Tuesday, November 15, 2016

One Week Later, Some Thoughts on the Election

As I sat in another graduate student’s office watching a live stream of the presidential election results coming in, I felt nervous. Earlier that day, my husband and I had made a quick trip down to Colorado to turn in our ballots. We’re still registered to vote in Colorado although we live in Wyoming currently while I attend the University of Wyoming for my master’s degree. We had missed the deadline to mail in our ballots, but we felt that voting was important, especially in this contentious election. Later Tuesday night, I was in my office working. I went next door to my friend’s office to ask about something and got glued to the screen watching coverage of the results. Soon, another friend showed up, and while we had all hoped to get work done, we were engrossed with what was happening. As it became clearer that Hillary Clinton would not gain the 270 electoral votes needed to win, I was surprised by the rising feelings of anxiety and despair I was experiencing. I had no idea I was emotionally invested in this at all until I sat watching the results roll in, a sinking, sick feeling in my stomach.

If you didn’t already guess this, no, I did not vote for Donald Trump. Of course, that comes as no surprise to some of you. But others are offended with me already. I’d like to explain my reasoning in voting and my feelings now, both as a way to process things myself and as a statement to my friends and family, encouraging a productive and respectful dialogue if you’d like to engage in that.

I also want to be very clear that I in no way am saying that all Trump supporters are racists or sexists. I have seen some use that language, and to me, that is not a productive way to engage with differing opinions. I know many Trump supporters who are people I love and respect, and I do not think these people are all angry, hate-speech-spouting bigots by any means. With this post, I am just hoping to explain my own thoughts in a way that you can hopefully understand and respect. In this time of political and social tension, we need a dialogue now more than ever. In order to do that, we need to be willing to share our points of view, but more importantly to listen to others. I encourage my students to listen to understand, not just to reply, and I think that kind of listening is important here. That being said, I want you to understand me, and that is my main goal here. But I also want to understand you, so please feel free to leave a comment and/or reach out to me to talk, if you are wanting a respectful dialogue and not an argument. Okay, here we go…

Once the options were down to Clinton and Trump, I found myself pretty conflicted and uncertain. I did not feel that either of these people represented me, my concerns for this country, or my values. I began thinking and praying (as I have with many decisions in my life that have been important to me) about what I would do come Election Day. I believe that voting is a right and a privilege, and I feel that if you don’t vote to try to make your voice heard, your complaints afterwards are a bit unwarranted. Sure, you still have a right to voice those complaints, but if you didn’t vote to try to make a difference, I have a bit less forbearance for your grumbles. So I knew that I wanted to vote, but I also wanted to vote with a clear conscience. Unfortunately, as the campaigns went on, my conscience was not completely clear regarding either candidate. To me, Hillary Clinton represented so many things that are wrong with politicians. On the other hand, Donald Trump represented so many things that are wrong with our culture. I weighed pros and cons of the two. For the first time, I listened to every presidential debate, genuinely curious to learn about what the candidates wanted Americans to know about them, what kind of ideas and plans they had for our country, and how they would choose to present themselves. Overall, I am sad to say that I was unimpressed. I wanted another option.

Let me say now that I do realize I had other options via voting for a third party candidate or writing in a name, but I felt that this would be throwing away my vote. I wish that we did have a multiparty system rather than a two-party one, and I hope someday we get there. However, at this point, we’re not there, and I knew a third party would not win. So I needed to deeply consider who would earn my vote, Clinton or Trump.

I’d like to now say some things about my identity and my position as a voter. I was raised in a very conservative Christian denomination. I think most of the adults who had a hand in raising me have a history of usually voting Republican. I grew up among people who championed Republican views, and probably people who vote party-line Republican, no questions asked. I also have some conservative views myself, to be honest. Additionally, I am a woman, and a woman of color, and I have experienced discrimination as a woman of color. I have been discriminated against at various stages of my life, but lately my status as a person who is a target of some forms of discrimination has come to the forefront of my mind because of several experiences I’ve had living in Wyoming and attending the University of Wyoming. I cannot pretend that my position as a woman of color who has experienced discrimination did not affect my vote. I’ll also throw into this explanation regarding my position that I feel very much compassion towards and respect for asylum seekers and refugees. I was honored to work at the Global Refugee Center through AmeriCorps during my undergrad. As part of my position, I had to recruit volunteers. I went to classes and groups as the University of Northern Colorado and gave presentations about who refugees are, how they get to the United States and to Greeley, and how people could help. What I’m saying here is that I am pretty educated about the process. My master’s research also focuses on asylum seekers and refugees, so again, I am pretty educated about these issues. But more than that, I have interacted with these people. I have heard their stories, I have seen their efforts and their struggles, and they have touched my heart.
All of these identities/positions contributed to who I would vote for. But ultimately, I just wanted to act based on my love for humanity. This has been a guiding principle in my life, and I am proud of that. I have friends from all over the world. I have friends of many different religions. I have Black friends, White friends, Latino and Chicano friends, Asian friends, North African friends, Middle Eastern friends, African friends, European friends. I have LGBTQ+ friends. My friends, the people I love and care about, come from so many different combinations of backgrounds. And I want the best for them. I want the best for all of us. And because of that, I couldn’t vote for Trump.

