Eyes speak. That morning at the Limburg refugee camp, I heard volumes.
“Guten Tag,” I said, tipping my head toward the man sitting alone. One of the dozens I’d met while volunteering as a German teacher in refugee camps near Frankfurt, he had drawn my attention more than once.
Hard to miss: Shoulders nearly as broad as the end of the table at which we sat; Ring with blue stone on his left hand; Vividly colored mandalas he’d painted on art day; Fantastical flying stegosaurus he’d fashioned with felt tip markers. The steady, weighted gaze from under the brim of his baseball cap gave him the air of a once-imposing but now-cowering animal, bruised from serial blows.
His eyes had been watching, speaking while I worked. Two minutes earlier, a dozen or so children and I had been rowdily chant-singing “Kopf, Schulter, Knie, und Fuß”, our laughter spraying like lemon yellow microbursts into the slate gray camp atmosphere. But the kids had lost interest after an hour and had run off the instant there was a lull in the rhythm.
Only one child, Sultan, had stayed. Now he moved down the table, dragging a leftover piece of my big roll of work paper in front of him, and took his seat next to the man in the cap. The man placed his hand on the boy’s back, patting twice. It was then I saw these two had the same eyes; moss green, mournful.
“Guten Tag,” the man said to me, his smile lifting the corners of his mouth, but not the edges of his eyes, which were fixed and, though shining, heavy.
“Deutsch? Englisch?” I asked.
He raised his meaty fingers, making a pinch, “English. Little.” The man pointed to Sultan, “My son. He speaks little English. Also little German.”
A woman joined us, slipped in, silently, sat with hands folded. Veiled in soft gold and brown patterned cotton, maybe forty, she moved gracefully, cautiously into the chair between Sultan and his father. Affection and sorrow spread across three faces in front of me, with hers a rounded portrait of weathered beauty centered in clear, wise eyes.
Sultan, whose slick black hair had been trimmed recently, piped up, tipping his head to one side: “Mother, die Mutter,” then the other side, “Father, der Vater.” Then be busied himself, writing.
“Und woher kommen Sie?” I spoke directly to the father, asking where they were from, and launching an interview disguised as a German conversation lesson.
The mother understood nothing. Sultan whispered, translating. The father nodded, pointed to himself, his wife, his son. “We: Afghanistan.”
“Und was schreibst du, Sultan? What are you writing?” I asked.
“Family. Die Familie Khan. Meine Familie. ”
Always seeking common ground, I said, “I have a husband. We have four children.” And I scribbled our family and ages, pretending this once that my eldest child was still alive, so 27 years old.
“For fünf-und-zwanzig Jahren we’ve moved a lot, too.” I wrote that above our heads, then continued, listing the countries, nine in total.
It was the “too” that felt wrong, a barb in my throat. I suppose that in another setting full of folks for whom international travel and residency are givens, “moved a lot” might have drawn a line of connection. Someone might have said, “Oh, we loved Hong Kong, too,” or “Really? We were in Vienna for three years,” or, “Which arrondissement of Paris?”
But did our moves as corporate expatriates and the Khans’ flight as terror-driven refugees have anything in common? Anything except perhaps geographic displacement? Mine was a superficial, even ridiculous, comparison. So my voice cracked with unease, trailed off in apology.
Trying to recover, I looked into Shafeka’s eyes. “It has not always been … easy.” Sultan translated the words, and I hoped this woman would read the real story behind my eyes, the one I couldn’t quite splice into the narrative, the one explaining how we had buried our firstborn, our eldest son, during that ragged borderland of moving between countries. Instead of that, I said it was hard because, “Every time, you know, another new language.”
Language acquisition was an obvious point of contact. I listed my few tidy European tongues and what’s left of my dormant Mandarin. Ahmed’s brow stayed flat. He then asked me to spread out both my hands, palms up, as one-by-one he bent my fingers closed, ticking off his ten languages: Farsi, Turkman, Uzbek, Tajiki, Balochi, Ormuri, Pashto, Pashayi, Dari, Krygyz. I didn’t even recognize half of them. “And little English,” he shrugged.
