A French woman greets refugees after the Paris attacks
Schönefeld Airport, November 15th, 2015
Today in Schönefeld, around 300 people arrive shortly before 8 AM. They arrive more exhausted with each day that passes. Because it’s getting colder out there, it’s getting more and more difficult to reach Europe. Apart from the Syrians, a lot of people from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan arrive. Many Kurds arrive these days. About a hundred newcomers are single travelers, there are some very large families as well. About twenty under-age kids, all men. We also give away a lot of plastic bags, as many don’t have anything to carry their banana, orange and cereal bar given before they’re asked to line up to take the buses.
Today, I interact mostly with single men. As a woman, I always feel a bit intimidated as I walk among them. They are used to war, they saw things I only hear about from afar. I grew up in paradise and can’t even begin to imagine what they’ve been through. Some joke about me, but never in a mean way. Either way, I’m happy whenever I hear them laugh. Now that I can form a very basic sentence in Arabic, they think they can ask me anything in the language. And it makes them laugh when they realize I’m a linguistic impostor after all.
Last night I barely slept, because of Paris, because of my friends there. Because I’m worried for refugees, for which it will be even harder now to reach us. I talked to my friends, I felt the most beautiful word in German to be so true around me: “Mitgefühl”, and it made me stand despite the pain felt after the attacks. I couldn’t be anywhere else than with these men today, because I know more than ever what they are desperately trying to escape.
As I explain to them where they will be brought, and share my WiFi, we exchange our names, they tell me they love Germany and the Germans, pointing at me. I tell them that it’s wonderful, but that I’m French. They look astonished and tell me after a pause that they also love French people. I smile and one of them approaches me and says: “I heard of the attacks on your people on Friday. I’m so sorry for that. I think of your people.” His condolences are the most touching I have received, because they come from someone who has lived every day with the horror I experienced on January 7th and November 13th.
I don’t expect to receive empathy from any of these people, because they already have so much to deal with (and so little internet access to know what’s happening in the world). Still, here he is, looking sincerely concerned about my pain. We look at each other, for a long moment, and I have to fight hard not to cry. I manage a “thank you” without flinching and add: “you are safe here…I hope”. Because I don’t know anymore if it’s true, but I wish it is, because he has the same right as me and as any being on this planet to be happy and safe from the bombs.
Later on, many other refugees come forward, and tell me to please not think that every Muslim is a terrorist. I end up hugging a lot of them and assuring them that I wouldn’t be here if I thought so. I sympathize with some of the last people to depart, two Syrian couples. We joke around, they’re a bit younger than me, and we’re on the same wavelength. They crack jokes about their journey, I’m not sure if I should laugh but they seem to relieved to be here anyway that it’s good to share that moment with them. One of the women asks me whether there will be showers in the shelter. I wish I could answer yes without hesitation but I don’t even know the answer. I tell her I can’t promise, but that I shall certainly hope so. Her husband tells her, laughing: “look, she’s too polite to tell us we won’t be able to wash before six month!”. I pretend to be shocked and retort: “of course not! six months! five, at most, don’t worry”. What can we do but laugh? They understand they’ve landed in total chaos. Yet, this chaos is safer than their homes. And they are ready to embrace Berlin as their new one.
As they’re about to go, I give them my phone number. The four of them write it down and What’s App me immediately so I get theirs. As soon as they’re settled and have internet access again, they’ll be in touch. I can’t wait to see them again and show them the nicer sides of their new city.
Emmanuelle Chaze is a French woman living, teaching and volunteering in Berlin. She writes the blog Berliner Diary, where this post was first published.