I still felt that Clinton was not the best, but I did feel that she was significantly better than Trump. She had the support of her party, she unified (not all, but some) people more than she divided them, she shared some concrete plans with America aside from just claiming that her plans would be “the best” or “huge” and leaving us to wonder about the details. Trump, on the other hand, had many issues with his party throughout the campaign, he caused endlessly more divisions, and I could never really get a good sense of what his plans were regarding a number of issues. Considering my identities, my positions, and the people I love and care about deeply, I could not bring myself to vote for a man who showed a lack of control over his emotions, and a lack of control to such an extent that his campaign staff took away his twitter account access for concern that he would say something more to hurt his campaign (yes, we all get emotional, and emotions can be difficult to control, but someone in the high position of leadership of POTUS should be able to keep his or her emotions in check and work through things reasonably). I could not bring myself to vote for someone who has unfair (and frankly, uneducated) views towards refugees and immigrants and who encourages the American public to share those uninformed views. I could not bring myself to vote for someone who made gross generalizations in calling all Mexicans who come to the United States rapists and drug lords. I could not bring myself to vote for someone who made comments that further harmful stereotypes about Muslims. I could not bring myself to vote for someone who, when asked what he would do to make Muslims feel that they were safe and a part of this country, went on a rant about “radical Islamic terrorists.” I could not bring myself to vote for someone who insulted and said he did not trust our nation’s security and who said he would imprison his political opponent. I could not bring myself to vote for someone who insulted veterans. I could not bring myself to vote for someone who was dismissive of bragging about sexual assault. I could not bring myself to vote for someone who referred to mental illnesses as signs of weakness. I could not bring myself to vote for someone who carelessly and without regard for consequences makes flippant comments about other nations and other world leaders (again, people are entitled to have whatever opinions they want about these things, even if they are uninformed and flippant, but the POTUS should be someone who can express his views and concerns with tact and diplomatic ability rather than in an offhand, I-can-do-whatever-I-want way that might get our nation into trouble). …I think I’ll stop here since I’ve addressed my main concerns and those that were deal breakers for me.

And then, he became president anyways.

I had never really fully entertained the thought, “What if Donald Trump is our next President?,” because I didn’t really think he had enough support to make that happen. But I did think that if that happened, I would probably be a little disappointed and then move on. So imagine my surprise while sitting in my friend’s office feeling so much anxiety and overwhelming hurt. I could not explain my feelings at first or even the next day. They took me by surprise, and I really had to think about things and process why I was feeling the way that I was.

Now let me be explicit: I am not hurt that Hillary Clinton didn’t win, and I am not hurt that Donald Trump did. I am hurt that after someone attacked my some of my identity and made it okay for other people to do the same, his actions were rewarded. I am hurt that voters didn’t see racism and sexism to be important. I am hurt that now, many of my friends are dismissive towards these concerns. I feel that my identities as a woman of color and as a rape survivor have been even more marginalized. I feel like my fellow Americans said, “We know who you are, and we don’t care.” I feel like people have offered nothing more than an eye-roll towards my wellbeing and the wellbeing of so many of my friends. And it hurts.

But what hurts the most for me is the aftermath. So many of my Facebook friends are cheering and reveling in the glory of Trump’s win. Be happy that the candidate you supported won by all means, but too many posts have crossed a line. I’ve seen too many people say things like “get over it,” telling people to “stop being so dramatic,” to “quit crying and whining like babies.” People who fear for their wellbeing are being approached with ridicule and dismissive, careless attitudes. People’s concerns over what to tell their children now that America has demonstrated that bullying and hate speech can win you the highest office in the land are being trivialized and made fun of. People who have shared resources for support are being mocked ruthlessly. Listen, I can see the point. It is a presidential election, the results are in, we should accept them and move forward as a nation. But this is about more than politics. People, real people, your neighbors, your coworkers, your so-called friends are afraid because their identities have been attacked, because the President Elect has made it okay for Americans to express hate and if the next POTUS can get away with spouting hate speech, anyone and everyone can. I’ve seen people express that they are tired of political correctness, tired of walking on eggshells, and tired of being called racists. I’m trying to understand those feelings, but I think coming from that stance indicates that you have a lot of privilege and that it’s inconvenienced by those who do not.

Still, I’ve seen some hopefulness in the midst of the ugly and polarized aftermath that has unfolded. When I got going on Wednesday morning, one of the first posts I saw was from an Egyptian friend who I met in Germany this past summer. I want to share his words with you:
Ahmed with his post gave me some encouragement that even if our leaders are not the kind of people who are going in unify people for positive change, we still can be.

