I had never been more nervous for an interview in my life then I was in February, when I was sitting in the passenger seat next to my photographer, who drove us to a small village near my town to meet with two Syrian refugees. I had limited experience speaking to people from war torn countries, and even with a prepared set of questions I still had no idea where to begin.
I knew even before I had arrived in Germany that I wanted to cover the refugee situation, and was thankful enough that my publication, Ethos magazine, had given me full support in pursuing this story. It took some time for me to find refugees who were open enough to share their experiences, and to gain permission from the German center who housed one of them. I had conducted two interviews with a Bosnian and Nigerian refugee already, and these two Syrian men would make my last profiles.
The men had moved since I had first met them, from a flat shared with three other young male refugees to single apartments. We met at the home of Mohammed Salweh, where his friend Hosam Helwah was also waiting for us with coffee. I didn’t even have the opportunity to worry about the language or cultural barrier because we were instantly welcomed in.
As we spoke, I couldn’t help but think about how many people I knew back home who were against the refugees and didn’t see the group as people, but as terrorists or a burden, an “other” that didn’t deserve help or a chance at survival. I thought about this as Helwah told me how he had to weigh the decision to leave his country and family, or stay and be forced into the army where he could be killed; or when Saleh told me that he hadn’t heard from his father in over a year, and had no way of knowing if he was still alive.
In that moment, I wanted everyone who had a negative opinion about refugees to have the same opportunity I had to talk with one, to hear their story and understand why they are risking their life to escape a country that they love, in order to come to a place where many don’t want them.
“We come here to escape from war and have good life,” Saleh explained to me. That new life doesn’t even mean staying in Europe forever, for many it is just a temporary home. Helwah said that for the majority of Syrians, they want to return back in order to rebuild and “start again.” They say everyone just hopes for peace to return to their country.
We are so busy searching for the differences between us and the refugees that we forget that they’re humans too. The skin color or religion may be different, but it doesn’t make their lives any less than ours, or their struggles any less legitimate. Especially when one of the countries giving such harsh criticism about the refugee crisis is also the country whose people swear that they will move depending on who is elected into office.
Now, we in Lane County actually have the opportunity to welcome in three families of refugees, thanks to help from the local charities and religious organizations. We now have a chance to help and learn from them, and be an example of tolerance and openness for the rest of the country.
For the German citizens of the village Bronnweiler, the arrival of Helwah, Saleh, and the other Syrian refugees has done nothing but positive things for them. During my first meeting with Helwah and Saleh, I spoke also with members of the village who told me that in preparing for the refugees, the citizens had grown closer to one another, which has continued with the inclusion of their new neighbors.
One of these citizens, Hugo Speth, who I met through Professor Laufer at the University of Oregon, explained to me that they wanted to welcome the refugees in because there is so much fear in Germany for them, and if they could prove that it was possible to not only integrate them, but create a relationship from the very beginning, it would make the whole transition process easier. The village wanted to make life as easy as possible for them, and retired teachers have even offered to help teach German. For the whole eight months that I have been in contact with Speth, Helwah, and Saleh there has been no incidents or problems.
The US has a history of not accepting refugees, such as Jewish children during the second world war, and now we have the chance to personally keep the Syrian death toll from rising. Are we really going to let our fear get in the way?