It was nothing more than a small train car, a steel box with a window on one end and a door on the other. They were stacked like children's blocks, painted to look less like a prison. Yet as I climbed those steel stairs to the third level, led by a young man with scars on his smiling face, I couldn't help but feel as though I were about to walk into a type of cell.
There were no bars, and the doors leading into the steel stacked compartments were made of glass. The doors leading into the living space were steel, like the walls. After we took off our shoes, a custom in this culture, we padded onto the concrete floor and followed our new friend into his home.
It was six feet wide and ten feet long. There weren't enough chairs for the four of us to sit, so he gestured for me to sit on his bed and he hurried to the shared kitchen down the hall and brought a couple of chairs into his cramped living space for my friends to sit on. He kept the most unreliable chair for himself.
Our new friend explained in German, the language every refugee must learn before they can become residents, that his roommate wasn't home. He offered each of us tea, proudly offering the homegrown green tea from his home country of Afghanistan. As we all accepted, he hurried down the hall and I took in my surroundings as a cool breeze from the open window swept into the tight space. He didn't have more than half a dozen pairs of pants and t-shirts hanging in his wardrobe. He'd taped and leaned a handful of sketches and paintings on the wall. A soccer jersey draped over the wardrobe. His pillow case was pink, his comforter was brown, and he had a large stuffed minion on the bed.
He was twenty-two years old. He fled the taliban in his home village after his mother died of cancer when he was sixteen, leaving his brothers and sisters behind. He fled across Iran, Turkey, and then took a boat across the Mediterranean to get to Greece. Ten days on a boat with more than 85 other refugees, and only his 2 foot by 2 foot space to either sit or stand. No bathroom, and no ability to lie down. Water was so scarce those who brought water were selling bottles at $100 a piece. Two children died on the voyage and for days he heard the parents weeping and wailing their loss while the crew tried to convince them to throw the lifeless bodies overboard. They refused. After landing in Greece he slowly made his way to Germany where he finally claimed refugee status. Now, four years later, the government has issued him a deportation notice because Afghanistan is now determined "safe enough" to return.
He disagrees. Yet all he can do is shrug and look at us with a sad smile and say, "I don't want to go, but what can I do?"
His story was one of many I heard while working with refugees in Hamburg, Germany. I spoke with Afghan's, Iranians, Syrians, and Iraqis. Men in white or beige khet partugs and dishdashas, women in colorful and beautifully embroidered tunbaan's and head scarfs. Women always wore some kind of dress, even if they weren't in their traditional clothing. Many men wore jeans and t-shirts. In every home I was welcomed as a complete stranger, and I was offered tea and sweets or nuts on a beautiful platter. We sat with the intention of visiting; of talking and listening. The biggest distraction was young children wanting to grab sweets from the tray or climb all over their father while he visited. It was a distraction I welcomed with a smile.
Through an interpreter we talked about everything from the weather to their journey from where they lived to Hamburg. We discussed faith and God and more times than not came to the mutual agreement that there are bad Muslims and there are good Muslims, there are bad Christians and there are good Christians. The best we can do is love God and love each other. Every visit lasted at least an hour, and typically stretched into three. No one looked at their phone unless it was to use Google Translate to better articulate what we wanted to say, or to share photos of loved ones back home.
They wanted to know about me. How did I know a little Arabic? What did I do for a living? Why did I fly so far to hear their story? What did I do for fun? Who was special in my life? Did I have pictures?
I realized something as I hugged and kissed the cheeks of a Syrian woman, the last refugee I'd visit on my trip to Germany. These refugees had left behind a culture of connection, of community, that we in the west have lost. They often felt isolated in their new country, and yet we in the west would simply call their current level of connection normal. They often don't know their neighbor's because their neighbor might speak Farsi instead of Arabic. They might be Sunni instead of Shiite. Their neighbor might be refugees for political reasons while they might be a refugee for religious reasons.
They know how to connect. They know how to serve and engage and share their heart and provided a space for me to share mine. Even more than that, the international team that was already established in Hamburg that I was blessed to serve refugees with, had adopted this culture within their organization. For ten days I was immersed in a culture that believed the way to change hearts was "intentional relationship and intimacy in prayer and worship." And they lived it. At first I thought this was just beautiful. As I walked away that day, realizing that it would be a long time before I'd have that same connection again, I found myself grieving the loss of it.
We are not meant to be alone. We're certainly not meant to journey in our relationship with God alone. The author of Hebrews tells us to "Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (3:13). Paul tells the church in Galatia "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), and to the church in Ephesus "Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another" (4:25)
Jesus himself said, "...Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28). Paul tells the church in Corinth, "I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). John tells us, "If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth" (1 John 3:17-18).
It took those dedicated to serving Middle Eastern refugees, and the Muslim refugees themselves, to show me what it looked like to honor and connect with someone. Put the phone down. Ask questions. Be vulnerable. Make eye contact. Cry. Laugh. Be willing to be embarrassed and confused. Take the time to ask for clarity rather than assume. Leave room for silence and awkward pauses. Hug. Hold hands. Accept someone's offer to serve you. Turn off the TV. Receive the gift given. Serve back. Give back. Be open to disagreeing. Don't shut down when you don't like what you hear. Seek understanding. Hug again. Every day. With every person.
There's always something to do. Stop using a to-do list as an excuse for not paying attention. Set it aside and engage. Give someone your entire attention and focus. Sound uncomfortable? It is. It's also exhilarating and it's the only way to really connect with another human being. It's one of the few ways to truly love someone - making the time to show them that they are important enough to have your full attention.
I struggled returning home. Not because I was so in love with Germany or because I loved being in a concrete jungle. I love my small north Idaho community. I struggled returning home because I was going to miss connecting. The language barrier wasn't the issue I thought it was going to be. Each person was so present and engaged in the here and now. Returning home meant returning to a world of multitasking, having 15% of people's attention in any given conversation, eyes rooted to cell phones rather than making eye contact. A culture of distraction and doing rather than engagement and connection.
Mother Teresa said, "The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved." As I sat there in the various living rooms of refugees who had barely any possessions to their name, no residency and little language and money, crowded in a metal box with sometimes a dozen people to five beds and never enough bathrooms, I realized I didn't pity them at all.
I envied them. As I watched them connect with one another I realized I was the poorest among them. I was also, in that moment, the most blessed to be able to receive from them. It didn't matter that they were Muslims or from the Middle East. I learned, and am charged with taking what they taught me and putting it into practice.
Love takes intention. Love is sacrifice. Love can't only be shown in the grand schemes, the special occasions or in times of crisis. Love is most truly shown in the mundane day-to-day and it builds trust. As Brene Brown writes, "(Trust) is earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection... Trust is the stacking and layering of small moments and reciprocal vulnerability over time."
We can't make others love, and we can't make them trustworthy, but we each take responsibility for how we love and whether or not we are trustworthy. I'm grateful for these men and women in the refugee camps for showing me what this looks like. For their willingness to love and honor a stranger. I'm thankful to God for pouring into me that love and honor every day for ten days.
Now it's time to spread that culture stateside.