Life in Limbo: The Ahmed and Shafeka Khan Story

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.

12496216_10153817811662400_8106849432787751990_o

Some of my students/friends at a previous refugee camp.

 

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.

12496170_10153839631417400_3749131219188433999_o

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.”

12748150_10205561770635830_7583710880058235355_o

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. ”

IMG_9975

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.

IMG_9979

“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.

IMG_9981 2

From bottom left: Some of the Khan family: Ahmed, Shafeka (veiled), Summiyya (veiled) , a friend, Safia (veiled), another friend, myself, friend Samir in the blue hoodie, and Sultan in red stripes.

“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.

10644272_10153864067382400_2075058253131203475_o

Art work with one of the many children in Limburg.

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.

And they fled on foot.

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.

12764614_10153885511647400_7651810488857273173_o

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.”

IMG_9978

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.

 

 

 

2015 Review: Featuring an Italian Wedding, a British Mission, a Swiss Ceremony, a German Flood, an American Visa, a Syrian Exodus, and How They Intersect

Since 2007, the year that forever split my life into Before and After, it’s been impossible for me to write a year-end summary. Here we are again, March, and I realize I’ve still not lined up year 2015 and given an accounting.

That’s partially because I fear provincialism. I fear losing sight, even for a moment, of the global context in which my private story plays out. I’ve become aware this year more than any other in my life of how tidy, how survivable, even how irrelevant my personal dramas are in light of the immense complexities rolling out across our global panorama, across huge swaths of humanity. And so  anything I say about my life, I feel, has to be said with the big backdrop in mind.

But here, a quick and dirty recap of 2015. Consider it a preface to my next book.

11722427_10153505301647400_5317746257417688908_o

Il Matrimonio (The Wedding)

In this post I announced that our Claire got engaged to  be married to her amore, Alessandro. Their courtship had been unconventional; their engagement and wedding followed suit.

After a year of long-distance yearning and reams of letters in Italian while she was finishing her Uni studies in the US and he was finishing his full time service as a missionary for our church in southern Italy, the two were married in a big Italian farm wedding outside of Pavia, Italy. True to the Global Mom story line, it was a multicultural reunion around sumptuous tables (the food!!), with languages flying in as many directions as were friends, who came in from France, the US, all over Italy, and Singapore. I’m still verklempt as I reflect on everyone’s thereness, the way we actually pulled off an otherwise logistically impossible event.

11258242_10153505301832400_3992209968650148009_o

Swiss Zeremonie

Following the civil wedding, we trundled to Switzerland to join closest friends in a small, intimate ceremony referred to in our religion as  a temple sealing. In contrast to the party in Italy, this rite was simple, quiet, other-worldly. The couple dressed in head-to-toe white for the brief ceremony attended only by closest Italian friends of our faith, and were given profound promises regarding their future together, which we believe extends beyond death.11700901_10153505302157400_7725458925579834161_o

A horse farm reception followed later in Heber Valley, Utah, and we left immediately for a family honeymoon through southern Utah to the southern California coast.

11728976_10153489789962400_2524198018133015067_o

British Mission

Missing from all these festivities was Parker, of course. That absence doesn’t get easier, but we’re growing in gratitude and perspective and capacity to love life though broken and limping. Our Dalton, too, was far away, because in August of 2015, upon our arrival in Frankfurt, he’d turned right around to fly to England to launch his 2-year full time mission for our church in South London. He’s now been serving for over 19 months.

He’s serving now in an area known as Little Nigeria, working on that accent. He’s never been happier and bemoans that the end is in sight, wishing he could extend his service by a month or two, but is scheduled to enter Uni only shortly after relinquishing his badge.

IMG_5628

German Flood

Underneath (literally) the marriage, the ceremony, the mission,  was The Flood. For nearly nine months, our home was an oceanscape and construction site after an external water distribution system went amok during our absence and…We returned to a bayou that sloshed over our shoes. The entire ground floor of the home had to be decimated, and after jackhammers and turbo ventilators, it became a bombed-out concrete carcass.

Then it flooded again. And again. Workers found leaks inside walls…More than a few times, I hid in my car during the day to escape the deafening noise, and otherwise played hostess to a total of 80+ construction and insurance folks tramping through my door. Month after month. After month.

Yes, we survived it. Just fine. And we were happy that everything was completed the week the newlyweds arrived to live with us for a year. They’re doing this to save money while taking college/grad school entrance exams, working multiple jobs, and applying through the Frankfurt consulate for a US Green Card for Alessandro.

