The room is dark.
The windows are blocked off by thick fleece blankets in hopes of providing makeshift privacy. “Salaam alaikum” I call, pausing at the door of room 9. When I hear no reply, I ascend the metal steps that lead into a dully lit entry way. I call again, this time tugging on the fleece blanket that serves as a door to the bunk room where my friend lives. “Salaam?” I stand there, staring into space.
This small, dark space houses at least twenty people. Thin blankets separate families who fled their own homes for peace and safety, only to be stuck within the confines of a camp. They wait, day after day for interviews.
“Tomorrow.” The officials promise, “Tomorrow we will interview you. Tomorrow you will get your papers. Tomorrow you can leave this place.” But they’ve been saying that for months. There simply aren’t enough interviewers to keep up with the constant flow of refugees arriving on the island. The patience of those who’ve been waiting here for months is running thin. They’re stuck in the spinning cycle of a massive refugee crisis. Spinning into perfect motionlessness, or so it seems.
A blur of movement in my peripheral brings me back from my reverie. I glance up to see a small yellow bird flitting and fluttering inside a cage. The bird looks at me and then tucks its head underneath its wing. But it’s too late, the picture is stuck in my head.
The bird is yellow. The color of hope.
I take another look at the bird in its cage, still hiding. Then I take a deeper look at my surroundings. For a moment, I put myself into my friends shoes and realize with sudden clarity why she identifies with this bird.
She feels confined. Caged in a life that she never thought she would have to live.
She once had a happy life in a beautiful city, surrounded by friends and family.
She went to school and held a good job. Her future looked bright and promising.
Until war came and tore from her all that she knew and loved. She fled for her life, hoping to rebuild the happy life she once knew.
“I am tired,” she sighs when I ask her how she is today.
Tired. It describes so well how we feel when life knocks us flat. It’s a severe tiredness that even sleep can’t cure. It’s a tiredness of the soul.
I walk away.
I am able to walk away.
It is harder than I expected; to be the free one while seeing so many bound.
I have a happy life; similar to the life she once had. But I have the ability to walk right back into my life. She doesn’t. It feels unfair.
The room is bright.
A few of us have gathered at a house not far from camp to say goodbye to one of our other friends who is leaving the next day. I find my spot on the rug and listen attentively as another one of our friends unzips his back back and pulls out a hand-drawn map. He unpacks his story. “This is how the attack happened.” He points to his hometown first, then runs his finger over the surface of this wrinkled paper and starts in one corner of the map, pointing out the first city that was overtaken by terrorism and finishing when he comes full circle. “They attacked all of the cities in my region.” He and his wife fled to Mount Sinjar and made the dangerous journey from there through Turkish mountains and across the sea to come to the island of Lesvos.
His way of processing the trauma of war is to draw a map of exactly how the attacks happened and to carry it with him wherever he goes.
His wife sits next to him, silent. She hasn’t been able to talk for days. His hand rests on her knee as he continues unfolding the details of their story. We listen and then are taken aback as his wife slumps over, collapsing by his side. Another panic attack. He is so accustomed to dealing with the attacks by now that he simply pauses his story, props up her head and starts massaging her feet, hoping to bring circulation back to her traumatized body. A kind, motherly sort jumps up to get a cold washcloth to bathe the woman’s face. Someone else brings pillows to prop up her feet and head. And the story continues. Her panic attack lasts twenty minutes but it feels like an eternity. The room is silent except for his riveting words. We take in the scene sobered by his story, by the reality of the trauma that it has imposed on both of them. We all breathe a sigh of relief when her muscles relax and she is able to sit up again.
I look at her, my heart heavy with compassion that I can’t effectively communicate. We speak the language of silence as we look at each other. Words don’t do justice to the injustice that she has faced. Her face tells a story so much deeper than words. I’ve been so focused on listening to the words of his story and the unfolding drama of her panic attack that I had completely overlooked the words written in tiny print on her T-shirt. I had not noticed what it said until now.
“Free as a bird.”
So many broken stories are told to me with only tiny threads of hope woven through them. I have to search hard for those threads, among the torn fabric of their stories.
I scroll through news articles and see black and white pictures from history telling the same story of thousands of refugees in the past. These stories are coming to life.
They’re in full color, right before my eyes.
I cannot singlehandedly end the crisis. But I can offer aid to them in their time here in camp. I can extend myself to them as a friend.
My job isn’t to interview them and give them the stamp of approval to move beyond camp and resettle them into countries where they can rebuild their life.
But I can listen. I can retell their story, to the best of my ability. I can see it in the eyes of those brave enough to tell their story; each time that they tell their story, it unlocks the pain.
I came here hoping to extend hope these people. But I held my guard up high, not wanting to tell my own story of brokenness. It felt insignificant in comparison to the trauma that these people have experienced. I wasn’t brave at first. I kept my story inside, under the pretense that I needed to listen their stories.
But one day, as I drank tea with one of my friends, she asked. And my story with its complexity came tumbling out. She seemed surprised.
C.S. Lewis says, “Friendship is born the moment when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
When we choose to be vulnerable, our innermost isolation gets sliced away. We’re left exposed, but oddly comforted. Because we are no longer alone in the fight. We are seen. Known.
It’s a powerful moment.
There’s a certain strength that comes of admitting how weak we are.
During my summer in the refugee camp, I realized that though our struggles and losses vary in size and shape; they are still struggles and losses. No loss or struggle is insignificant. As humans, we tend to respond to hurt similarly, no matter how slight or severe.
I have believed in the power of story telling for a long time now. I’ve known that telling our own story brings freedom. But I’ve whispered it through bars. I talked of freedom while being held in a cage of fear. I hid my face, hoping that no one would ask the story behind my badly injured wing.
I wanted to be able to fly, to soar in the heights. But instead I was stuck, hobbling along the floor of my cage. Unable to speak. Unable to stretch out my wings and fly.
Fear is still a battle for me. But it’s a battle that I don’t fight alone. Every time I tell my story, I become a little stronger. The fear diminishes. And I stand a little taller, a little stronger.
It’s clear to me now that it’s not just my friend who identifies with the caged bird; I do too.
This is the story of humanity.
Once broken and bound.
But given the wonderful opportunity to be liberated by the transforming power of the gospel.
In spite of the weight of hearing so many difficult stories, I have hope. This hope is an enduring thread that’s being woven into the story of my life. Hope mends my brokenness. Hope is what I have to offer to those whose stories I have the privilege to hear.
My face doesn’t have to be hidden anymore. My wounds are healing and turning to scars that tell stories of the faithfulness of my God.