Later, I was embraced by my community of McNair Scholars (a program for underrepresented students I participated in as an undergrad) after our assistant director, Karen Krob, tagged a bunch of us in a post that read:
I am still processing myself, and so I do not know the "perfect" words or "perfect" response, but I can office sincerity. I love you. I care about each of you, your well-being, your present and your future. I will support you in whatever way I can. In the eloquent words of my friend Stacey McKenna: "I will be your ally. I will put my body in places to keep you safe and give support. I will speak up when I hear words that perpetuate oppression. I will set aside my privilege to create space for yours. I will do it on your terms."
I am so proud of you. Thank you for you.
Karen’s words and the words of her friend Stacey gave me comfort and showed me that I am a part of a community of people from these marginalized backgrounds who find strength in each other, and who support and uplift each other.

I went to my class, “Women, Gender, and Migration,” and I was relieved that the professor chose to make the first several minutes a safe space for students to talk about their thoughts and feelings regarding the outcome of the election. This professor, a Mexican-American woman who I look up to and appreciate endlessly, said it so well, when she said, “I feel like America just broke up with me.” I feel that too, and I feel like America said, “It’s not us, it’s you.” In the first part of that class, students cried, students were angry, but it was a healthy time and space to process.

I went to another weekly meeting for the Planning Committee for the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice, and I was comforted by a community that promises to continue working together to promote social justice for marginalized groups.

These words and experiences were a breath of fresh air for me.

And after all this, I feel like I’m more certain than ever about who my community is. And this realization is also difficult for me. As I said earlier, I was raised in a conservative Christian denomination. Values I was raised with and people who invested in me in that setting are still near and dear to my heart. They are a part of me, and I love that part of me. But I was devastated to see that in the aftermath of the election results, it was mostly these Christian people who bragged about Trump winning and name-called and dismissed people on the opposing side. It was mostly these Christian people who I saw telling people to get over it and stop acting like babies. It was mostly these Christian people who trivialized the concerns and fears of my other friends and myself. My community is the people around the world who share the same values of equal rights and social justice. I would like to think that those are Christian values, and for me, they very much are. My passion for equal rights and social justice comes from my perspective as a Christian as much as it comes from my position as a woman of color.

But many, many Christians have showed me lately that they are not interested in those values. And that really breaks my heart. As a Christian, I believe that in the aftermath of this election, it is my role and responsibility to act with compassion, with love. Even if I had voted for Trump, as a Christian, I feel that it is my rose to help the hurting. It is not my place to dismiss anyone’s concerns, to mock anyone, or to spread hate and division. It is my duty to hear people out, to comfort them, to respond with love.

I’d like to end with some wise words from my husband...
I am full of curiosity on what these next four years will hold, and I hope that we continue to progress as a nation, progress to a nation that has open arms to the hurting, progress to a nation that listens, that actually uses facts and not emotions to make decisions. And regardless of what the President does that does not change who I am or what I stand for. I will continue to show love to the least of these, I will continue to support the acceptance of refugees, I will continue to support rights for all citizens, not just the rights of people that I agree with or identify as. I will not sit on the side line holding my nose up saying that this is the worst and offer no assistance, I will try to unify people with the similarities that we have instead of pushing the differences to divide us. We are all human after all.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reflections from Kyritz

A short time into my trip, on May 31, I randomly met a couple of people who made an impact on me in unexpected ways...

I was outside Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church for the second time, intending to go to a concert featuring the Berlin Orchestra. I was sitting on the steps outside, waiting for the doors to open, and I tried (and failed at) taking a selfie with the church in the background. I quickly gave up and started people watching, just waiting until the doors opened an I could go in. I was still feeling pretty homesick and still just shocked that I was actually here doing this research. It was all so surreal. I was lost in my thoughts when a man approached me and asked me something in German.

Not understanding, I shook my head. "I'm sorry --" I started.

He cut in and asked, "English?" When I said yes, and he asked, "Can you take a picture of me here?" and held out his phone to me.

"Oh, sure." I said, getting up. He put down the bags he was holding right next to me, and he went up the steps to pose for the picture I would take.

Since moments before I had been struggling to take a selfie, I asked him if he would take a photo of me as well. I remembered reading on a solo female travel blog about Berlin to not hand people your camera or phone and ask them to take a photo of you. It said that people often run off with cameras and phones so if you must, to ask a solo traveler like yourself. Since this guy had left his bags at my feet and phone in my hand, I figured I could trust him with my phone as well (although had I thought about it more, I would have probably taken my credit cards and id out of the slots on my phone case before handing it to him). But I handed him my phone, posed for the photo, and walked over and got it back.

Then he asked me, "Where are you from?," a question I was already used to hearing in Berlin.

"I'm from the U.S.," I answered.

"U.S.A.?!" he asked. "Why you come to Berlin?"

"I'm here for research for my master's degree."

"Ah, nice!" he exclaimed. "What do you research?"

"I'm researching about the challenges for refugees coming to Germany," I answered. This was the short, over-simplified version I'd been telling people to start off.

"I am a refugee!" he told me. "I am from Afghanistan."

"Oh really?" I was glad for this serendipitous meeting.

"Yes, and my friend, here she comes," he pointed behind me, where a woman was running towards us.