11807744_10153514894632400_5423699603052803660_o

American Visa

A major part of 2015 and now the prime focus of 2016 has been this US Visa for our Alessandro. For those of you out there who’ve ever navigated the bureaucracy, you have my reverence and respect. I hear you groaning and see you holding your shaking head in your hands right now. Thanks for commiserating.

Now try jumping those same multiple hoops in two foreign languages. Every interview (and form and phone call and interview and returned form and repeated phone call and follow-up interview) has had to be translated from English and Italian to German  and back in reverse. In all of this, Claire and Alessandro have been  good-natured  and unflappable. They’re learning about patience, work, consistency, and faith.

As I type this, they are sitting in Frankfurt’s US consulate in their final, all-determining, face-to-face interview. Claire flies to the US next week for her final face-to-face law school interview, and Alessandro is finishing his college entrance essays for admission to a US Uni in the fall.

12496216_10153817811662400_8106849432787751990_o

Syrian Exodus

And all this – floods, reconstruction, Visas, marriages, missions, work, everything – is tempered by the bigger context in which we live. Because while we’ve been marrying and missioning, while we’ve been bailing water and applying for universities, while we’ve been fighting for Visas and begging for work, Syria (and surrounding populations) have been under siege.  In desperation, hundreds of thousands of the distressed and traumatized have spilled into Europe, bringing in their wake a humanitarian nightmare unknown in modern history.

Here’s where our quaint family summary connects to the Big Picture. If 2015 began with a house flood, it ended with a world flood. The inconvenience of a  house under jackhammer reconstruction is practically charming compared with the real bombs obliterating Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Multicultural marriages and missions have their challenges, but are infused with hope and celebration because we have freedom, assets, peace, abundance, and every possible advantage life can offer.

10295281_10153750770357400_3286953000778082680_o

While helping Ale and Claire with their German residency, I’ve been sitting in government hallways, elbow to elbow with threadbare and disoriented refugees fresh from their harrowing journey, seeking asylum. While editing my daughter’s and son-in-law’s essays for US universities, I’ve also been sitting  in Frankfurt’s University for Applied Sciences, helping my Iranian and Afghani refugee friends apply for courses in mechanical engineering and intensive German language instruction.

These friends figure among the dozens with whom I’ve been working in local refugee camps since the floodgates broke in the early fall of 2015, and Germany welcomed an unprecedented 1 mill+ refugees (mostly Syrian, but also Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghani) across its borders.

The statistics and complexity are beyond staggering. The human stories are heart- rending and breathtaking. Because this is such a proximate and personal reality for me, you should expect to see more of my posts (and all my other social media platforms) weighted with these stories.

As I see it, 2015 and 2016 is where not just my tidy little family tale, but world history splits: Before and After.  The saga will not be the type we can share in a Year End Summary. It is destined to color the future of humanity, everywhere. And it might be where Global Mom and On Loss and Living Onward intersect, inviting both the next book of my career and a focused direction for the remaining chapters of my life.

 

Refugees in Germany: Must-Read Latest Feature Article

We stand at the crux of history in the making. Under our feet, the ground is groaning, convulsing under the weight and roil of a crisis— or better yet, a quaking pileup of crises — unparalleled in recent history.

Young girl with elderly woman disembark from boat at Lesvos, Greece ©UNHCR/Hereward Holland

Young girl with elderly woman disembark from boat at Lesvos, Greece ©UNHCR/Hereward Holland

What is our moral responsibility? Should we aid the growing millions of our displaced and distressed brothers and sisters? If so, how? Who, as winter encases this saga in ice, should generate the needed human heat that could save the exiled? And how can we keep our and others’ hearts from freezing over with fear or suspicion, especially given the chaos, premeditated violence and sexual assaults of New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany?

Newly arrived refugees struggle to make it ashore in Greece © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

Newly arrived refugees struggle to make it ashore in Greece © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

==

This is the introduction I wrote for my latest feature hot off the press at Inspirelle. I beg you, friends, click on those last underlined words to read every word and to leave some of your own words here in my comment box, or in Inspirelle’s comment thread. Or, ideally, in both places.

These are historic times we inhabit. Get involved.

group-w-melissa

December 23rd with Kayra (front left in black), visiting refugees at camp in Frankfurt