Scituate, Massachusetts; Crailsheim, Germany; worldwide
It has been fifteen years since this picture was taken:and almost 40 years since this picture was taken: The talk around the world is of a refugee crisis, with millions of victims displaced by Middle East violence making their way to Europe and Germany adopting a controversial policy of welcoming the asylum seekers.
This situation is particularly poignant for me because I am child of refugees. My grandparents, aunt, and father escaped from East Germany in 1952.
They left their belongings behind and took only what they would need for a week-long vacation in West Germany, with no intention to return. They didn’t tell the children of their plans until the train had crossed the inter-German border. With the help of strangers and some acquaintances, they set up a new life, found work, established a household, and returned to raising their family in a small town called Crailsheim. They raised a family that now extends to my children and will extend to their children beyond them. A family made possible by a brave and purposeful decision taken by my grandfather (32 at the time) and grandmother (33 at the time) to make a better life for themselves.
In practical terms, this “escape” was a much simpler exercise than those who risked (and often lost) their lives trying to climb the Wall in Berlin in 1952, or than the Syrian parents in 2015 and 2016 who proceed by leaky raft onto unknown waters, rather than by steel train on established tracks.
They knew the language of their destination country, they had a job lined up, an apartment quickly arranged. On the other hand, they barely knew anyone, and spoke with a far-away accent. They must have struggled to fit in, to feel comfortable. They must have missed their home, their friends, and their parents. It would be years before they were able to see their family again.
They had no choice but to look forward.
They did not need large accommodation from the locals or from the local government. They were able to begin earning money and paying taxes immediately. They simply had to have the opportunity to continue their lives. The ability to find a job, the opportunity to fit in.
My father almost certainly struggled less as an 8 year old with a far-away accent and dialect in 3rd grade West Germany than I did years later as a 5 year old with a completely different native language in 1st grade America. My father and I certainly struggled less than an 8 year old Syrian with a different culture and language does in 3rd grade Germany today.
This makes me wonder about how much opportunity must be explicitly provided and arranged for refugees, vs simply leaving them free to pursue their own goals and make a life for themselves in new surroundings.
A Syrian refugee in Germany in 2016 is unlikely to know the local language – but any German under the age of 50 has spent at least 5 years learning English; and both German and Syrian children are taught English as a second language from elementary school. This should allow a basic level of communication as long as both sides are willing to make an effort. The streets are safe (mostly) and the grocery store shelves are stocked. There is a need for income to visit those grocery stores, but I have to believe that there are Syrians who were living paycheck-to-paycheck in Syria that are now faced with the same economic lives as some of the paycheck-to-paycheck German citizens they now live alongside.
We live in a global community, where barriers to communication and understanding are regularly bridged at large scale. We also live in a world where some choose NOT to cross these barriers. There are non-crossers in Boston, in Berlin, in San Francisco, in Aleppo.
It would seem to me that a young blogger in Syria who could make a modest living in Aleppo could do the same in Crailsheim – creating web sites in English or Arabic just as a young German might do in English or in German. A photographer could/should have the same “eye” for detail and poignancy in the alternating sun and clouds of Baden-Württemberg as in the near constant sun of the Levant. A teacher who speaks (native) Arabic and (learned) English should be in similar demand to a teacher who speaks (native) German and (learned) English.
Of course, the bricklayer from Syria will likely face challenges in Crailsheim just as the bricklayer from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern who arrives suddenly in Crailsheim might, but that has less to do with the language or country of origin, but the education and skill set.
As a product of the American school system, I am a firm believer in the structure of democracy and in equality of opportunity, but I am not ignorant of barriers to such equality. Barriers exist due to gender, race, language, or appearance. Such barriers exist across the world. Such barriers exist in Manhattan. In Newton, Masssachusetts. In San Francisco. Such barriers undoubtedly existed in 2011 pre-crisis Aleppo, just as they did in 2011 pre-crisis Crailsheim.
There are always barriers and there are always opportunities. As a society, we owe each other a certain baseline of understanding and communication. We all owe each other this baseline – whether we are Syrian bricklayers, Pittsburgh coal miners, Berlin bloggers, or San Francisco programmers. The advances of modern communication and connectedness continue to flatten the world each day – reducing many barriers in space, barriers in time, barriers in language, and barriers in understanding.
Don’t get me wrong, many, many barriers still remain. I do not mean to equate the difficulties faced by a female software engineer in San Francisco (born in Boston) directly with the difficulties faced by a female teacher in Berlin (born in Aleppo) – the pressures and daily challenges faced by these two similar 25-year-olds are undoubtedly different in both scope and kind.
What I do want to equate is the responsibility of society – of those of us who stand on the other side of these barriers (whether we jumped over the barriers to get where we are, or were born on the “right” side of the barriers) – to assist when we can. We must think in terms of equality of opportunity. We must strive for equality of understanding. We must listen, we must be emphatic, we must assist where we can. We don’t have to write long op-ed editorials, we don’t need to join protests or barricades, we just need to think “what can I do?” and “what can I do today?”