What Would I Bring with Me?

Refugees are all I can think about now. Refugees from war, from poverty, from violence, from oppression. We have heard about them from Mexico and Central America for years, from Africa and the Middle East into Europe, from Afghanistan to the US, and now from Ukraine into EU countries. 

Pictures haunt us, tired women carrying frightened children, a dead child washed up on a beach, men with exhausted faces following coyotes through the desert, hundreds of families huddled on the floor of a cargo plane.  One thing that strikes me as I see these images is how little in the way of possessions they carry. Of course, they can’t carry much other than themselves, but I wonder…I wonder if I were forced to leave my home, my family and everything I know, what would I try to bring with me?

What would I really need—a change of underwear? First aid kit? Flashlight, water, trail mix, cell phone charger, insurance papers, passport, pictures of my family, my dog? What would I do with my dog?

What else would be important to me? That piece of jewelry I never wear that was once my mother’s? My sons’ baby books? Their little footprints that they give you in the hospital? What things that I rarely look at are important to me, and what if I could never see or touch them again?

My grandparents were economic refugees of the early 1900’s. They didn’t escape to save their lives, but to improve their lives. What treasures did they bring with them as they went through Ellis Island? What couldn’t they bring? They left behind families, language, culture, home, everything they ever knew, never to see those people or things again. They faced a culture of people that didn’t really want “foreigners” and who had no patience for the fact that they spoke no English. There were even siblings born after they left home whom they never met. When my grandfather died in his early 30’s, his family back in Russia likely never knew it, as my grandmother spoke Czech and couldn’t speak or write Russian to tell them. As the years passed, she had to watch helplessly as her family back home lived through two world wars, a worldwide depression, the 1918 Influenza epidemic, and the rise of communism taking over their homeland.

What did they bring with them when they came here? I never saw photographs of their old homes, but they brought memories, they brought their culture and food ways, they brought courage. How much courage did it take for my 16 year-old grandmother to leave Bohemia knowing that she would never ever see her family again? Would I have had that kind of courage? 

What do refugees bring with them today? Sadness. Refugees must be bringing an overwhelming sadness about the need to escape, about what is happening to their country and their remaining family and friends. Sadness that they may never again see their favorite sunset view, or how the change of seasons played out in their garden, or to have the opportunity to laugh and dance at their cousin’s traditional wedding, or to hug their mother.

Fear. Fear that they will never be the same again, they will lose their identity in this new strange land, they will lose the people left behind, that they can’t succeed here in this new place that doesn’t understand what their lives have been like, that this new place will never really feel like home.

Guilt. Guilt that they escaped and so many others didn’t. Guilt that they can’t really help those left behind. Guilt that they were spared but maybe they didn’t deserve it.

Strength. I’m sure each of us has a strength within us that has never been tried, never been challenged. Refugees are forced to reach for that strength and to bring it into every interaction in their new situation. Strength to face the embarrassment of the inevitable mistakes and miscommunication in a new language. Strength to take on jobs they are overqualified for because their qualifications don’t count here. Strength to keep going when they just want to rest, they need to stop and grieve, and when they just want the bad memories to go away.

Courage. That is what these refugees are really bringing with them. Even if there is something in their pockets, something to remind them of home, their most important possession is the courage it takes to leave a place they love, people they love and everything comfortable and familiar and to start again.

Let us each honor these emotions in the refugees we will encounter. Let’s not force ourselves or our ways on them, but let them adapt to the new culture in their own time. Let us recognize that we will never be able to truly understand their lives and their emotional journeys, and realize that we need to be infinitely patient in recognizing that their point of view must of necessity be different from ours.

Let’s be gentle in helping them understand a new way of doing things, never letting them feel inferior for having different expectations or manners or beliefs. Let’s be humble, knowing we can learn from them too, that “different” isn’t “worse” and that each cultural quirk we see in their behavior has a corresponding quirk in they way they see ours.

As we are excited to show them America, let us remember that they will necessarily see it in reference to their lived experience, which we will never be able to truly understand. Let’s try to understand their view of things–like that the sound of fireworks on the 4th of July may be frighteningly like the sound of gunfire, or that Christmas has no meaning in their culture, or that refusing a cup of tea because we’re not thirsty means that to them we are refusing the only hospitality they can offer.

Let’s remember not to ask them to relive trauma by telling us about their escape. If they are constantly asked to tell their story, they are then constantly being forced to relive the trauma with each retelling. 

Let’s finally remember that we can open doors for them, but it is up to them whether they want to walk through those doors. They will need to enter into this culture at their own pace, and sometimes that pace may seem like “2 steps forward, one step back” to us. That’s OK, and it isn’t a reflection on us, on what we have accomplished to bring them here, or on America. Like my grandparents, they can choose to eventually become Americans too, but it will be their choice. When we respect those choices, we are respecting them as people. I’m sure that is just how we would want to be treated if we were ever forced to ask ourselves “What would I bring with me?”

Kathleen Braico