same age as this girl’s brothers. My father was a tyrant. He wasn’t trying to destroy a huge population, just a population of four. Or five if you count him, because he certainly ruined himself, too.
When I got a call that made me realize that we were fleeing our tyrant with literally the clothes on our backs, I was scared and elated at the same time. Both of these are emotions that can leave a physical taste in your mouth. Copper pennies and strawberries swirled together on my tongue as I ran out the door of the safe house I was hiding at to get into a pick-up truck that would take us to safety. But it wasn’t until I got into the pick-up truck and I realized that both of my brothers were there already that I relaxed. I was so worried that they may not have made it. I don’t remember why I was doubting they’d be there, but I remember strongly the feeling of relief that slid through my body, like a splash of cream poured into hot coffee.
Thanks to the kindness of strangers, and no thanks to the rude comments of police officers (at least I made it to twelve before I learned that police couldn’t always be trusted to protect you), my family has made it. And, I think we’re better off. Far better off than we would be if we’d stayed. But my mother’s fear of the tyrant we left was greater than her fear of being a refugee dependent on others for our shelter, our food, even our clothing.
But that relief on the girl’s face is the beginning and the end to me being able to understand her situation. The night we escaped our tyrant we slept on clean, warm beds. As the house manager at the domestic violence shelter told me, “You’re safe now. You have nothing to fear here.” But this girl’s journey is far from over. Very far from over. I have no idea where she slept that night, or who is helping her with food and shelter and dry clothes. I have no idea if there is an adult who can help her navigate what is sure to be a troubling and exhausting time.
But I look at that girl, and I see myself. I hear of so many politicians and even regular citizens, some of whom I’m even related to, who swear we should turn away all of these people. And I’m reminded that not everyone can be empathetic. And this makes me sad. Because as much as it hurt to truly recognize that feeling on this girl’s face. It also healed me a little. It made me realize how far I’ve come from that night. I have hope that she gets relief and help and is able to lead a happy and healthy life. Because I deserved that much out of life, and I feel everyone does. But mostly I’m happy that recognizing an emotion on a stranger’s face, a stranger on the other side of the world, leads me to feel like we have something in common.
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