They were strangers
…still are. Nevertheless they have moved, taught and changed me.
The school finals were approaching when I was trying to decide what to dedicate the following year to. My father suggested going straight to university, but I was unsure of what I would study. My mother suggested working as an au pair, but I would have preferred to live on my own for a change. My friends suggested traveling to South East Asia and Australia, but I could not afford the expenses. What I wanted was, to spend a gap year doing something meaningful and thought provoking. It was around that time that the so called ‘refugee wave’ began to hit Germany. I had heard about Syrians fleeing their home country which had turned into a war zone, but suddenly the topic seemed to be getting closer and more prominent. News feeds started filling up with images of packed rubber boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The risks that the people on those boats had to take, trying to reach safety and personal peace, shocked me deeply. Prior to this I had been unable to comprehend how fortunate I was. Growing up with little else to worry about other than math homework and what to spend my pocket money on, was something my naive teenage self had taken for granted. However, I soon realized that talking about wanting to help and actually doing so, are two different things. I was overwhelmed and unsure of how to approach such a large and pressing issue. It was at that time that my application for a ‘European Voluntary Service’ position in Denmark was accepted. I then knew that I would be spending the following nine months volunteering in German-Danish education institutions and therefore, I put my plans of working with refugees on hold. I moved to Sønderborg, a city in the South of Denmark, so close to Northern Germany, that many locals actually speak German. Following the Danish news, I got a new insight into the European refugee situation. At the time Sweden seemed to be the most popular destination among migrants due to the country’s rather liberal asylum policy. Thousands of people would therefore make their way to Sweden through Germany and Denmark, something only possible thanks to the abolishment of border controls in the Schengen area, signed long ago. Living in Denmark I occasionally spent my weekends in Flensburg, a German city located in the Northern border region. There I could see the crowds of people entering trains and busses which were going towards Scandinavia. I was amazed by the perfectly functioning helper network, which I discovered at the Flensburg train station. Volunteers were coordinating donations and helped with itineraries. Without further ado I signed up and was gratefully welcomed into the helper team. I only helped out at the train station on a couple of afternoons, which meant that I sorted clothes, handed out tea and prepared food. But while doing so I saw various people. Men, women and children with all kinds of expressions on their faces. I remember looking into different eyes: tired, thankful, friendly, glinting and dancing eyes. The one thing these people had in common was probably the feeling of uncertainty. They had left their homes and had come an unbelievably long way for them to be so far North. However, anything that was about to happen form there was only subject to speculation. Thinking back I can not help but wonder: Did they reach their destination before Scandinavian countries closed their borders? If so, were they even granted asylum? Have they found a place to call home? Or rather: do they feel welcome? Did they manage to reunite with any of their loved ones? And most importantly: Do they feel safe? I ask myself these questions, wondering where those people are now and how they have changed, despite them only being strangers. Nevertheless, the brief memories these strangers and I share, have had an impact on me personally. It includes the notion that very little is needed for meaningfully actions. One can offer limited time and few resources and still make a difference. Helping hands are needed everywhere.