Their names were Zaker and Amena. I chatted with the two of them for a few minutes and found out that they didn't live in Berlin but almost two hours away in a town called Kyritz. (The map below shows Kyritz in relation to Berlin. Kyritz is outlined in red and near the upper left.) Both Zaker and Amena were excited to help me with my research, to be interviewed about their experiences in Germany. They gave me their phone numbers, we connected on facebook, and they said that I should come to Kyritz to visit them. They probably wouldn't be back in Berlin during the time I would be there. They let me know that I would also be welcomed to spend the night at Amena's apartment when I visited.

Initially, I was supposed to make the trip on June 5, my birthday, as it was a Sunday with absolutely nothing to do and the church service at the church where I had been going was canceled. I got up early, took the u-bahn to Alexanderplatz, and waited to catch the RE1 train... and it never came. After a difficult conversation - if you could even call it that - with a man at the information desk who barely spoke any English, I realized that train wouldn't be coming at all that day.

I didn't end up getting to Kyritz until June 27. I took a regional train, and when Zaker met me at the station, we took another train, this one a little one-car train smaller than most buses. We went to a stop called Wusterhausen where we walked a bit before reaching a building where Zaker attends a German class. After observing the class for a while, we took the little train again to the main part of Kyritz where Zaker and Amena both have apartments.

I went with Zaker up to his apartment. There was a small hallway and three doors, one of which we went through. The room had metal lockers and drawers along the right wall, a table with four chairs just in front of that, and a sitting area with two couches on either side of a coffee table. Two of the walls were lined with beds, two on either side for a total of four, although Zaker informed me that only three men lived in the room at the moment. I sat on one of the couches, and he took a seat next to it on his bed. He gave me juice and placed a small cake on a plate before me. Although he was fasting for Ramadan, he insisted that I eat and cut a piece of the cake. We sat and talked, and soon Zaker said he had things he wanted to show me. He went over to one of the lockers and withdrew a large, yellow envelope. He took out different certificates, reports, and documents and showed them each to me, explaining what they were. This was a report card showing his high school grades (which were all very high), this was a photocopy of his id card, this was a certificate of completion of a training program for translators, this was a book from his university which included a photograph of him and some work he did, this was his id when he was working as a translator with the United States military in Afghanistan. He seemed proud of each thing he showed me, and he handled his papers very carefully. I thought about how fortunate he was to have been able to carry so many documents with him to Germany; many refugees leave without being able to gather birth certificates, id cards, and passports or lose such documents along the way, which becomes problematic when they file for asylum in Europe.

After talking a little more, I was able to interview both Zaker and another man who was living in one of the other rooms of the apartment about their experiences and challenges in Germany. Shortly before the second interview was finished, Amena showed up with a little girl.

"Ah, come here, my daughter," Zaker said as he hugged the little girl and put her on his lap.

"Don't say that!" Amena shouted at him. "She is not your daughter!"

Zaker gave the little girl some colored pencils and paper to entertain herself. I couldn't help but notice that Amena, who upon our first meeting had seemed excited and energetic, seemed like a light had gone from her eyes. She seemed rather lethargic, tired, and weighed down. Smiling seemed to take a great effort as she greeted me, and she sat on the couch kind of slumping as if she was exhausted or defeated. When I finished up the second interview, I asked Amena if she would be okay with me interviewing her too. She said she didn't think so, and when Zaker tried to convince her, she asked what kind of things I would ask her.

"I'll just ask you questions about your experiences in Germany so far, what it's like here, what kinds of things are difficult, the things you like and don't like about being here..." I explained.

"Nothing is good! Nothing is easy!" she exclaimed. "Here, you need the permission for everything. And I am so boring here. I cannot do anything. I cannot work or take the German class or anything. It is not good."

That was as much as I got from her before she asked Zaker if we could all go out to Seestraße. Zaker, Amena, Amena's daughter, and I went outside. Amena put her daughter in a seat on her bicycle, and we walked, Zaker and Amena pushing their bicycles. We encountered an older, German woman who shouted and waved as she saw Zaker and Amena and greeted them with hugs when we were closer. She asked Amena about taking a plot of a garden, and Amena said she wouldn't have the time to tend to it since she was starting a German course soon, and the only course the job center could place her in was in Neuruppin, which required her to take a bus for over an hour each way. The woman was very understanding, but she wanted Amena to figure out a way she could still take care of the garden and suggested that maybe she and some friends could do it together. They said they would talk more about it later. Zaker introduced me to the woman, and she was surprised that I would come from the U.S. all the way to little Kyritz to research.

It was quite a distance to Seestraße, and during the last stretch, Amena rode her bicycle with her daughter on the back and I rode on the back of Zaker's bicycle. During the journey, Zaker informed me that Amena was here without her husband, just she and her daughter, and that her husband was back in Syria. He said that he tries to be her friend and help her as much as he can because he knows it's hard for a woman to come alone. When we got to the end of Seestraße, we reached our destination, a lake called Untersee. The map below shows the train station where the little train stops with a red star next to it, part of our route, including Seestraße, in red, and the lake with an arrow over it.

Once we arrived, Zaker suggested that we take a paddle boat out on the water and paid the few euros required to do so. We spent about two hours out paddling around on the lake. We stopped and docked out tiny boat at the little island you can see in the map above, and we spent some time walking around and swinging there. Afterwards, we paddled around some more, and Zaker even jumped in for a swim.

