I wrote this for a writing course on identity and social issues I took part in a couple of months ago. In the original, the names are printed in full. I changed that in publishing this piece. It’s long – you may want to get a cup of tea.
They arrived a little before the wave. A brother had already moved to Kiel with his family, and had helped with their application. It would have been Spring 2015 when they arrived, taking up residence in the spare rooms of the Evangelische Kirche, which owned the apartment block behind it in which I lived. I remember speaking to the Hausmeister one cold afternoon, a tiny man from Bavaria who never stopped talking. He had asked the church if he could use those rooms for a refugee family; he had always wanted to do something good, and here was his chance.
They came with their young son and quickly, proudly, stuck an A4 piece of paper on their front door with all their names in huge, neat lettering. (Months later, a friend of mine would refer to that sign as the sign with the ‘strange names on it’ with no malice to her words. But still, the word ‘strange’ caught me by surprise.) Every morning, the father, A, would walk outside and stand on the front pavement, looking around, his hands in his pockets and shoulders raised against the chill. He always smiled, he always said hello, he always seemed to be taking in the world around him. In the afternoons, he would stand and watch his son cycle the length of the street and back, over and over again. I would learn later, that it was a form of therapy for the boy, who walked with a severe limp. On the bike, though, there was no sign of the limp and he looked as free as any other child who cycled their bikes up and down the pavement, on the way to school or the playground. As the weather warmed in the Baltic sea city they now called home, the family would sit outside in the small, hedged-in courtyard, smiling and waving at passers-by. Our upstairs neighbours, a Pakistani family whose children had been born in Germany, sent their young son with his Syrian friend to have a cup of tea and make them feel welcome, just like they had shown up at our door when we had first arrived, with gifts for our new baby. As summer ended, the family downstairs began a German course, a requirement if they were ever going to find work. Their son, a quiet, polite boy, started at a special needs school. The bus picked him up in the morning, right outside their front door, and dropped him home every afternoon.
It was early Autumn, a few months after they had arrived, when I noticed she was pregnant. I was too, and one afternoon we met in passing outside their front door and gesticulated at our growing bellies. She didn’t speak German, nor English, and I hadn’t a word of Kurdish in my arsenal, but judging by our roundness we were due around the same time. She asked me in for tea, but I didn’t have time and I promised I would drop in soon. Her name was H.
The wave came that Autumn as the world’s walls collapsed and hundreds of thousands of desperate people streamed into Europe. The boats were relentless, humans washing up on Greek shores, children face down in the sand. The Greeks were going out in their boats and hauling people to safety, taking food from their kitchens and passing it out to the shell-shocked people squatting on beaches. It seemed their islands would sink with the weight of the world. People marched across countries, undeterred by fences, the promise of a quieter, more fruitful life pushing them north. Germany’s Chancellor opened the doors to her country. Wir schaffen das, she said, all too aware the last time humanity had moved in such numbers, was as a result of a war her country started. It startled her country, this flinging open the doors to their homes without warning, but Germans gathered at train stations to applaud the newcomers, the streams of relieved, exhausted, bewildered faces. Posters appeared in the windows of Kiel, ‘Refugees Welcome’ and the Willkommenskultur was named word of the year. It was chaos. Government offices were overrun, overworked, understaffed. Deutsch als Fremdsprache courses were full, backlogged, the Foreigner’s Office could only offer appointments months in advance. My own visa came up for renewal in the midst of it all, and I was granted a thirty second appointment in which we organised a piece of paper indicating my status as a working resident so I could leave the country and return legally; there was no time to organise my new visa properly. Germans were in turn proud, determined, frustrated and scared that their leader had bitten off more than she could chew. More than they could afford. Europe was already shaky; there was the issue of Greece, there were terror attacks, there was the slow and steady ascent of right wing politics. Nevertheless, we watched from the comfort of our warm apartment, my belly growing and my toddler safe and fed, as shipping container villages sprung up to house the refugees, and old buildings were repurposed, as the promise of a cold winter nipped at everyone’s ankles. I will never forget that Autumn. I will never forget the feeling of being part of a country able to dig in, roll up their sleeves and offer hundreds of thousands of weary human beings a safe place to rest their head. There were clothing drives and food drives and book drives. There was doubt and hatred and misunderstanding and fear. But there was also a tremendous amount of heart.
Winter came and it was cold. I could still zip my own winter coat over my belly, and we wrapped ourselves in scarves and jumpers and counted down to flying away from the depressing drizzle of Europe in January. After Christmas, during which my daughter was showered with gifts, her Oma and Uroma offering to buy her next pair of winter boots, we flew to Asia leaving behind the wet, icy days and the close to a million people unprepared for them. Before we left, I collected bags of children’s clothes, raincoats and jumpers – my daughter had, from birth, been given so many clothes, some she only wore once. She had four raincoats. She had gift cards for shoes, waiting to be spent. I gave the clothes to a clothing drive organised by a student of mine.
I didn’t have time for that cup of tea with H for a long time. Life with an 18-month-old, a young marriage, part-time work and keeping up some semblance of a social life – it was busy. We’d wave at each other in passing, as I pushed my toddler past her kitchen window, en route to music class or playgroup, or ran for the bus to get to work on time. She got bigger, I got bigger, a pram appeared outside their front door and A began locking the gates every evening to keep it safe. I would see her cleaning the church windows in the afternoon, or welcoming her son home from school, standing in the front door wearing Hausschuhe but I rarely saw her outside. In the meantime, her husband had taken to exchanging some commentary on the weather with me, when I passed him in the morning. ‘Kalt,’ he would say, rubbing his arms, or I would roll my eyes and point at another rain-filled sky. We both came from warm countries; this port city with its cold, grey winters and brisk, crisp springs would always be too cold.
