Standing in the middle of a swell of humanity in the Keleti station, I was keenly aware of my power. As a woman. As a western woman. As a westerner.
On that day, I came to Keleti train station in the midst of what some historians are calling the biggest Refugee Crisis in Europe since World War II. I came to help. I did not know how. I did not know who. I grabbed my notebook and my camera because at the very least, I could capture stories. Even in the midst of crisis, there is something dignifying and empowering and cathartic about choosing to tell your story.
On that day, in that place, amongst thousands of refugees, I was a western woman standing alone in what became a surreal microcosm of the Middle East and Central Asia.
And I was keenly aware of the imbalance of power.
This is my story.
Careful to only approach women and ask if I could speak with them, most would nod their heads in what I came to recognize as a beautiful cultural gesture. Frequently they would call a brother or a husband to act as the translator, shy to talk, slow to trust, but willing. They told their stories of missiles and destruction, of body parts and missing family members. For some, the choice to flee was survival. For others, the choice was economic. For all of them, the choice was about a future.
When she talked about radical extremes
My new friend A* speaks beautiful English. She arrived with her family at Keleti on Saturday. They have been traveling for 3 years. Afghanistan. Pakistan. India. Iran. Turkey. Greece. Macedonia. Serbia. Hungary.
As a newlywed, she fled from religious extremists in her mountain village near the border of Pakistan and India. She has sojourned with her husband, mother-in-law, and 2 of her husband’s extended family, including a 5 year old nephew and a sister-in-law set to give birth in 5 days.
‘Why did you leave your home?’ I ask, offering a starting point for her narrative.
“It is terrible’ she replies. ‘Very dangerous, especially for women. They make us stay in our homes and if we go out, we must cover ourselves completely. It is very difficult to see, you know, when you are covered.”
No, actually, I do not know, because I have never been forced to wear a burka.
I have never known the fear of fleeing my home in the midst of war.
I have never been a refugee.
And, even this week amongst thousands who were stuck in Keleti – when I was hungry, or tired, I could step away and go home.
When choice is power
Surrounded by his wife who is 4 months pregnant, his sister, his auntie, M* tells me of their days at Keleti.
‘We are not poor people. I wanted to get a hotel so that my wife could rest in a bed and we could bathe, but when the clerks saw our documents, they waved us away. I have money. I can pay. But, we must stay here. Why?’
To be one who was a not a refugee this week, was to know the power of choice.
As I flip through my reporter’s notebook, my mind remembers faces tied to stories. To my surprise, I rarely find the word ‘freedom’ in my notes. I find the word ‘future’ on every page and the word ‘peace’ on most.
The power to choose my future. The power to choose peace.
The power to choose how I worship, who I worship, or even if I worship – all God-given choices. Free will.
When I realized my power
My skin color, my clothes, my language; in Keleti, they all gave me power to go where I wanted to go, even as a woman. Police did not ask to see my identity card. When I used the toilet in McDonalds, I prepared to pay the attendant and she waved me away saying, “You don’t need to pay”. But, I was in line with women who had been made to pay. The only thing that separated us in our humanity was the color and the clothing of a ‘refugee’.
I came to Keleti alone each day. I walked where I wanted. I took photos when I pleased. Amongst the thousands there, I chose to whom I would speak.
In retrospect, not one displaced person ever began a conversation with me. Over the course of days, nobody, not even once, said, ‘Excuse me, but could you help me? Could you show me? Do you know? Have you heard?’
It was always me that made the choice.
When it gets complicated
This current crisis is chaotic and complicated. There are a million different lenses through which you can analyze and predict the ramifications of a Middle Eastern surge into Europe and even North America. Some of those lenses are framed by logic. Many of them, even in the Church, are filtered by fear. Everybody chooses a lens.
Though I am not Middle Eastern. Though I am not a refugee. Though I am not a man. I choose to see people through the eyes of a Middle Eastern refugee named Īsā. For Christians, he is called Yasūʿ.
And to his people, and for this day, he told us his story and he said, ‘A man reaps what he sows … Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the body of Christ.’
You see, the man, Jesus, speaks those words with the memories of a childhood that began as a refugee.
His words caused me to ponder my power this week. How I use it. When I use it. Why I use it. And to ask myself a powerful question – when do my choices rob others of their future? Of their peace?
A Middle Eastern man packed up his wife and his child and fled their home country because a powerful government threatened their lives. Which story is that? The one we read about in the newspapers today? Or the story that we celebrate and remember every Christmas? Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more. How many more Rachel’s will weep today? How many more boats will capsize off of the shores of Turkey today?
My power. Your power.
The choice to see past a skin color, a title, even a religion and to see a person – made in the image of God.
Last week, I sojourned with people who made heart-rending decisions to leave family behind, chose to risk terrifying boat journeys, spent their life savings on busses and taxis, ran through forests and across borders in the middle of the night – all for a chance to choose a future.
What separates me from them? The power of choice.
When the journey ends
As she was preparing to leave on a train to Vienna at the end of a 3 year journey, I asked A* what she hoped for in her future. She smiled a beautiful smile and answered, “I must have peace.”
May the God who knows your journey as a refugee, A*, the God who sees you – may he give you peace, my friend. True peace and a beautiful future.
To the rest of us … Where is the refugee amongst you today and how will you treat him? That is where your journey begins.