After years of studying Holocaust history with an emphasis on people who defied authority and rescued Jews, I continually asked myself the question, What would I have done during this tragic time? Impossible to answer, I have tried to forward that question to the present. Given the tragedies that beset our world, I ask, What am I doing to help now?
The question motivates me to act, so one day I will not look back and ask, Why didn't I help?
The question has led me to this day. Sitting in the airport waiting for our flight to Athens Greece, where we will take an Algebra program to a refugee school, where I will teach teachers at the No Border school, where we will travel on to Lesvos, Greece, one of the hardest hit islands by the influx of refugees-- where we will help in a refugee camp.
It took a year to find a place to volunteer. The desire sprang one afternoon in the comfort of my car, listening to an interview on NPR. The woman who was interviewed was an American in Macedonia helping register refugees fleeing Syria into a transition camp. Because of her English language and one woman refugee who also spoke English, she was able to keep the woman and a crippled older man together, simply because he needed her. The chaos had almost separated the two.
I wanted to help too.
I had no specific skills to share--only a desire fueled by compassion for a displaced people.
My grandparents were immigrants who came to America for different reasons, but the journey, the new country, the rejection, is part of my heritage.
Years later, when my father wanted to buy a nameplate commemorating his parents' arrival on Ellis Island, New York, my grandfather said, "Don't you dare. I've never been treated so poorly in my life."
Dad was surprised. He didn't know about this part of his father's entrance into America. I pictured my grandfather--proud, capable, unsure in a new land--treated poorly.
I try to think how refugees feel, fleeing for their lives, fleeing their bombed-out cities, yet the doors all around the world have been closed to them. Such despair. Could I possibly make a difference? I have to go and find out, because I'm not prepared to look back ten years from now and ask, What could I have done?
I am encouraged that small efforts are meaningful from a student's story told just last week. His grandparents had immigrated to America from Sweden. They were driving on the east coast, surrounded by the insecurity of a new land. They'd stopped to get gas, and a fellow customer engaged in conversation with his grandfather while they both stood at the pump. When their conversation ended, the American said to Bennett's grandparents. "Welcome to America, I'm glad you're here."
The story kept its meaning through three generations. That one friendly expression meant everything to the immigrants; it still had meaning to their grandson.
I will be standing in a refugee camp by week's end. I won't be able to say "I'm glad you're here," but I will have the responsibility to lighten the load just a little bit, enough to take a deep breath and say, "I'm glad I'm here."