A Tale of Two Refugees: Welcome, Lent Part 1


Just as a body is one whole made up of many different parts, and all the different parts comprise the one body, so it is with the Anointed One. We were all ceremonially washed through baptism together into one body by one Spirit. No matter our heritage—Jew or Greek, insider or outsider—no matter our status—oppressed or free [Republican or Democrat]—we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Here’s what I mean: the body is not made of one large part but of many different parts. –1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (The Voice version)

As part of my Lenten practice this year, I want to do a few of posts on refugees and immigration. 4 stories. 2 about refugees. 2 about immigration. 2 from a welcomed perspective. 2 from an un-welcomed perspective. The subject is complicated, varied, and divisive. I don’t know anyone who thinks we should ‘throw open our borders to anyone,’ nor do I know anyone who touts that we should close our borders to all. I will not solve any of the issues in my blog; however, I want to share some stories. I hope the stories will help us remember that while we debate and discuss immigration issues, we affect real people’s lives.

When my husband served in the Air Force, we lived in Germany for 3 years. We experienced a culture so much older than our American one. We lived in a farmhouse that was built in 1910, had survived 2 world wars, had added-on indoor plumbing, no room was square, and if you put a marble on the floor it would roll. And in our small village we heard the rooster crow, cows moo, and church bells ring as we woke to meet the day.

**sigh** Drink that in. Mmmmm. Even at the time, it seemed idyllic.

Okay, back to reality.

We lived there in the early 1990s. The Berlin Wall had fallen the year prior to our arrival. The first Gulf War, Desert Shield, was ending, and the second, Desert Storm, commenced days after we arrived. Germany welcomed accepted refugees flooding from Romania and other countries because Ceausescu’s government had fallen a couple of years before. Like our current climate, the world felt uneasy.

About 200 homes populated the little village. Many wanted nothing to do with us–we were interlopers, a reminder of WWII concessions because of defeat. However, I never felt unsafe. And no one ever denied me service. While some may not have liked the situation of having an American military presence in their country, they recognized the profit that they could have from our business; and for the most part, recognized that as individuals, we did not create the policies of our government.

When we arrived, I was 7 months pregnant with our first child. I had never lived so far away from home. Loneliness fell heavily on my shoulders. Jet-lag took ages (okay, probably a week) to get over. The excitement I first felt at living in a new culture began to give way as the stark reality set in that I knew no one here, and all of my support systems had stayed in America.

We felt like refugees in this foreign land.

We weren’t. And I do know the differences. We had many privileges that refugees don’t enjoy. We had a commissary on the military base which gave us subsidized food prices, we paid the American prices for gas (about $1.20/gallon vs. what-I-remember-the-German-price-per-liter of about $1.20), we paid US postage for packages/letters. But, most importantly, we had income. And a military community where we could retreat at any time.

In short, we had many more privileges than refugees.

However, the feeling of living somewhere foreign, not my familiar surroundings or familiar culture, helps me relate on a smaller scale to how a refugee feels.

We chose to live off-base, on the local economy. We didn’t speak the language. We didn’t understand the life-rhythms of the country. Small town stores closed during the afternoons, then reopened only to close by 6pm. Thursdays had a different shopping schedule, also; but I don’t remember if they stayed open later, or closed early. Saturdays, stores closed at 2pm. Unless it was a ‘long Saturday’ when certain times of the year stores remained open a little longer. I could only keep straight Sundays. Stores never opened on Sundays.

In the larger cities, we felt more at home. More people spoke English (at least better than we spoke German). We especially enjoyed the diversity of cultures. One of our favorite restaurants served Mexican food, but was owned and operated by people from India. Dogs came in with their owners. I watched, a little horrified, when one poodle piddled on the floor, and its owner just mopped it up with the cloth napkin… No one else seemed to notice.

I remember in our small village, we had a ‘Gasthaus’ (restaurant) that served Greek food. Often we ordered pizza from there–some of the best pepperoni I’ve ever had!–but sometimes we would dine-in. I always noticed one or two tables would clear out immediately when we sat down.

As a foreigner, I remember the few people who rejected me and my family because of our nationality. But, mostly, I remember the people who made me feel welcome. The people whom I felt I could exhale around. The ones who smiled and greeted me. The ones who spoke to me even though I couldn’t understand most of what they chatted about. The ones who made me feel like we belonged.

I remember the woman across the street from us, Elsa, who had a Labrador, Amore. She gave chocolates to my daughter when we went for walks. Elsa beamed as she talked with me and my daughter.

I remember our landlords who lived behind us–separated by an apple orchard and a small stream on the property. Monica spoke some English and helped us figure out where to shop, and how to navigate directions. She also gave my daughter chocolates. Most of the older people in the country seemed to carry around candy in their pockets on the off-chance they would see a child. My husband and I laughed thinking that in America, we’d accuse these people of nefarious motives. In Germany, we let our child eat the candy from strangers!

I remember our landlord, Dieter, who spoke almost no English. Our elderly next-door-neighbor had fallen on his stoop one night, and we didn’t know what to do. I called Dieter, and he must have understood the panic in my voice as I cried into the phone, “Karl is hurt!” Dieter came running, helped Karl up and into his house, and reassured us that he was fine. The next day, Monica explained that Karl was drunk and was fine; but he really liked that we covered him with a blanket…

I remember feeling secure knowing that our landlords and neighbors looked out for us.

Welcome. Belonging. A smile. Such small things. Yet, those ‘small’ things created an atmosphere that encouraged me to feel less lonely, less homesick, less foreign, less ousider-ish, and more confident to explore this new country.

Next week, Part 2.

I welcome comments! Please keep them respectful and constructive.


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