This fall I embarked on the journey of a lifetime during Semester At Sea, traveling with a group of 600 unknown college students on a ship to 13 different countries and 3 continents over 104 days.
I have so many stories and adventures I hope to share, but due to the recent headlines in our country I am compelled to share one in particular.
“Are you American?”
Yes! The great melting pot! Land of the free and home of the brave!
Prior to my trip the statement “I am American” was one that I said with pride and hope.Doesn’t every country want to be like America?
This was what I believed until Greece, when my Multiculturalism In The Media class was granted government access to accompany the organization Emphasis to visit a refugee camp. No phones were allowed, and we were the first “outsiders” to be let in other than the organization.
Emphasis is an organization that initially started to help with the major homelessness issue on the streets of Athens. Last winter, as their already poverty stricken country began to flood with refugees, they knew that their help was needed elsewhere. There are three main refugee camps in Greece, all of which are at maximum capacity. Emphasis is barely allowed to come only once a week to the Elliniko camp which holds around 1800 Afghan refugees. During their few hours there, the Emphasis volunteers play with the kids of the camp, something that makes a positive impact in the lives of the refugee children who are facing severe trauma. Giving these kids the freedom and space to simply be kids helps with their emotional and physical health.
“Please never refer to this as the refugee crisis,” an Emphasis leader explained to us on the bus ride to the camp, “we prefer, refugee situation. Crisis implies it is a bad thing. This is
simply a situation that needs our help.”
“But what about terrorists?” one of my American peers shouts out. “Aren’t you afraid of bringing terrorists into your country?”
I have never seen such a divide in a way of thinking than the perception we Americans had of refugees versus the perception the Greeks held. The Emphasis volunteers told us about how the people we were going to meet today were just like us. They had successful jobs, homes they decorated, with pictures of their families on the wall, they had homework assignments due, dreams for their futures, birthday parties, and pets. They were forced to leave their normal lives in exchange for their safety, something we couldn’t even fathom. They boarded boats not knowing where they were going, with living conditions so poor that many died in the process. They were the victims here, not the enemy.
“You know what is funny,” one of the Emphasis volunteers began, “you Americans started this war, yet you don’t want to open your doors to any of the refugees you caused suffering to.”
The bluntness of his words wrestled around in my stomach and still echo in my mind today. Silence fell over the bus.
Over the next couple of hours we played tag, jump roped, made faces, hula-hooped, colored,
sang, hugged, gave Eskimo kisses, and ran around, embracing one another. By the end of the day, as all of us forgot what country we had come from.
We had intelligent conversations and they told me stories of their lives back home, and those they had left behind. They told me about their dreams of becoming a doctor, an artist, a teacher, a singer, a vet. I couldn’t look into their beautiful, hopeful faces, knowing that they probably would never be allowed to enter my world, where they could make those dreams of theirs come true.
Driving away from those faces, not knowing where they were going to end up, haunts me today.
As I am back in San Diego drinking my $5 coffee, looking back on my conversations with those kids makes me feel sick to my stomach. With new and previous travel bans, we have basically said loud and clear that those kids are not welcome in our country.
Al I know for sure is this: I claim to serve and love a God that opens his arms, heart, and
home to anyone who wants to enter. All I can try and do is the same.
I can share my stories, extend love in my day-to-day life, remain hopeful, and open my own home to those in need, regardless of whether my country chooses to do the same.