I haven't been sleeping well.
I fall into bed feeling exhausted and tired but the moment when I finally relax and am just about drift off to sleep my head just starts running a never ending anxious monologue. I try to refocus, breath.. I've been doing yoga for years, I should have this mastered this by now... get up to and go the bathroom and then try again. But the underlying anxiety that drives the monologue and keeps me on the edge of tears and starts all over again.
Here is why.
A month or so ago I signed a letter. A letter supporting the opening of an office for an organization that helps resettle refugees in the United States and would resettle a few individuals here in Montana. I didn't think much of it initially – because if we have the ability to help people out of terrible, desperate situations it simply is right thing to do.
Then this happened.
I received this image as a text message
I don't know who took the picture
.And since then - I can't go to sleep.
I grew up in Germany. I am a foreign born United States Citizen. My mom is American. My dad is German. He was a self- proclaimed missionary. I use the term self-proclaimed, because he did not, to my knowledge work with or for any particular religious organization – though I could be wrong, I was a young child after all. As a result I spend a portion of my childhood in German refugee housing playing with children who's language I couldn't speak and knowing peripherally of extreme violence situations but that I absolutely did not comprehend. I desperately wanted a Sari like those the women of the family from SriLanka wore. I begged and pleaded for my own – much to my parent's embarrassment - I am sure. The fabrics were bright and light and shimmering and they wrapped and folded the fabric around me - just so - and it was beautiful. They promised they would ask for someone to send one from SriLanka and it never came. Of course it never came. SriLanka was involved in a civil war that began the summer I was born and lasted until 2009. I learned knife skills from a Russian woman who lived in a plain small apartment in a giant fortress that seemed like a castle to me. The family and my parents sat on the floor while she showed me how to slice a cucumber into perfect small cubes. I still haven't mastered it, but for a while I knew how to say “do you want to swing” in Russian because it was the phrase I needed most. It is now forgotten.
In 1989 life really changed.
The wall that had divided a city, the wall that had cleaved one country into two, and the wall that had divided Europe into capitalist and socialist fell in Berlin and was dismantled throughout the region over the next few years.
My parents divorced. I moved from West to East. I started third grade in West Germany and finished up the year in Quedlinburg a city in the former East Germany. First there was excitement and jubilation, the switch from DDR Mark to the Deutsche Mark and then the eventual chaos that follows the total break down of everything that what once was. Regions of the former Soviet Union dissolved into violence. There was Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Czechoslovakia. Countries that once existed on maps that were now being redefined by carving and tearing national lines in a process violent and bloody and riddled with ethnic genocide.
I was nine.
For me life was good. I went to school, danced ballet, went on walks, and dreamed of living in a castle. The east German economy was depressed, decades behind it's west German counterpart – unemployment soared and the now disappointed and disillusioned youth of a nation shaved their heads and stood in intimidating clusters around their motorcycles. Germany was for the Germans and German jobs were for the Germans and swastikas started showing up on our windows because even an American, my mom, the only american civilian in our city who came from a country who was an ally, was no longer welcome. But red swastikas on windows was nothing compared to what the people in the refugee center had to endure.
I have this distinct memory of sitting on a parish wall with another little girl, we must have been 10 or 11, while we surveyed the adults below us mingling at a beautiful backyard pot luck. By the end of the night she was sobbing hysterically clinging to her dad, terrified he would be hurt or never come home again, because he and other members of the congregation stood every night between angry protesters and the walls and windows shielding the refugees inside from rocks, the occasional Molotov cocktail, anger, hatred and fear.
My mom was told by the American Embassy that due to some upcoming actions by the American government a backlash against american civilians was expected and our safety could not be ensured.
So we left.
Because my mom is an American citizen and all of us six kids were american citizens we had a choice to leave. We packed everything we could into a shipping container, left a VW bus, a dog, and ballet behind.
I try and remember what happened to all those refugees that had come to my city. If I remember correctly, after nightly riots and protest they were all packed up and moved on to a different city and things became quieter again. This was seen as a victory by some and the number of shaved heads dwindled, but it was as a sad and quiet tragedy to others. It was a shame that in a nation undergoing such growing pains, in a part of the world desperately trying to redefine it's self, our city and the refugees were incapable of growing together.
We started new lives. My siblings went to school with translators. I eventually tested my way out of remedial English and remedial math and my whole childhood seems like a story that happened to someone else.
Except I can't sleep.
In spite of the constant monologue running in my mind – the arguments, the memories, the emotions – I can't define what it is I want to say because there is just too much to say.
I have spent so much of my life thinking about how lucky I am to have had parents who had a choice. To be born white and an American Citizen with a grandmother who had enough assets to purchase a house and we just plopped down in the middle of America. Sure we were on Medicaid and Food Stamps, my mom could no longer afford ballet lessons, but all and all, life just went on. I spend so much time thinking about how access to opportunity and security and safety is not equal to all citizens of this world or even in this country based on when and where we were born, our gender, or the color of our skin.
Being a refugee is not a choice a people make. It is a choice made to them by external situations out of their control. But we have a choice. I have a choice. I have a choice to have faith in the humanity of people and restore the basic access to hope and opportunity for just a few of the many in desperate need. I lay awake at night – almost desperately, unreasonably afraid - but not of the refugees, but of the dark nights filled with hatred, anger and fear too pervasive to grant basic human dignity to those who needed it most.