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My meet ups with this survivor went beyond merely meeting to hear her story and write the rest of my blog. They opened doors to a silent connection of resilient hearts. True, I hadn’t walked the Balkan Route or experienced the type of hardships she experienced for immigration. However, I proved to be a survivor in my own way. It was, after all, my own resiliency that brought these unique individuals to my path and bonded us with invisible ties of understanding and friendship. We could spot each other in a crowd and see through the difficulties that shaped us.
“ Believe me, I know a two page blog can not do justice to your story. Especially that, this journey is not just yours. It’s a story that hundreds of thousands have lived. A life story many survivors are hiding from their loved ones. Imagine the burden they are carrying by not sharing their struggles and the lessons they can be teaching through them. Imagine how we could all become more compassionate, could we hear their voices.” I said as we were strolling along the shaded path that took us around the lake.
“ Yes, That’s how I feel. I locked up my memories for 18 years. Didn’t even think of sharing them. But now, it’s as if I can’t live without them any more. I see it as my mission now, my purpose in life. The more I am reading about the Balkan Route and what is happening there the more grateful I am.” She continued with intention, “ And the more I believe in having my voice heard.”
“ I still wake up in the middle of the night, thinking that I am in front of that wired fence on the border of Italy. We had to hide in dark for a long time till the area cleared so that we could jump. Later I met a Syrian mother of two young children who’d cut her hand open on that wire. I met a wife whose husband was left behind the wire. I got to take care of a Somalian baby whose mother carried her over the wire. She wanted to cool off in the lake on a hot day at the camp but had no one to trust her baby with. I am still haunted by the memory of the Afghan sisters who were arrested while jumping the fence. The shame the Iranian teenage boys lived through since they had to color their hair blonde to look European. I often wonder, how much of that shame, that fear, how much of that suffering are we carrying in our flesh and blood, in our memory. How much f it do we bring to every relationship we are in.”
“ You jumped the fence in Italy. Now, these days hundreds and hundreds of people are walking that path. Syrians, Kurds, Pakistanis, East Europeans. Helpless humans striving for a better life. Still alive with hope. That chapter is not closed yet.” I interrupted her.
She added, “ That’s very true. After I started sharing my story with you, I became curious about all the locations I travelled through. I found them all. The research led me to heart wrenching videos of the current day Balkan Route. Not much has changed. It has just got worse and more populated.”
“ Was the jump over the fence the hardest part by the way? I hope it did get easier after that.” I said softly.
She continued, “I wish. At first, I thought hiking those mountains at night and jumping the fence would be the hardest part. I thought running across Paris, my dream city, as a runaway looking for shelter was the most heart-breaking experience. Alas! Living in the refugee camp in Netherlands made me rethink these false impressions. The stories you hear on the refugee camp! The amalgam of people you have to live with. Imagine Market Street in San Francisco but with no income, under tents, day in day out. People from all over the world. Each of them bringing their own culture, faith and habits with them. Getting along under those circumstances is a true measure of one’s acceptance. You live together, eat together, spend the whole day together. And you watch. You witness husbands prostituting their wives for a little cash, you witness families form and families fall apart. You watch people steal from each other. You also experience true compassion. There’s really no end, no conformity to what you can experience there. You observe humanity at its best and at its worst. Both at the same time. I had a relatively easier situation since I had a job at the camp. I spoke French and English and helped in the office with translation. And then, the miracle happened. The unworldly possibility of moving to US.”
“ That was a true miracle. What made it possible?” I asked.
“ One day while I was helping at the refugee office, the lady who I worked with asked me if I would like to move to US. Was that even a question?! She helped me with all the paperwork and interviews. It took about 8 months and I was awarded a visa. I was assigned to settle in Orlando. And that’s where I spread my wings and started living my life.” She took a deep sigh, as if putting down a heavy burden. “ I was determined to grow and prove myself. I wanted to show everyone what an immigrant can achieve. I had to work ten times harder than my peers but it really didn’t bother me. I established myself in my career and moved up faster than expected.”
“ Do you ever go back for a visit?”, I asked.
“ I went back once. It’s a strange feeling. Those who chose the path of least resistance and stayed, tried to make me feel guilty. They praise my luck and blame their troubles on their bad fortune. Luck had little to do with me stepping on that route. It was determination. It was bravery. I was ready to risk for what I wanted my life to look like. Luck? I don’t know!”
Respecting her space, I paused for a while. It was clear that she really needed to get this story off her shoulders. She needed to share. She looked much more at ease suddenly.
“ Just curious, was your family ok with your choice?” I asked after a while.
“ Of course. They were happy just to know that I was safe and would be able to pursue my dreams. Isn’t that all we want for all children? To know that they can live without the anxiety of what’s going to happen tomorrow. They accept me for who I am. They always have.” She said.
We managed to find a bench by the lake where we could soak up the warmth of the Fall Sun by the lake. The surface of the water was shimmering gently in the breeze, creating tiny explosions of light. It kept us mesmerized for a while. We were both thinking the same thought. This is a drop in the ocean. The stories that immigrants have lived throughout human history shape our cultures and our societies every day. There is no end to it and there is no running away from it. We can deny the power of deliberately changing your life situation through immigration, we can kick people away, we can deny them healthcare and education, we can build tall fences to block them but the truth is, this train never stops. As long as hope is a word, as long as we can dream, as long as resilience brings power to our bones again, we stand up again. We move. We immigrate. We suffer hardships. We let go and we rebuild.
That’s what humans do.
Afsaneh Nov 2018