When we got back to the shore, we met a few other men who Zaker and Amena know, and we spent some time by the lake. There was a small playground that Amena's daughter enjoyed. Zaker and I walked the lake and talked while Amena sat beside an older, Syrian man.

Zaker told me about wanting to get a SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) and go to the United States. He told me about working as a translator with the military and about how when the unit he was working with left Afghanistan, he was totally unprotected and the Taliban threatened him and his family. He was seen as a traitor for working with people from the United States. He told me about how the situation got worse and worse and how finally, his father told him that he thought it would be best if he left Afghanistan. Zaker made his way to Europe and ended up in Germany, but there was no guarantee that he would be granted refugee status. I learned from various people while I was in Germany that Syrians are pretty much guaranteed refugee status and that the whole process for them usually goes relatively quickly and smoothly. The same is true for most people from Iraq, and people from certain parts of Iran and Eritrea. But the fate of people from other countries is less certain. Where you are fleeing from might determine whether you have an actual shot at getting to stay in Germany or whether you will be deported. If your country is recognized as a safe country, your chances are slim. Zaker told me that the Afghan government met with the German government and told them that Afghanistan was safe and that they would take Afghans who tried to claim refugee status in Germany back, and that severely minimizes the chances of an Afghan getting to stay in Germany. Zaker was doing everything he could to show that he should be allowed to stay in Germany. He found a way to enroll in a German class even though most refugees are not allowed to until their case has been closed and they have been granted full status. He had already worked up to the intermediate level, and he studied constantly. He tried to help other refugees as much as possible, often going with them to translate. He was not allowed to work because of his status, but he wanted to. I could tell he was terrified of the thought of returning to Afghanistan, and with good reason. Meanwhile, Zaker informed me, "You see these men?" referring to the three Syrian men we had met on shore. "They already had their cases heard. Now they can stay here, they can enroll in a German course, they can work. But what do they do? They take the money from the job center. Here they are every day, just fishing. They wake up and hang around, they come here to the water, they take some fish, they go home and cook the fish, and they do it again the next day. If the job center asks him, 'Why you not have a job?' he will say, 'How can I find a job. I don't speak the language' but he doesn't want to learn either." It seemed that Zaker felt that the Syrian men were wasting their opportunity, and I think if he were given the same opportunity, he would probably use it better.

Before we went back into town, we decided I would stay with Amena that night and go back to Berlin the next day. I was a little hesitant to agree to this at first, but after spending the day with them, I felt like it would be okay. Plus, we would have had to rush to get to the train station before the last little train went to the main station where I could catch a regional train back to Berlin. We stopped at a grocery store on our way back to get food for dinner, and a man outside the store greeted Zaker and showed him some papers. He and Zaker spoke for several minutes while I waited. Amena and her daughter had gone in. After a while, Zaker apologized and told me that the man had to go to an appointment at the school but that the paper explaining all this was in German so he couldn't read it. Zaker told me that he would go to the appointment, which was in just under an hour, with the man to help him by translating and that he would come to Amena's apartment and eat with us later.

Amena's apartment was much larger than where Zaker stayed. There was a bathroom and a good sized kitchen, a living room with two couches and a table, and a bedroom with a queen sized bed that she and her daughter shared. Amena gave me some clothes that I could sleep in, and I watched "Baba Sanfwr" (The Smurfs in Arabic) with her daughter on her laptop while she cooked dinner. She made a delicious meal, and when Zaker arrived around 9:30, we ate. Amena put her daughter to bed, but the three of us stayed up talking until well after midnight. When Zaker left, we went to bed.

The next morning, Amena fixed breakfast of some hummus and bread and some tomatoes, and we ate before she and her daughter walked me to the train station. As I left Kyritz, I was overwhelmed with heartache. I didn't feel it so much on the little train, but once I was on the regional train and settled in for the hour-long ride back to Berlin, I even got teary. I spent just over 24 hours in that place with those people, and it felt more like home than my apartment in Berlin did. On my way there, I was nervous, uncertain, unsure about being so far out of Berlin and in the company of people who were basically strangers who I had met only briefly once. But as I left, I felt like Zaker and Amena were my dear friends. Still now, my heart breaks at the thought that I really might never see them again.

Note: As the people I referred to in this post are also research participants, pseudonyms were used to protect confidentiality.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Out On my Own

When I was planning my trip to Berlin for this research, over and over I was asked, "Is Michael coming with you?" Now, this is a logical question. We are married. I would be gone for several weeks. But somehow the question always took me by surprise. When I answered, "No, he's not," most people were shocked and responded with gasps and exclamations of, "Really?!," "Aren't you scared?!," or "You're going to be so lonely!" This is troubling and kind of problematic to me. Although, yes, I have been so dependent on Michael as a source of comfort, love, and care for years as my best friend, my boyfriend, my fiance, and my husband, I've still always considered myself pretty independent. This isn't to say, "Oh, I don't need him." It's just to say, well, I consider myself to be very capable on my own. I've dealt with a lot in life, and while it's extremely comforting to have someone going through life by my side now, I still don't want to lose sight of myself as a strong and capable woman.

