I told my German students yesterday that, sorry, I’d be taking a two week break from teaching. Why? My son is entering university, I explained, and I am flying with him to the USA to get him settled in an apartment, buy him his textbooks, all the normal––
I stopped on “normal”. With “university” my voice had caught, and then it had faded at “flying.” By “apartment” I was whispering. They are trigger words, hard for refugees to hear.
No Private Homes, No Travel Over Borders, No Further Education
A few months ago, I’d have tra-la-laed right through that sentence, never thinking of those words as extraordinary — even painfully extraordinary for some. That is because several months ago I hadn’t known the world of Middle Eastern refugees who had fled bombed-out lives to trudge weeks or months westward where they would have to survive months on end in tents, shared facilities, or, as with my current students, in small camping caravans.
Some of my students, due to perpetual political unrest, resultant poverty, or the terror waged by extremist groups, have only limited education, and a few have never learned to read or write. Some have advanced university degrees, which they are now unable to use, and yearn to enter the work force or German university. That might still be years off.
For them and for now, the closest thing to furthering their education is this class I offer a couple of mornings a week in a former pub on the other side of the chain link fence from their dusty camp. A far cry from university, and leagues from Ivy League, but a small, cool oasis of hope.
This is why the mere mention of apartments (or hopping on planes, or enrolling in university) makes them sometimes sigh or even wince with longing. And it makes me scramble for other points of connection.
Separation is Where We Connect
Where do we connect? Every last refugee I have known has had to leave family members behind. Separation is our point of connection. So I explained in that conversation yesterday that this son with whom I’m flying to the States, I had not seen for two years straight.
And, I explained: I have only spoken with him via Skype four brief moments in those two years. We exchange emails once a week, yes, but we’ve had no phone calls. I have missed him. Deeply.
They asked where he has been.
In another country. In … England. (I hesitated before that trigger word.)
England is some refugees’ Shangri-la. At least that’s the rumor. They talk about how much easier it is supposed to be there compared to here in Germany. This student from Kabul had an uncle who fled to Manchester in the ‘80s. He has residency, a real home, and his children got an education! This woman from Damascus has a brother whose kebab shop in Liverpool is doing well. And English! So much easier than this (as she points to my whiteboard of German grammar.)
I explained that my son has been in England for work. (Another word that hurts. How desperately these friends of mine want the right to work.) I didn’t mention of course that that work has been as a full-time volunteer for his faith – he’s been a Christian missionary — as any discussion about religion is strictly forbidden in camps. So I skirted that topic and flipped through a few pictures he’d sent that I’ve stored on my phone.
Sharing Photos, Seeing Contrast
Strangely, some of his shots are stored in between photos a Syrian refugee friend sent me of her fourteen-year-old son living in Istanbul. He’s been stuck there for nearly a year now, working slave labor to feed his father and two brothers who couldn’t get any farther on the exodus west. Their mother, by some border guard glitch, was able to go ahead with the youngest, who is eight. Both made it to Germany where they are living in a shelter.
I scrolled through the shots:
This son of mine is always smiling.
Hers looks bleak.
Mine is hardy, well-dressed.
Hers looks weakened, and the clothing is borrowed.
Mine has probably taken those mega-vitamins I sent him in that huge care package.
Hers is sallow, rail thin, eating rice cross legged on a bare floor.
Mine is lighthearted in every shot, sometimes playful.
Hers stands like a war prisoner.
This one is taken of mine in a shiny, bright apartment. Everything looks bathed in light.
Hers is a grainy shot of a grayed space where her son stands listlessly against a shadowed wall.
Mine is always in the company of other smiling, well-fed, well-dressed, vitamin-taking, lighthearted, light-bathed young people.
Hers is the portrait of The Terrified, The Mournful, The Stalked.
The Separated Among the Separated.
What Separation from Family Can Look Like
And what no one sees in any of these shots, what lies outside of the frame, but struck me with sudden and brass knuckle force, is that I have never seriously, frantically feared for my son’s life, my sons’ lives. Though separated from me, half my family has not been in peril. None of mine have lacked for food, shelter, clothing. And none have been living in the very city where the violence of a recent attempted coup left scores of people dead in the streets.
I scrolled, showing these refugees, all of whom are separated from family, my son from whom I’ve been separated, the son with whom I’ll be reunited in just a few hours. He will land on a jet plane. I will be on my toes at the arrivals gate. I will strain at every blond head coming my direction. My heart will thud, my palms will sweat, my voice will jitter, my eyes will tear up. And then I will see his face, his dimples, his smile, his whole healthy self. And I will run, arms flung wide.
When my friends will be able to do the same, none of us can guess.
That is part of the separation in humanity’s different separations. I’ve never had to weigh the possibility that a two-year separation could have easily turned into several years of separation, or even the ultimate separation of death. I have lived buffered from a whole other world of separation. Separated from it.
They looked at these pictures. I could not read their thoughts exactly, but the weight of their thought bubbles ––the ones filled with loving memories of togetherness and the stinging, exquisite hunger to be united with beloveds in one safe place –– crowded the air around us. If I was quiet and receptive, I sensed how those thoughts pressed us together, bending us toward that common plane where we are all most vulnerable, most fierce: along our family lines. Thin lines made thick through separation.
With new eyes I return to teaching German grammar to refugees. And they, in turn, keep teaching everything else to me.