Last night my three-year-old son climbed onto my lap, placed his head on my chest, closed his eyes in a pretense of sleep, and asked me to take our picture.
He’s an uber-cuddly mama’s boy who just completed his first week of pre-school, so I wasn’t exactly surprised by his little scheme. But I was touched by it.
And sadly, part of me was pained. Because as I held him, looking down at the place where his forehead slips under his fluffy blonde hair, I couldn’t help but think of another little three-year-old boy – one whose sleep was not pretended, whose own hair was dark and wet, whose small body would no longer lend warmth to his mother’s lap.
I thought of little Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurd refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean this week along with his five-year-old brother Galip and his mother, Rehan.
My boy has a five-year-old brother too. He has a mother. He has a father who would do whatever it took – move his family, pay all he could, hold tight to his boys, tread water in a churning sea – to secure his family’s safety.
Children are children the world over; I can’t imagine that little Aylan was so very different from my own boy.
I first had that realization – that children are children are children – when I was a college student in Germany. I was living in a small town not far from the Austrian border. And near my language institute there were a couple of apartment buildings that housed refugee families.
Some of the children from those apartments would wait outside our building, hoping for a little attention from the college students. They might get a game of basketball, or some candy, or simply a conversation. Whichever it ended up being, they were eager to be with us.
I vividly remember one boy, probably around nine years old, who seemed to take a liking to me. He was sturdily built, with shaggy dirty-blonde hair and a wide, smiling face. He’d come from Kazakhstan, he told me, where “all of the houses are broken”. (At least that’s how it translated from his native tongue, through German, to my own.) He told me of his parents and siblings back home and how much he missed them. He told me that he was in Germany with his uncle because his parents were so desperate for him to have a chance to just go – to get out of his uncertain, broken homeland – that they were prepared to let him leave without them.
That boy broke my heart. I hurt to think of what his parents must have felt, sending him away. I hurt to see the loneliness in his eyes – the one part of his smiling-wide face to betray his situation.
I’ve thought of that boy many times in the years since that summer – especially on hearing of families displaced from their homelands by war or poverty or oppression. His face still swims in my mind, softened by time, yet powerful.
I’ve thought too of another example of Germans hosting refugees. That first trip to Germany, I sought out the village from which some of my ancestors had come. I was fortunate in my visit, making the acquaintance of a man whom I later learned was a very (very) distant relation. Jochen and I struck up a friendship that lasted until his death some five years later. My friendship with his family remains.
On one of my subsequent visits, Jochen told me the story of his house. It was split into two two-bedroom apartments, one on each floor. When I first came, his elderly mother lived in the upper, he and his wife in the lower. During my visits after his mother’s death, I would stay in the upstairs apartment. Jochen told me that the arrangement was not unusual for houses of that age; many homes had been converted into apartments following World War II.
At the end of the war, large numbers of German refugees had made their way westward from the regions of the country that had been absorbed by Poland and Czechoslovakia. Naturally, they needed somewhere to stay. So Germans throughout the country were urged (compelled?) to make room in their own homes. They split their houses into apartments or (I assume) simply moved their possessions into a few of their rooms. The rest of the space went to refugee families whom they had never met. Jochen’s wife actually came from one of those refugee families: she had no roots in the region of Germany that Jochen (and I) did. She simply grew where she was (re)planted.
In asking Germans to open their homes to strangers, the government sent the message that you are fortunate to still have your home; you are fortunate to still have your hometown and your connections – it is your duty to welcome those who are not so fortunate.
What a concept: asking people to provide assistance in their own homes.
I was powerfully reminded of that situation this week while reading of the response in Iceland to the Syrian refugee crisis. Reacting to the news that her (admittedly tiny) country would be taking in just 50 of the refugees, a popular Icelandic author penned an open letter to the country’s welfare minister. In it, and on the Facebook group she set up, the author offered to personally pay airfare for a Syrian family to come to Iceland and she affirmed that her friend would provide the family with a place to live. Soon other Icelanders followed suit; at this point more than 11,000 (of a country of just 300,000 people!) have offered to help the Syrian refugees. Many have offered to host them in their own homes.
In their own homes.
We all (myself most definitely included) have a tendency to view other people’s problems as other people’s problems. Rarely do we offer to help in ways that will impact our own lives. We might make a donation, yes. Hopefully we pray. Perhaps we post something supportive on Facebook, or write a letter-to-the-editor, or publish a blog post. But it is exceedingly rare that we say, “Come into my home. I am willing to change my life for you.”
Part of me wants to do something that dramatic for the refugees of Syria and Iraq. I want to save someone. I want to sacrifice, to pour my small measure of justice and goodwill and mercy onto the scale that is currently so lopsided by the weight of suffering. I want to hold that small boy on my lap and provide him with the same comfort I give my own son.
But I don’t have the courage. I will admit that: I’m consumed with my own husband and our three small boys and my pregnancy. And I remember that we have already taken someone in: last year when my elderly mother-in-law was newly widowed with no place to go, we said, “Come into my home. I am willing to change my life for you.”
That offer was not nearly as dramatic or generous as the ones so many Icelanders are making today, but it has most definitely impacted our lives.
I hope, when our boys are older, our accommodation of my mother-in-law will teach them something about the value (indeed, the duty) of sacrificing for the sake of others. Perhaps one day they’ll have the courage to give the kind of help that involves more than a few taps on the keyboard or a click of the “donate” button. Perhaps they’ll be willing to give of themselves so deeply that their lives will be changed by the giving.
For now, I’ll do the tapping and the clicking. I’ll say that I hope Europe will do more and that the United States will do something. I understand that the task is great and the solutions are uncomfortable. But we simply can’t ignore millions of people who are a fleeing a situation we would ourselves try to escape.
If I lived in that part of the world, or any other torn by war and terror, I would leave. I would grab my boys and some cash and my phone and a few photos, and I. would. leave. You would too.
So let’s have some constructive sympathy for those in that position. Members of the European Union, revise the policy that requires people to apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach. It is neither fair nor workable to require the poorest nations of the EU to shoulder the burden of migration that, in reality, aims for the wealthiest ones. European countries, revise your allotments for refugees upward. United Kingdom, revise it way upward. United States, prepare to take some Syrian refugees of your own – lots of them.
Friends, let’s donate (here’s a link to Catholic Relief Services) and pray. Let’s encourage our friends to do the same and let’s ask our governments to take action.
And if you have the courage to give the kind of help that changes your life for the sake of those like Aylan Kurdi, follow those Icelanders’ leads and offer space in your own home. Offer airline tickets. Offer to help integrate refugees into your community. Start up a U.S. or U.K. or German Facebook page like that Icelandic one. I’ll be honored to do my small measure to help you.