Anyways, I would have liked to have Michael come along, to be honest. He's my best friend and my husband; obviously I enjoy his company. But first, I thought I'd barely be able to afford to go on my own and was hoping for just enough funding to get by. Once I realized that a lot of different funding sources wanted to offer me funding and figured that I would definitely be able to afford my own trip, I thought that maybe we could swing it to buy him a plane ticket so he could come too. But, by that point, I was only a couple weeks out from my departure date, and it was a little late to start the process to get him a passport (which I didn't think about until then). Part of me was pretty disappointed that I'd be away from him for seven weeks, but part of me was excited to solo travel.

Once I got here, it was a different story though. The first few days were extremely rough. I cried. A lot. I felt like 50 days solo abroad was going to be impossible. I was scared, lonely, and overwhelmed. I don't know when exactly things started changing for me; it happened kind of slowly I guess. I read a quotation that said something like, "Traveling alone allows you to enjoy your own company," and I realized that I didn't much like my own company. So at that point, maybe about one week into my trip, I decided that a sort of sub-project during my time here would be to figure out how to enjoy my own company, to work on myself.

The Guy on the U

After taking the u-bahn for the first time to get to church on my first Sunday here, I also had to take it to get back to my apartment. I had gone to lunch with the pastor and his family after church, and I had a pizza box with my leftovers that I carried with me, which I think must have been what was getting me several strange looks on the u-bahn.

When I was about half way there, a man sitting in the car just across from me looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back, and he asked, "Do you speak English?" The question brought me a strange relief, maybe because I had been having a bit of difficulty navigating Berlin in English, only knowing a handful of German words. I answered, "yes," and he proceeded to ask me where I was from and how long I had been living in Berlin. Our short conversation before he exited the train led to me giving him my name as it appears on facebook so we could connect. Now, I'm not usually one to give a total stranger any information about me, but what can I say? I was kind of desperate to make friends since I'm in this city alone, and I felt like facebook was a safe enough way to connect.

And we did connect. We decided to meet at 2pm the following Friday, May 27, to go get coffee or something. When we met up, we got on the train and he asked me about what I was doing in Berlin. After telling him that I'm here to research about refugees, he stopped me and said that I have to meet his friend who is with Singa Deutschland. Instead of going to get coffee, we got off the train, got on another train, and went to Kottbusser Tor. When we got off the train, he began walking briskly as I took two steps for every one of his to keep up. We ended up at Betahaus, where I was able to meet the founder of Singa and set up a time to interview her. I was also able to go to Singa's Livingroom Storytelling event last Thursday, which I think was a great way to get to know some people and seems to be a wonderful part of Singa's work.

The Livingroom Storytelling events are open for usually fewer than 15 people (this includes "newcomers" and "locals") and have some topic that they work around. I was told that one past topic was the meaning of your name. Thursday, June 2, the topic was your earliest memory. So the topics do not focus on some aspect of "the refugee experience," but instead seem to be centered on the human experience more generally. Personally, I think this is so great. In my studies, I've come across the term "the refugee experience" over and over. As academics, it's a phrase that indicates the experience of being in conflict or instability, the experience of fleeing, the experience of being in camps, the experience of being in transit, and the experience of resettlement. "The refugee experience" refers to all that in a neat, three-word phrase. I think Singa's work really challenges this, though. Singa sees refugees as people, which is not necessarily the case for all organizations. That's part of why Singa refers to the people volunteering in and benefiting from their work as "newcomers" and "locals." It doesn't have the connotation of legal status - rather, it just indicates whether you're new in Berlin or not. I really appreciate this terminology, and I feel like it's really useful.

Note: Photo above from Singa's Livingroom Storytelling Facebook event.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The First Few Days, or The Welcoming

As I've said, I'm behind on blogging... This post will focus mainly on a few moments during my first week or so here in Berlin during which I felt particularly welcomed or just moved by an act of kindness.