Then four young women approached. I recognized two; Summiyya and Safia from previous interaction, and knew they spoke exceptional English and had refined, discreet manners. “My daughters,” Ahmed said. And I was not surprised.
“Now you learn German together as a family,” I said, trying to cheer them on. “You must work hard. Moving and learning languages is hard.”
Those last words petered out into yet another pool of shame. Those words could not stand before this man’s face, this woman’s face, this son’s and these daughters’ faces with eyes that have seen “hard” and horrors my eyes have only read of.
Nothing about our experiences with “hard” was similar. I’d moved from comfort to comfort, willingly, eagerly, with every possible advantage, every conceivable yellow brick already patted into place along the road forward. Suitcases in the multiples. Air shipments. Sea shipments. Jet planes. Eye masks and earplugs while grumbling about economy legroom. Hotels. Taxis. Relocation services. Rental homes, per diem, restaurants, facile passport stamps, schools awaiting along with piano, drum, clarinet, flute, horseback riding lessons. Freedom behind me. Abundance around me. Safety ahead of me. All as far as my eyes could see.
In contrast, here are the scraps of the Khan family saga:
The Khans’ world has always been at war. For generations, in fact, Afghanistan has been the stage of end-to-end conflicts, coups, rebellions, reforms, radicalization, insurgencies, the widespread violence of mass bombings, and the personalized atrocity of public executions. Once part of the intellectual elite, Shafeka’s father, a brilliant aeronautics engineer, had been executed by the Taliban. She looked away as she spoke and Ahmed translated, both wincing while tears sprang then streamed freely.
With their family surrounded by mounting violence and constant fear, Ahmed and Shafeka knew fleeing was the only option to preserve their family. They fled leaving everything; relatives, friends, home, neighborhood, mother tongue, all that had been their history, everything they had planned for their future, including the antique business Ahmed had built up over two decades.
With their seven children, Ahmed and Shafeka traveled from central Afghanistan to central Germany (a distance of over 5000 kilometers or over 3000 miles.) That is roughly the distance from Oslo, Norway to the Italian island of Sicily. Or from London across the Atlantic to Boston. Or from New York City to Denver, Colorado, and back to New York City again. This odyssey, which they undertook during winter, took four months.
They began by looping southward to Pakistan but were detained there by police who forced them to return home. They fled again, this time through Iran, where they were detained again and sent home. Again they fled, though I don’t know exactly how or by what route in order to avoid police. This time instead of being sent home, guards shot Ahmed in the feet.
(I’ve heard of this tactic used by police/guards/ border control officers from more sources than Ahmed. Shooting anywhere in the legs doesn’t kill, so a guard cannot be seen as inhumane, and a war council couldn’t prosecute. From the hips down can be counted as a misfire. Still it stops literally in their tracks those who are fleeing, and it intimidates others.)
Injured feet could not keep the Khans in Afghanistan. Carrying only what they could sling on their backs and hold in their arms, they left home again. Hiking in mountains, hiding day and night, going days without food, they survived that life-threatening trudge to that infamous Turkish coast and beyond. The daily, sometimes hourly, threat of violence. A father’s fear for his youngest. A mother’s anxiety for her precious daughters. Vigilantes now line the well-trodden route between the Middle East and Central Europe. Hundreds and even thousands of refugees, especially children, have simply “gone missing.”
Under moonlight, smugglers took too much of the Khans’ money to load them (and a pile of other desperates, including unaccompanied children) onto an inflatable raft. They lurched in the pitch black across even darker waters, arriving predawn on the shores of Greece.
Safia and Summiyya added their memories: “There was no bath, no water.” “Tired, so tired and sometimes sick.” “Afraid, always afraid.” “Where to find food? Where to sleep?” “Which person to trust? How to stay warm?”
