Although our 30 new (refugee) neighbors have been here since Easter, I have had no real opportunity to meet and talk to any of them beyond greetings in the grocery store. My husband has allowed 8 of them attend his school and he also goes running with some of them, but I have had no pretext so far to initiate any kind of contact or acquaintance. Today the chance finally arose.
There are about 10 families in the village involved in the effort to help these young men integrate, and each of us were “assigned” three to focus on. My husband decided to make a kettle goulash over an open fire in the yard and invited “our” three over to join us. They pedaled their bikes up the steep hill, arriving fashionably late. I shook their hands and then mentally kicked myself for not doing some prep work on their names. I couldn’t even pronounce them correctly, much less remember them.
They were quiet and shy at first, politely answering my small talk questions – “Where are you from?” (Afghanistan) and “How long have you been here?” (a few months). Conversation happened on tiptoes and teetered a lot. There were uncomfortable silences. Inside, what I really wanted to know is “So . . . do you hate Americans? Is it our fault that you had to flee? (Please say ‘No’!)” They struggled to find the words in their mental piles of broken German to formulate answers. At one point I asked them if they were getting German lessons, and the one who was most proficient answered “Yes” – but in such a tone that we all started laughing. The ice wasn’t exactly broken, but it got its first big crack. I commiserated with him about how hard it was for me to learn German grammar. (I have been at it for 43 years and still make my husband proofread all my emails before I send them.)
After a half hour or so of this, my husband – who thinks sports are the answer to most of life’s problems – sort of coerced our guests and our daughters into a Ping-Pong tournament. They had fun. Meanwhile the goulash bubbled toward the edible stage and I started setting up a patio arrangement and hauling dishes down from the kitchen. The circle of chairs was slowly occupied, one after another with our guests interspersed among us. The conversation turned toward their refugee experiences and . . . something happened.
They became people to us. And, I think, we became people to them.
I learned that all three of them were Shiite and they were here because they had had to flee the Taliban. Both Rohulla and Shaban had lost their fathers. In their words, their fathers had been “stolen” – or “kidnapped” – by the Taliban, but there was something more to it than either of those words could convey. Heyaz had a different story. His parents had fled Afghanistan before his birth (in Pakistan). He was eventually imprisoned there and then deported to Afghanistan – a country he had never known. Rohulla had also experienced imprisonment in Iran and then deportation on his first (failed) attempt to flee. Heyaz and Rohulla had both made one of those treacherous sea crossings on a hopelessly overfilled boat. Heyaz’s boat had capsized and he ended up swimming to European shores. Shaban had come over the land route and, on entering Austria, was sent directly to the notorious refugee “center” in Traiskirchen. (Designed for about 800 people, but housing several thousand.) His one comment about it was that the portions at mealtimes were so small that he never got enough to eat.
We talked a lot about the Taliban and I finally got the chance to ask if the American and European troops there were a good thing or a bad thing. All three were emphatic in their answers of “Good!” The thing they feared most was the Taliban gaining control over the entire country again and if the foreign troops left, that could still happen.
We talked about their situation now – what stage they were at in terms of seeking asylum. They showed us their ID cards – Heyaz and Rohulla were in relatively good shape with their white § 50 cards, but Shaban was worse off with his green § 51 card. (I might have those numbers reversed. They refer to different sections or paragraphs in the Austrian laws concerning asylum seekers.) We talked for a long time about what the difference is. Their answer was that white card holders were believed when they said they were under 18 years old. Green card holders were not believed completely.
When asked about their futures, they all said the same. They wanted to build a life here so that they could help their families back in Afghanistan. We asked if they hoped to bring family members here and they shook their heads. Their own experiences had taught them about how hard it would be to accomplish. The best they hoped for was to be able to send money home and maybe, someday, be able to return.
Other things happened during this conversation. We all leaned in. I discovered that Shaban spoke the best German after only three months here and that he had a terrific sense of humor. I recognized that Rohulla spoke impeccable English, but refrained because he understood how important it was to learn German now. Before fleeing, he had been in his last year of High School and intended to study Engineering. Heyaz, the Boxer, also spoke great English but had the tendency to mix up the languages completely – German words appeared in his English sentences and vice versa. His favorite school subject had been Chemistry and his dream was to go to New York. All three of them liked being at school again – but Shaban said the teachers all spoke too fast. He sometimes asked them to slow down, and they did so, but – he held up one finger – only for one minute. That made us all laugh again. (I thought about my own teaching – how I told students to alert me when I was talking too fast. I added that I would slow down for one minute and then speed up again. They would simply have to listen faster.)
The goulash was finally ready and we all moved to the tables to eat. Rohulla took the most extreme of my husband’s dried chili pepper mixes and doused his plate with it. We all watched him take his first spoonful and waited for his head to explode. All that came was a happy smile. Skinny Shaban stopped after the first plateful and declined when I offered seconds. I objected, saying “What’s this?? What you ate was just a Traiskirchen portion!” He laughed and accepted seconds.
As the visit wound down, my husband started making plans about when to meet up the next day for sprinting training. He suggested early afternoon and the boys countered with 7 am (because they get up at 6 am – typical teenagers!) We also asked them if they would like to come over again. As they answered “Yes!” their eyes lit up in a way that simply can’t be faked. They got on their donated bikes and took off down the hill to their new home.
This all may be incredibly boring to readers, but I can hardly express the emotions and revelations I went through today. Take some abstract concept like “refugee crisis” and it sounds frightening. Meet three refugees, hear their stories and see their smiles, laugh and share a meal with them . . .
It changes the world.