After spending a couple days on my own, wandering around my neighborhood by foot and trying to work up the confidence to get on the u-bahn (I was terrified that I was going to get hopelessly lost the second I got on), I finally was forced to give public transportation a try. I had connected with the Pentecostal missionaries here in Berlin and decided that I would be going to their church while I'm here. Moment of honesty: Although church has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember, in the last year, I realize it's really taken a much lower place on my list of priorities. I think this happened for a number of reasons... My pastor and his family, all of whom I loved dearly, moved away last February, this meant I was no longer as involved in that church since I didn't need to be around to coach their girls in Bible quizzing. We went through a period of looking for a new pastor, and I started skipping mid-week services with the excuse of being bust with school (which I really was in my last semester of my undergraduate degrees, finishing up two theses and classes). We got a new pastor by April or May, but then I had moved back to Denver for the summer before I would move up to Wyoming for graduate school in August. Since I was only going to be there for a short time, I didn't get involved in the church in Denver and sometimes I drove up to Loveland to go to church there instead. I felt like suddenly, I was no longer connected; for the first time in my life, I didn't have a church that I considered to be "my" church. Anyway, once I moved to Wyoming, I was coming to Denver almost every weekend to see my family, my fiance, and take care of wedding stuff. We got married in September, Michael moved to Wyoming, and we tried to figure out the church situation. Having both been in the Pentecostal church for years, we first went to the UPC church in Laramie. Without going into detail, I'll just say that we talked and decided we didn't want to be there. During the past school year, we spent a few Sundays visiting other churches, a couple Sundays at the UPC church, a couple at Loveland, several Sundays in Denver at our old church, and many Sundays at home. To be honest, although at one point in my life I would have been extremely convicted about missing so much church, during the school year, I didn't mind at all. I didn't feel bad. I kind of shrugged it off. Yet, I know that I want to be involved and connected in a church again, and I keep telling myself that I need to figure out where we need to be so we can reconnect. Anyway, although I haven't been consistently going to church for a while, I determined to do so while in Berlin both because I thought church would be good for me and because I knew I'd have a lot of alone time and could probably use the company.

So Sunday, May 22, I had to take two different underground trains to get to the church. And you know what? It wasn't hard at all! I had really worked myself up with nervousness about public transportation, but it was super simple. At the church, the pastor's family greeted me and asked about my research and how long I would be in Berlin before service started. After church, Pastor Suppan introduced me to a man in their congregation who he said was a refugee and might be able to help me. This man. Brother Sam, immediately said he would love to help and that we should meet the next Saturday and he'd take me to a refugee camp. I was really surprised how quickly he volunteered to help. We exchanged telephone numbers and agreed to meet the coming Saturday.

The next day, on Monday, May 23, I went to meet one of the two translators who will be working with me on my research as needed. We got together, and almost immediately, he volunteered to show me around Berlin a bit. We took the u to Alexanderplatz, where we walked around and got dinner at KFC (his suggestion as it's one of his favorite places). He told me about how he got to Berlin; he himself is a refugee from Syria, and in Syria, his family were refugees from Palestine. We then got on a bus that travels all around the city and passes some major tourist sites. We took the bus to the other end of town by the zoo and walked along the river for a while. Somewhere in conversation it came up that my phone wouldn't work to send texts to German numbers, and he suggested that he lend me an extra phone he had. I'd just have to buy minutes for it. So after walking around a bit more, we went across town again to go to his apartment. He welcomed me in, I met his roommate, and we all talked over some Coke while he charged the phone. I know these are kind of small gestures, showing me around, lending me a phone, pouring me a glass of Coke, but really, they meant the world to me.

The welcoming continued on Saturday when I met Brother Sam to go to the refugee camp. I took a train from Alexanderplatz to meet him, and then we got on a bus. When we got on, he motioned for where I should sit and stood in the aisle waiting for me to get into the seat nearest the window of the bus. He saw some people he apparently knew further back in the bus and took a few steps over to them to talk for a moment. When he came back and sat next to me, he asked how I was liking Berlin, checked that I got to Köngis Wusterhausen, the train station where we had met, with no problem. He explained that we had to pay extra for the bus because this was travelling within the C zone. I remembered reading about that on a website with information about public transportation in Berlin before coming. We talked as we rode along, and he commented that the camp was pretty far away from the train station. As we got closer, he noted, “I have not been to the camp since I left. Once I could get out, I never looked back.” I felt even more appreciative thinking about how it could be tough for him to return.

When we got off the bus, he approached three younger guys, probably about my own age, who had also gotten off the bus. He introduced me, and they each shook my hand and greeted me with smiles. As we waited for the cars that had stopped behind the bus to pass so we could cross the street, one passenger who was young and white, I assume German, leaned out of his rolled down window and made sort of loud, barking noises at us. A couple of the young men shook their heads, and Brother Sam told me, “You see, this kind of things happens to us. Some people will say bad things or yell at us, but we just must let it go. What can we do?” When we crossed the street, Brother Sam explained that I was a student at a university in America and I’m doing some research about refugees and then said, “Well, maybe you can explain better.” I told them that I was doing research about why refugees come to Germany and what kinds of challenges they have here.We walked a short distance along a fence to a gate, and one of the guys retrieved a key from his pocket. We entered the camp without a problem. It struck me as somehow odd that there was no procedural hassle getting in. I expected to have to check in, to have to tell someone who I was and why I was there, but the gate was unmanned, and as far as I could tell, no camp officials were present. Brother Sam had told me that I might be surprised by the camp as it wasn’t just tents or something. I thought that it might be like a large facility, a gymnasium or something, with makeshift cubicles within. However, the camp was much like dorms, the buildings resembling apartment buildings.

