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 K├Ângis 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.

1 comment:

  1. This amazes me and nearly brings me to tears. I am so proud of you for doing this research. So many people in this world are so close-minded and would never think of other people like you do. I am humbled by the generosity of those you visited. Like you said the people with so little can be so generous. I look forward to reading more....

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