Living in a country where you can travel as you please is a privilege. Just come and go when you want. Sometimes with your passport, sometimes even without. Visit other cities in nearby countries, go on holiday by the beach or perhaps you prefer skiing, do shopping across the border, go to work!! For Europeans working in Luxembourg for example, many cross the border each day – just to get to work, or home after work.
Like very many Europeans living in Luxembourg, I am an expat. It sounds pretty trendy and international. A globetrotter exercising her freedom. But I am also an immigrant; which is a person who immigrates to another country, usually for permanent residence. Immigrant doesn’t sound all that trendy, and comes with the vision of packed immigrations offices with endless lines of people trying to “get in”. Even if that’s not what I have experienced, expat definitely sounds more humane.
The last day of September this year, I got quite emotional during the mateneen awards that took place at the Philharmonie, celebrating winners of projects to support and increase solidarity, togetherness and integration of new Europeans in Luxembourg. The new Europeans coming from war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Syria. The founder of Dress For Success Luxembourg, Jill Griffin, one of the winners of “mateneen” invited me as I recently joined the DFS team to facilitate workshops on Effective Communication and Integration.
The Prime Minister, Mr. Xavier Bettel’s spoke to the audience, with guest of honor Her Royal Highness the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg. Mr. Bettel stated the fact that if you think anyone WANTS to leave their country, their home, their job, their car, their clothes, all their belongings, family members, friends and their whole life, and wander around in Europe until they find a country that will allow them to stay – think again. Many of them have nothing to go back to. Their village or city has been obliterated by bombs. There’s nothing left but ruins and debris. If they are lucky, they find a country with accommodation, living with other refugees. But they are not allowed to work and support their families, as they have no official papers.
I watched the winners present their projects, all very inspiring and good-hearted. I saw these people, from different countries far away. The ones we call “the new Europeans”. The challenges THEY have to overcome, and HAVE overcome by competing and winning in this wonderful project; standing on a stage in a foreign country, with a different culture, trying to communicate in languages they don’t speak, made my life feel so ridiculously easy.
I needed to weep. As I pretended to rest the side of my face in my hand, I could see the gentleman sitting at my right, also being busy pretending he got something in his eye. I think most of us felt it. The admiration for what had been created, against all odds, with nothing but a desire to make a change.
The bravery, courage, passion, perseverance and hope these young people communicated with their projects, is one of the most beautiful and powerful moments of inspiration I have ever experienced.
Last week-end I visited two refugee homes in Luxembourg. #BecauseIcan. One was in the city center, an old hotel turned into an overfilled refugee shelter. The other was a large house, where several families were packed together. If you’re thinking “how bad can it be, it’s Luxembourg”, I encourage you to go and visit. Because you can.
Together with my three children, and accompanied by an asylum seeking new friend, James Zawul, we brought 12 bags of clothes, toys and things we thought might be appreciated, without having any knowledge of their real need. I knew it would be an emotional day for me. But I was not prepared for the impact when the harsh reality hit me in the heart.
The first stop was quite uncomfortable, for all of us. The man we were meeting was going through emotional turmoil that I could do nothing to improve. He used to have a good life. He had his own successful business working as a mason building houses in his city, and took good care of his wife and children. They had to escape because their city was bombed, and ended up in a country where he can do nothing but wait. Accepting gifts and clothes from a total stranger, a European woman, slapped him so far out of his comfort zone he looked as if he was in physical pain. One of my children asked as we drove away “mom, didn’t he want the clothes?” I answered “yes, but I think he is sad, because he used to be able to take care of his family by himself. And now he can’t”.
Before arriving at the next place, I asked my children to be as nice as they could, smile at the people we meet and asked if anyone wanted to hand over a toy if they saw a child. Only one of the three felt brave enough to interact. The moment we got into the dark and narrow hallway of the refugee shelter, making our way to the staircase carrying as many bags as we could, we met a woman and her son. I took out a little cuddly monkey from one of my bags and looked at the mother trying to communicate “is it OK if we give this to your son” with a gesture extending my hand with the monkey. She understood my intention and nodded with a shy smile. I handed it to my son, who held out the little monkey to the boy and smiled at him. The boy wanted to grab it but stopped to look up at his mother for approval. She nodded and he grabbed the monkey and gave it a hug like if it was his lost favorite toy. My tears wanted to get out of my eyes, but I held them in and smiled at my son. He looked like a shining star.
We continued up the stairs and arrived at our destination. We visited a family of three generations living on a surface that is half the size of my bedroom. I felt ashamed, and a little dumbstruck, as I thought of the Disney movie Anastasia; she thinks she’s a nobody living in poverty, but then understands she’s royal, and actually has a castle. I’ve been seeing myself as a hardworking woman living in a messy home, but that whole package very effectively changed into a much more grateful and appreciative understanding of everything I have, and a strong urge to clean up my messy home.
The family was from Afghanistan, and only one of them could speak very limited French. Keeping a positive energy, smile and greet these people was very hard. So many and very strong feelings flooded up inside of me. Compassion, guilt, shame, sadness, wanting to “save” them, simply put – emotional overwhelm.
I think most of us, by nature, feel that “they are different”, when seeing or meeting people from non-European countries. I was standing in this small room, surrounded by three generations of a family who had escaped war and are now stranded in a country where EVERYTHING is different. I imagined who they feel…
Two matrasses were stacked against the wall, and on an old sofa rested some pillows. I quickly measured the surface and wondered how five people could stretch out to sleep on that area.
I tried to connect as best as I could with the mother, her son, his wife, and their little daughter of 8 years. Three generations living on a few square meters. I asked my friend who’d brought us there to help me translate some phrases and say something equivalent to God bless you. We gave the little girl a new school bag and my daughter’s favorite winter coat from last year. I pronounced as best as I could “study well in school”, patting the school bag, smiling and nodding at the little girl. We left all the bags with the family and asked them to share anything they didn’t want or need with other families in the building.
They insisted on inviting us for some tea, but the guard in the reception only granted us access for 5 minutes, then we had to leave. And in all honesty, I needed to get back to my car to let my emotional overwhelm have its natural way and release those tears.
We will soon go back and have a cup of tea with the family.
One of the best things that came out of visiting the shelters with my children, was that FINALLY they know what I mean when I say that we are so lucky to have our nice home. They REALLY get it now. They have seen a girl who has their same age, who also wants to play and learn and grow up to be one of the things she dreams of. She’s just like them. And if there is a difference, the biggest one is that we are blessed to have EVERYTHING we need, and more. She has nothing. We can fulfill our dreams as we wish. All it takes is the desire to go for it. Nothing, that can’t be overcome, is standing in our way!
Appreciate all the things you have, and make the most of your life. Because you can.
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