Open the Floodgates, Find Renewal
Yesterday, sitting in church, I received the much-anticipated news that little Eve had finally managed to make her watery entrance into this world. Her mother had been in labor in an Athens hospital for three days. During her pregnancy, she and her husband had spent many cold, dangerous nights trying to get her unborn child to a secure, more welcome place before her birth. Serbia, Romania, Macedonia, Greece, hundreds of kilometers and thousands of Euros spent in vain. Now here she was, born into a country more safe than the one her parents knew, but stagnant and cold. As I sat looking at the photograph sent from her birth room across those borders to me in Germany, I felt a pang of sorrow, as I contemplated what lay before this beautiful, perfect little child.
Two years ago, Europe closed her gates to the flood of humanity pouring in from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries. Two years ago, I was swimming neck-deep in Germany’s efforts to welcome and integrate any and all who made it to her borders. The pools I swam in were rich with hope, muddy with fear and anxiety, and swirling deep with mourning.
The people I had come to know and deeply admire mourned the loss of their home and culture. They had suffered much over the years, had hung on until all hope in a future in their beloved homeland was destroyed, and they were forced to let go and run. The tides took them over snow-capped mountain ranges, through rivers and jungle, dumping them on dirty streets in strange cities. The force of their faith fueled their march, overcoming their fear of the sea, propelling them onto crowded rubbery boats with nothing but air and a prayer between them and the deep.
Rocky shores were reached and, soaking wet and utterly amazed that they had survived, they ran on. Through the hastily thrown up reception centers in Greece, flooding highways and train stations as they ran northward, various streams convoluting and gaining size and force as they rushed up through the Balkans and into Hungary and Austria, who swiftly and purposefully channeled the flow through and on to Germany.
In contrast, Germany had opened her floodgates wide, fanning out the living rush to cities and communities throughout the land. School gyms, empty military facilities, warehouses and abandoned hospitals were stacked with rows and rows of bunk beds. The German military, Red Cross and community volunteer groups were mobilized to build fences and toilets and shower facilities. City employees - accountants, managers, office staff, janitors - anyone who could speak Farsi or Arabic were reassigned literally overnight to staff these reception centers. Imperfect but willing, they reached out and caught the weary, wrung-out masses as they tumbled in, trainload after trainload, offering them rest, security, and the possibility of a future.
And so, in the two and half years since, this flood has mixed and pooled and slowly begun to sink in to the German soil. Like a wildfire brings renewal, this new mass of life contained within its depths the spores of youth, energy and know-how the German economy and social system desperately needs. As they have been worked into the system and nurtured with hope and security, roots are beginning to form and the tender buds of success are just beginning to sprout. It is imperfect, but good.
But fear has closed the floodgates at the Mediterranean Sea, and stopped the flow for almost two years, now. Rather than welcoming these people, with their potential and resources and education, we have turned our backs on them, forcing them to risk everything and give their money to the multi-billion dollar smuggling trade and place themselves and their families in situations we cannot even imagine. In a time when Europe is desperate for a young, educated working class, we are shutting out the strong, willing backs, which could carry our social systems. They can’t move forward, they can’t go back. They are stagnant and without options. But they are here, and no amount of political games, discussions about border protection, deals with Libya or Turkey, negotiations among EU countries or bickering about human rights will change that reality.
The consequences of continuing to ignore them are far-reaching. Stagnant water, no matter how clear to begin with, loses oxygen and becomes lifeless, sick and poisonous. We are destroying the hope and muddying the wells from which our own children will be forced to drink.
Sweet, innocent little Eve has survived her watery birth and left the protective shelter of her mother’s womb. Her embryonic possibilities are vast; the seeds of intellect, drive and creativity have been planted in her by her brave, resilient parents. I look at her perfect little fingers, her tucked in legs, her pink skin and eyes still squeezed shut and wonder at the miracle of it all. I see in her hope and energy and great potential. But she has landed in stagnant waters. My greatest hope is that she will soon find herself flowing in a welcome tide to a safe country with fertile soil and room to grow and develop. I hope that Europe, the US, and other countries will be wise enough to open the floodgates and let her sink her roots in deep.
The Emerald Project is a Utah-based organization that carefully designs dialogues to engage with non-Muslims to make Salt Lake Valley a more welcoming home to Muslims. As many of our refugee friends belong to the Muslim faith, we applaud opportunities that foster understanding and were pleased to support The Emerald Project’s 3rd annual “Slam the Islamophobia” event on February 15th.
Refugees often risk their lives crossing deserts, jungles, and oceans all in the search for shelter, freedom, or happiness. Yet, even once they’ve reached physical safety, mental mountains emerge that make daily life an uphill climb. At the November 2022 conference for the Utah Chapter of the Society for Public Health Education (USOPHE), presenters Shurooq Al Jewari and Sasha Sloan discussed mental health and inclusion, focusing on immigrants and refugees.
Holidays are an important time to include newcomers. Newcomers are often aching for the traditions and holiday magic they knew at home - and the connections with family and friends. The Garcias* came from a strong family and community that knew generous and giving holiday traditions. I knew, when I met our new friends from Venezuela, the rich bond we would have; this was a kindred spirit family. Even though we have been bad at communicating (Google Translate is such a false hope), it was easy to find connections that helped us love each other.