Scituate, Massachusetts; Crailsheim, Germany; worldwide
It has been 15 years since this picture was taken:
NEW YORK, New York (Sept. 11) — Coast Guard crewmembers patrol the harbor after the collapse of the World Trade Center. USCG photo by PA3 Tom Sperduto
and almost 40 years since this picture was taken:
NEW YORK, New York (late 1970s) — my grandparents pose on the Staten Island ferry during a trip to visit the United States.
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 a 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 a few acquaintances, they set up a new life. They 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. This family exists thanks to the 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 simpler exercise than undertaken by those who risked their lives trying to climb the Wall in Berlin in 1952. Easier choices than the Syrian parents in 2015 who proceeded 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, and an apartment arranged. 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 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 in 1st grade America. My father and I both struggled less than an 8 year old Syrian with a different culture and language does in 3rd grade Germany today.
So how much opportunity must be explicitly provided and arranged for refugees? Vs simply leaving them free to pursue their 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. Both German and Syrian children learn 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 stocked. There is a need for regular income to visit those grocery stores. Yes, I have to believe that there are Syrians who were living paycheck-to-paycheck that now face the same economic lives as paycheck-to-paycheck German citizens.
We live in a global community, where barriers to communication and understanding are bridged at large scale each day. 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, and 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. They can create web sites in English or Arabic as a young German might do in English or in German. A photographer 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 as a teacher who speaks (native) German and (learned) English.
The bricklayer from Syria will likely face challenges in Crailsheim just as the bricklayer from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern who arrives in Crailsheim might. This has less to do with the language or country of origin, but with education and skill set.
I am 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, and appearance. Such barriers exist across the world. Such barriers exist in Manhattan. In Newton, Massachusetts. In San Francisco. Such barriers existed in 2011 pre-crisis Aleppo, 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. Syrian bricklayers. Pittsburgh coal miners. Berlin bloggers. San Francisco programmers. The advances of modern communication and connectedness continue to flatten the world each day. Every day reduces 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 two such 25-year-olds are different in both scope and kind.
What I do want to equate is the responsibility of society. Those of us who stand on the other side of these barriers need to assist when we can. This is true whether we jumped over the barriers to get where we are, or were born on the “right” side of the barriers. We must consider 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 need to think “what can I do?” and “what can I do today?”