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.
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?
Refugees in Germany
I live in Frankfurt. Thousands of kilometers removed from the blood-spattered drama raging on the frontlines in Syria, Greece and neighboring countries, Germany is a center – though not the epicenter – of the current disaster. Here, a tense but seemingly manageable drama began when Chancellor Angela Merkel opened wide the borders to welcome a flood of asylum-seekers. In an instant, fissures began splitting public opinion right down the middle.
The situation has evolved into the current high-pitched cultural conflict that is slicing a sharp divide between the far-right (Pegida, or “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” and other hate-filled, fear-mongering, xenophobic affiliates like Hogesa, “Hooligans against Salafists”) and the left, with its numerous relief organizations, both governmental and grass-roots. Unsurprisingly, the situation is also splintering at the fastest rate and in all directions among the perplexed middle-ground.
Lately, and as many predicted early on, the divisions and violence seem to also be spreading among the over 1.1 million newly arrived refugees and long-time resident immigrants themselves, all of whom come from multiple (and often conflicting) cultural and political ideologies.
All are crowded along Germany’s doorstep. All are pressing against the threshold of tomorrow.
Some months ago, in my leafy middle class suburb with its ancient wall, historic cathedral and stately castle turret, a local high school sport hall was converted into a shelter for refugees. I pass this sport-hall-cum-refugee-camp every day. I have sought out refugees in the camp parking lots, public buildings, and in the streets. They are often men in twos and threes, or mothers carrying small children in their arms wrapped in old blankets, the youth walking a bit more tentatively than teens normally do, dressed in sometimes mismatched clothing too thin and worn for a German winter.
Like you, I have been glued to their stories while scouring the media. I wonder if any one of these women lost her eldest son to a bomb in her village. Or did this one lose her toddler on the night road in Turkey? Or this one her baby on the infamous raft-crossing to Lesbos? And has this one been sexually abused during the unrest in her country? While fleeing? Or in this camp itself?
I search every face for tell-tale signs of grief.
Truth is, I see nothing but grief. Loss in all its iterations lines their faces framed in headscarves tucked tightly at the jawline. Their eyes are sharp with anxiety or worn with days and weeks, years, of exhaustion. Or with grit. They have survived more than most can possibly fathom. It’s a wonder they don’t all look like they have just crawled out from under a landscape of debris. Some literally have.
Serving Right Where You Stand
With the teenagers in my international church community where I volunteer as a leader here in the greater Frankfurt area, we have talked at length about these refugees.
We can’t do everything, they have said. But we can do something.
So our church is the logical place to begin our service. My friends throughout Europe and the US are mobilizing elsewhere, at their work place, in their own or their children’s schools, sports and arts and music and other community groups, book clubs and, of course, through their social media platforms.
Dovetailing our church community’s resources with those of local German relief organizations, we spent several hours in a warehouse in Darmstadt, just south of Frankfurt, sorting and classifying donations into boxes to be given to refugees housed in a nearby barrack.
We also gained permission to visit the Ginnheimerlandstrasse Sport Zentrum, one of a number of refugee camps in and around Frankfurt where hundreds live, packed cot-to-cot. These drafty, utilitarian halls were intended as temporary shelters while Germany’s government machinery shifted into high gear to catch up with the overwhelming demand for shelter. Now, with refugee numbers still on the rise and integration looming as the greatest challenge, the camps (former military barracks and hospitals, or rudely erected tent communities) are slated to serve indefinitely.
As we approached the sport complex, I was struck by its massiveness. How many like these are there in Germany, each housing multiple hundreds under one roof? And when the people spilled out to meet our families in the parking lot, I wondered what good our scrappy cluster could do for hundreds of thousands in desperate need. I tried not to slump in resignation.
We emptied our cars packed with games and toys for children, clementines, chocolate treats, and winter outerwear and drove away empty-handed, yet oddly full-hearted, but still sobered by what we left in our rear view mirror.
Love Without Borders
Such visits are facilitated by a contact person. Ours was Kayra Martinez, founder of Love Without Borders, which she runs single-handedly from a suitcase, her Frankfurt apartment, and social media.