As Ahmed and his daughters recounted this, Sultan stopped writing and raised those sea green, radiant eyes, and Shafeka shut hers, shook her head now hanging low, pressing her crossed arms to her rib cage. Then everyone’s eyes met mine, as if saying, “This is our truth. We deny none of it. We are here only because we have survived.”
Since the day they stepped off a train, (what Ahmed calls “so big luck” from the Austrian border to Frankfurt), they have all been here in Limburg –– or in Limbo, as I call it –– a refugee camp under a train overpass that shakes and shrieks like the bombs that fell back home. People, mostly strangers to one another, are waylaid in overcrowded, utilitarian spaces for months on end, not knowing when they will be moved to another camp, where that camp might be, or if they might be denied asylum altogether and be deported. That threat hangs perpetually in the air.
So in limbo they stay. No school, work, routine, private space, even shower stalls. Children grow bored, mischievous, withdrawn, or aggressive. Or remain miraculously sweet. Adults grow limp from aimlessness, rabid with restlessness. Or remain miraculously civil.
Everyone agrees it is stressful. Hearts skitter, tempers sometimes flare, despair spreads its paralyzing poison. Ahmed’s high blood pressure worries Shafeka. Shafeka’s low blood pressure worries Ahmed.
But back to Afghanistan? To Iran? Iraq? Syria? To hell? As bleak as life might sometimes feel in limbo, life in hell is worse. Ahmed schooled me, his eyes narrowing and darkening. “War was terrible, terrible. No words. Terrible.” And his eyes scanned the hall full of refugees around us, all people I’ve grown to know, many whom I consider my friends. “All. All have dead because war. These people,” he was pointing, “dead father, dead mother, dead brother, dead children.”
I know all of my losses combined cannot touch the edge of what Ahmed and Shafeka have known, but I offer my one truth. I share with them––though it is hard to speak the words and I speak only with great restraint––a short version of how we lost our son, the one who is not more than a stick figure on paper, the one I said was 27 but is forever 18. “I know the feeling of losing someone you love with your whole heart. I know that feeling.”
Then I quickly add, “But I do not know this,” and I write the words with a vengeance. “I know nothing about this.”
Our conversation ended there. The multipurpose hall had to be set up as a cafeteria. All of us –– Sultan, Safia, Summiyya, Shafeka, Ahmed the Afghani antique dealer, and their American German teacher –– had shared scraps of our stories. Those stories, I reflected as I packed up my belongings, are as far from each other as are our countries. A seemingly inestimable expanse between us.
Or is it so? Now we were here, we had connected. In Limburg. In limbo. Maybe somehow all stories connect if you follow them deeply and far enough. And it could be that it is our stories of loss that connect us all. Don’t we fuse where we have been shot through, whether in foot or in spirit? Don’t we bond on our broken edges?
And where do we sense these bonding stories more poignantly than face-to-face, eye-to-eye, spirit to spirit? How do we better understand? When do we truly see each other?
What I saw as I walked under the train overpass to my parked car was a bunch of refugees, maybe forty, milling about on the gravel, waiting for “Mittagessen,” lunchtime. Among them, I spotted an Afghani antique dealer, father of seven, husband to Shafeka, a survivor named Ahmed Khan. He stood there behind the chain link fence, and not far behind him stood a son named Sultan. Both had their hands in their pockets, Ahmed with his black cap , Sultan with black bangs, both with magnificent eyes.
Those eyes. Those storied eyes. I stopped, turned, looked longer, closer. The general became specific, the “bunch of refugees, maybe forty” became particularized, human. So many eyes. So many stories. Eyes glinting in early afternoon sunlight. Eyes blinking back a world of lived darkness. Eyes behind which the sacred and unspeakable are known and preserved. Eyes in front of which limbo either looms or opens up as a bright and promising horizon.