We followed the three guys we were with into one of the buildings, and we went up the stairs into one of their rooms. It was small, but not much smaller than the main room of the apartment I have here. There were two beds on the left, and closets, a table and chairs on the right. The guy, Mesfin, pulled a chair out and told me to sit there, so I did. He asked if Brother Sam and I would like water, orange juice, or Coke and pulled out a few cups. I thanked him and told him I had a water bottle, but he poured me some water anyway. Mesfin took another chair, and Brother Sam took a seat on the bed. My interviews would start with Mesfin and Tesfay, two of the three guys. The third, who didn’t seem to be understanding much of our conversation before, kind of disappeared when we got to Mesfin’s room. Brother Sam was also there, and part of the way through, Mesfin’s roommate, Merhawi, came in. After we finished up in Mesfin’s room, Mesfin and Brother Sam took me down the hallway to see the community bathroom and kitchen and then down the stairs to another room where I met Marwan, a Syrian man. Mesfin stayed during this interview, but Brother Sam left to try to find more people.  Brother Sam sent in three more people, and after finishing up with that group, Brother Sam took me to a family room where we talked with a lady, Sanura, for a few minutes before running to catch the bus. We ran up to say good bye to Mesfin before leaving, and he had made us a pizza, which he insisted we take with us. It amazes me how people with so little can be so generous.

From Brother Sam's generous offer to take me back to the refugee camp he used to live in, to my translator's several hours spent chatting with me, showing me around Berlin, and giving me Coke and a cell phone, to Mesfin's hospitality in his small room in the refugee camp, in the first few days of my time in Berlin, I was warmly welcomed again and again in several small ways that I will always remember.

Note: As many of the people I referred to in this post are research participants, several names are pseudonyms to protect confidentiality.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Kottbusser Tor

A few days after I arrived here in Berlin, on Tuesday, May 24, I visited Kottbusser Tor for the first time. If the rest of Berlin is loud and crowded, Kottbusser Tor is deafening and bursting. The place is overflowing with life. People hurry past to and from the U-Bahn station, a grocery store, restaurants, cafes, other small shops, and apartments seem to be piled on top of each other, people are shouting, intersections are full of traffic.

I went to Kottbusser Tor on that Tuesday to meet one of the students from the Freie University of Berlin who will be working with me as a translator as needed. I had only Skyped and emailed her before, but once I got here we decided to meet up, and she suggested Kottbusser Tor. We would meet in front of the Kaiser's (a grocery store), where some apparently homeless people sat, where people came up from and went down to the U, and where I stood awkwardly waiting for about 15 minutes. As she was running late, she ended up texting me to go to Cafe Kotti, which was just a bit down Adalbertstrasse and up some stairs.I found it pretty easily, which surprised me, and I sat in a cloud of cigarette smoke and ordered a chai tea.

Since that Tuesday, Kottbusser Tor has become a favorite area of mine to stop and wander around. The stop is on my way to my apartment most times (it depends of which U-Bahn I'm taking), and if I have extra time, I actually enjoy getting off there and wandering around. I thought the part of Schoneberg where I live was diverse, but Kottbusser Tor is even more so. Japanese, Singaporean, Chinese, Thai, Turkish, Indian, and even Mexican restaurants line Oranienstrasse, a street close by the U-Bahn stop. An array of smaller cafes, clothing stores, electronic stores, random knickknack stores, book stores, etc. are crammed together. People crowd the sidewalks and cars pack the streets. People sit on the curbs, against buildings, or in the middle of the sidewalks begging, eating, or just taking a break. According to the Wikipedia page, the area is known for drug-related crime and is also affectionately referred to as "Kotti."

And there at Kottbusser Tor, this busy, bustling, brimming corner of the world, is Betahaus. Betahaus is probably the coolest working environment I've ever seen. I went there for the first time on May 27, when I met up with a guy who I had randomly met on the U-Bahn the previous Sunday afternoon. I told him a bit about what I was doing here, and just like that, he decided I had to meet a friend of his who runs an organization called Singa Deutschland (more about them in an upcoming post). We went there and talked to her briefly, and I'm getting at least one interview and also meeting some more fantastic people as a result! The second time I went to Betahaus was to meet someone who works with MigrantHire, which is a fantastic organization that is striving to help newcomers coming to Berlin as refugees and migrants find jobs. I had the opportunity to interview someone involved in this work, which was just inspiring.

Clearly, I'm a little behind on posting about how things are going, but more about my trip to come soon!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Willkommen in Berlin

Berlin. A conglomerate of cultures.

My first impression was that it was a place of contradictions where opposites of every kinds might be found. Now, I believe it would more accurately be described as a conglomerate because while "contradiction" implies that there are two opposing factors, "conglomerate" is more descriptive of the mix of several things, held together by something indescribable.

I've been in Berlin for just over a week now, and I have just under six more weeks to spend here in this interesting city. I have a studio/economy apartment in Schoneberg in a neighborhood apparently known for its variety of gay bars and cafes and Turkish food. In a few block radius of my apartment, you could find several gay bars, cafes, and clothing stores, Turkish restaurants, Indian restaurants, and several massage studios and antique stores. Also in the area are several cafes, a burger place, pizza, Vietnamese food, Korean BBQ, Thai food, a hookah bar, a book store, and a couple grocery stores. Eclectic.

Berlin seems to be home to people with every shade of skin, every background, from every culture. This crowded, dirty, noisy city seems to be packed with people from all walks of life.

Graffiti in Schoneberg