Kayra, a flight attendant, travels globally from her German home base. That’s her day job. Her real passion, however, is compassion. She established Love Without Borders after witnessing the raft arrivals on Lesbos, which grisly reality — drownings, hypothermic parents holding flaccid babies above water, huddled bodies wrapped in foil blankets, raw desperation in countless eyes — gripped her and rerouted her destiny.
“After seeing what I saw,” Kayra told me, “my life was changed forever.”
Since then, Kayra has been flying around the world, carrying donated goods on every trip, and bringing numbers of volunteers together to work in unison.
Germany’s Refugee Future
And the struggle intensifies. Even before Cologne, Chancellor Merkel was under increasing pressure to put a cap on the number of incoming refugees. Just this week, however, she still refused one fellow politician’s demand that Germany set that annual limit at 200,000. In the same speech, she reiterated that closing borders would be disastrous (besides compromising Europe’s Schengen free-travel zone), but admitted, “Now all of a sudden we are facing the challenge that refugees are coming to Europe and we are vulnerable.”
Merkel’s next steps will be decisive, even world-tipping. And Kayra and volunteers like her have their work cut out for years to come. There is no doubt it will take an ever-evolving response, since the face of this crisis is changing relentlessly, rapidly and radically.
While that change occurs, and while members of my immediate community mourn the death of nine Germans killed in a suicide bombing in Istanbul, I am stacking bags of donations in my garage. My friend Trisha has collected yarn for knitting for the women at another camp. Her bright daughter is teaching German lessons to packed audiences, men and women crowded on the former sport hall’s bleachers.
Another friend, Diana, seeing the refugee needs in Dunkerque, started a collection of winter clothing and blankets in her children’s Parisian school, and the parents drive them the three hours north to hand deliver at camps there. Jennifer, who with her husband Patrick has been on site in several refugee camps in Greece and surrounding points of entry, gave our youth group a multimedia presentation detailing what she saw, educating our youth about this widespread, multifaceted catastrophe.
And last week parents, youth leaders and youth from my church spent an evening brainstorming on how to serve. The next Sunday, Abdul, a Pakistani Muslim who cooks two meals weekly for up to 1600 refugees, came with Kayra to our worship service to interface and plan how our youth and leaders can exercise their compassion in this crisis.
Anti-Refugee Rhetoric vs. We Can Handle This
In the same hour as that multicultural gathering was taking place, a spew of exaggerated rhetoric was streaking across the global mediascape, inaccurately linking all refugees to violence, and stirring up anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim, and even anti-humanitarian sentiment. By blaming a majority (who had no involvement in a criminal act) for a minority’s behavior is nothing more than stigmatization and racism, and feeds into extremists’ desires.
A moderate, experienced, wise voice is needed. Some of us are responding with local, cautious echoes of Merkel’s New Year’s address.
“Wir können das schaffen,” Merkel said, “Und wir schaffen das,” or, “We can handle this, and we’re going to handle this.”
As a qualifier, she warned that in order to “handle this,” 2016 must be a year of cohesion, that “we don’t allow ourselves to be divided,” and that we not “follow those who, with coldness or even hate in their hearts, want to claim Germanness solely for themselves and exclude others.”
This will require a redefining – from everyone and every country, from the highest offices of government to grass-roots levels – of who the “we” and what the “this” in fact are. “Handling this” right now means caring for a continuing flow of exiled peoples and helping them integrate once they are in safe territory. It will mean a broad distribution of refugees, and limits of some sort, quantitative or otherwise. (Canada’s model is one to consider.) It will also demand tighter initial screening and a significantly increased focus on integration, beginning with intensive cultural and language training from the moment of arrival in a new land.
What remains to be seen, though, and what calls for a response from each of us, is the definition of “we.” Will you figure into that definition? And will I? And if so, how will our intelligence, creativity and compassion influence the narrative of history yet to be written? Is it too much to say that not only do refugees’ lives depend on such compassion, but so do ours.