“Where are you from?” “Where is home?”
I am asked the same questions over and over again by volunteers who are greeting refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq who have just arrived in Cologne, Germany. I’m here visiting my friends Lena and Martin who volunteer at the refugee hub as often as three times a week. Martin can’t make it tonight, so I’m wearing his borrowed blue vest over my coat with a scarf. There are mittens on my hands to keep out the cold drizzle intermittently falling outside. Today there are only 200 refugees arriving, so everything seems to be going smoothly. Sometimes there are up to 1,400, I’m told, and things are more chaotic.
“Come this way, I want you to see the train when it comes into the station,” Lena tells me. I follow her as it pulls up to a stop. Through the windows I see relieved and scared faces peering down at us. They were put on a train in Passau and were not told where it would be taking them. They have no clue where they are, or where they will be sent next. They smile anyway.
Together with open hands and arms, we help them carry children and plastic sacks full of the only belongings they could bring with them off the train. I smile too and wave and try to convey the message that they are welcome here. We high-five as they pass and they say, “Thank you.” I don’t have the ability to ask them what they’ve left behind, or why, but it doesn’t take an expert to see that it was a lot, and that they had to.
With exhausted families by my side, I walk hurriedly, and then unhurriedly toward the makeshift refugee center waiting for them. Unfortunately, this is just one stop of many on their journey. The welcome is sincere but temporary, the shelter offered is only provisional. I have no idea how much further they will have to go before they can rest. Neither do they.
On the way from the station, questions from the other volunteers persist. “What are you doing here?” and, “How did the two of you meet?” “How long will you stay?” and, “Where will you go next?”
Without time to properly answer, I help shuffle fatigued and weary bodies into the warm tents filled with steam from hot soup and baked bread. As we enter, children start to smile at the corner of their lips, just slightly, and then beaming as the volunteers blow bubbles and toss colorful balloons into the air. I watch as phone calls are made to loved ones and volunteers help people connect to the free wifi.
The refugees are coming from places I have only heard of, only seen on the news connected with words like “bombing,” “suicide,” and “casualties.” Yet, it’s clear the people I see around me are not casualties. They are not political referendums or statistics. They are not terrorists or a security risk to be mitigated. They are refugees, but they are so much more. They are displaced. Traveling. Vulnerable. Without a home, but not without heart.
My own beats wildly when I meet their gaze. Suddenly, the reality of the reports I’ve been reading hits me squarely in the middle of my chest. In many ways, we are the same, yet so much separates us. I am not fleeing war. I am not running for safety or to save my life. I am not forced to abandon everything I know and love. I am not deserting my country because I have no other choice. I am not leaving anyone or anything behind that I couldn’t take with me if I really wanted to.
I think about all of these things when I see a girl with dark, curly hair, about five years old smiling up at me, showing all of her teeth. I look down and ask her about the new stuffed animal one of the volunteers gave her. It is a brown horse with pink feet. It matches her pink jacket and winter boots. I point it out to her, saying the word “pink” over and over, smiling back.
She buries the soft nose of the horse into mine, and then kisses me on the cheek. Her arms stretch upward and I hold her for a moment while she rests her head on my shoulder. I kiss her on top of her head and put her down, my breath taken away by the joy of that moment.
I have nothing to offer her; she has already offered me so much.
I watch as she rejoins her family, a mixture of old and young men, women, and children. One of the younger girls, a teenager (I suppose), holds a baby who is gurgling and smiling. Jeremie makes faces at him and his brown eyes grow wide with delight. One of the volunteers places a small speaker on the floor and starts dancing in a circle with the children, holding hands and laughing while the music plays. Proud parents gather around to take videos and pictures with their phones.
“I’m his Dad,” an older gentleman with a white beard tells me in broken English, pointing to a toddler who can barely walk but is managing to dance, clutching the hands of volunteers tightly, swinging and kicking his feet, giggling. Another volunteer wearing a grey vest and a sizing chart for shoes and clothes wheels a stroller over to the girl holding the baby, motioning that it is theirs to keep. The girl smiles and places the baby inside.
For now, the system is seamless. The volunteers wearing green vests help translate, providing vital information about transportation options and registration requirements. They bustle around from group to group, switching with ease between Farsi, Arabic, or French. They all speak German, and the majority speak English, too. “The people wearing the red vests are the ones in charge,” my friend Lena explains. “You can tell because they look very serious,” she laughs.
Everything is organized. Everyone has their place, yet I am standing still, observing, watching, not quite knowing mine.
“Hi, I’m Alex,” a volunteer wearing black glasses and a green vest shakes my hand. “Mariah, nice to meet you,” I remove my red glove and shake his warm hand. “Where are you from?” he asks. “From the U.S., from Chicago,” I’ve decided to tell people. It’s easier than explaining that I most recently stayed there with a friend, but before that lived in Nashville, and before that I was….well. A lot of places.
My friend shakes his head at me. “It’s not true!” he laughs. “Oh? Where are you really from, then?” Alex responds, confusedly. “Uhhh,” I pause. “Where is your family?” he probes. Another hard question to answer. They are everywhere. “I actually grew up in Kansas City,” I explain. “Have you heard of it?”
His face lights up. “Really?! I lived there for three years. In Westport. I loved it there.” I laugh. We exchange coordinates and realize we lived a few blocks from each other, just across the state line. Imagine! Who knew. The world is growing smaller, and yet I still can’t define where I belong, or where I should call home.
After a few more hours at the airport, waiting with the refugee family we’ve adopted for the evening, we help them find the right connection so they can be reunited with additional family in Berlin. In a flurry of motion, we swing backpacks over our shoulders and help them carry the new shoes and clothes they received tonight, gripping over sized bags tightly in our hands. This is all they have. We wait until everything is loaded and the bus driver pulls out of the terminal. With smiles and glistening eyes we wave goodbye. My heart lurches. “Good luck,” I whisper.
The girl with the dark curly hair and pink coat blows a kiss through the window. I blow it back and keep waving until I can’t see them anymore. My heart is heavy and happy at the same time. We take the train back to Lena’s apartment and sit around the kitchen table, reflecting. Above us is a map of the world surrounded by photographs and a collection of foreign currency. The last time Lena and I saw each other, we were on a different continent, sharing together in community in Ghana, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, living out of our backpacks. Almost two years have passed. It feels like no time at all.
“Home is wherever I’m with you,” I hum softly. It has never felt more true than now.
“Where is your home?” I get this question a lot. The answer changes. It is not static, or constant. With all of my heart, sometimes I wish it were. Yet, what I want even more than a clearly defined place to belong, is a home without borders. I want a love so big I belong to everyone I meet. I want a stability so strong it’s not dependent on a certain city or circumstance. I want roots that grow so deep they stretch to places I’ve never been.
How do you define home? Is it who you’re with or where you’ve come from? Is it where you became who you are now? What does it mean to lose your sense of home? How does it define you if you’ve never had one? What is it like to be a refugee seeking shelter in a foreign country whose language and culture you cannot comprehend? How do we create a sense of belonging wherever we may be? For ourselves and others?
I don’t have the answers. Even the ones I think I have, shift.
Tonight, it’s enough to have a heart full of gratitude for a warm place to sleep and friends to share a meal with. It’s enough to reconnect with the people I love who are my home, even though we live on separate continents. It’s enough to share a smile and a kiss and to dance. It’s enough to belong to this moment, just as it is.
P.S. If you are wondering how you can help alleviate the crisis of refugees seeking shelter and hope and home, here is one small way.Google+