My son was born in the late Spring, at the end of a gloriously, unseasonably warm May. He was late, but came quickly, and as it always does when a new baby arrives, our world shrunk to include just the four of us. Five days later, H and A’s son was born. I knew this only because my midwife, who came to check on me daily during the first ten days after my son was born, had also been enlisted downstairs.
My midwife was small and sprite, always immaculately dressed. She drove a glossy red Mini Cooper and came to us fresh from a holiday down in Switerzland. Although she could speak English, she chose to speak German with me, an unspoken signal she wasn’t going to cater to my foreign whim, and that I was perfectly capable of conversing auf Deutsch. Germans are like that. She would gossip with me a little, about clients, even about colleagues. I had delivered two babies, now, at the hospital she worked at and we would tell me bits and pieces about staff I was familiar with. Nachsorge, after care, is something trained midwives do as a side job, on top of their regular work delivering babies at the hospital. All women who give birth in Germany are entitled to daily Nachsorge house calls for ten days after the birth, paid for by their health insurance. My midwife’s English skills meant many of the mothers she did Nachsorge with were foreign. There was the young mother whose own overbearing mother was getting in the way of her milk coming in. My midwife would shake her head crossly as she cradled my son and checked his belly button, telling me of the mother’s insistence her daughter bottle feed. ‘You have to keep the baby at the breast, otherwise the milk won’t come’, she would say, or, ‘stress can stop the milk, but they won’t listen to me.’ There were stories here and there of her time living in Florida, or tidbits from the staff at the hospital in which I had given birth. And there was H.
‘I am working with your neighbour,’ my midwife told me one day, deftly weighing my tiny son and making notes on a chart. ‘The lady from Syria downstairs. She is doing well, but it is her third, so she knows what she is doing.’
‘Her third?’ I had only ever seen the son.
My midwife looked at me, her bird-like eyes bright. ‘They had a daughter, she died in the war. She was asleep in her room when their apartment was bombed. They all survived, but she didn’t.’
We’d meet on the street after that, H, A and I, crossing paths as summer took off. I’d wave at her through her kitchen window, or as I passed her pegging washing in the small courtyard. We compared babies and checked in on each other, using the handful of German words she had learnt from a class she’d had to drop once the baby was born, and from her husband who was still studying, or her son who had picked up German in that effortless way children acquire languages. Her baby, R, was tiny and always well swaddled. She’d cluck over the courtyard fence when she’d see my son without a hat, or outside when it was too cold. I realised, one day, that she rarely went outside because she was always too cold. Once, I saw her preparing to take R for a walk in the pram. It was around 14 degrees, I was considering taking my jacket off. She was wearing a winter parka and a beanie and didn’t look at all pleased with the notion of being outside. She must have thought I was mad, whenever she saw me pushing both kids through the winter sleet to playgroup.
When the babies were nine months old, I ducked downstairs one afternoon for that cup of tea. It was blustery and cold and I left my husband with our daughter so I only had to bring the baby. I was welcomed at the door and given slippers, something I had grown accustomed to after years in Germany. Ad gave me a tour of the rooms; the kitchen, their bedroom, their son’s room, the bathroom and the living room. The long living room with its linoleum floor had three mismatched sofas forming a U around the coffee table at one end, and a TV sitting on a pine TV bank at the other end. Their older son was still at school. R was rolling around in a walker someone had given them. Their daughter smiled from a framed picture.
H had brewed tea and there were bready, chocolately German treats, Nutella stuffed croissants in individual wrappers. She apologised for her German as she poured tea, and A took his seat and pulled a small desk towards him. On it, was his German homework. He read it out to me asking for my help with pronunciation. I assured him my German was sub-par, but helped him where I could. A had been going to German class daily since arriving. He needed his B1 certificate before he could look for work. Fifteen months of a daily German course had not yet yielded a B1 certificate. He wanted to work, anywhere, he could have worked, he should have worked, it would have helped him learn, helped him grow a social network – but without his language certificate, he was stuck. So he kept going to class, kept doing his homework, kept watching his son cycle up and down the street, kept engaging passers-by in conversation to practice his vocabulary. He had a funny habit of hitting his forearm when he couldn’t remember words. We muddled through, tripping over grammar, making countless mistakes, but we got the gist of it. Germany was wonderful, German was hard, the weather could be better. But look at what they had, look at what they had been given. All I could think of, was look at what they had lost.
He was a lab assistant in Syria, and H was a teacher. They had a daughter and a son and an apartment. They had family, an education that meant something in a system they knew. They were part of a world and a language they understood. I had left my family and the world and language I understood, willingly, for that luxurious thing called adventure. They had left to escape the bombs that had killed their child, taken their apartment, and rendered their education null and void. Of course, they were good refugees. Educated and grateful, like they all should be. I see the bad refugees, too, the sullen men who hang around at the bus stops, resentful and frustrated. You hear about the bad refugees, the ones who follow women, who harass women, who assault women. The ones who bring plans of fresh terror. But A and H and their boys, they were quiet and beautifully behaved. They went to class and did their homework.
We moved before I could get down there for tea again. We found a little house with a little garden, a place to raise the kids that was safe and green and quiet. As I packed up our apartment, I put aside toys for R, and found a German textbook I no longer needed, for H. I gave the textbook to A one afternoon and he thought I was just showing it to him and tried to give it back. The day we drove the moving truck from our city apartment to our new village home, I put the toys on their front doorstep. No one was home, and I didn’t have a pen or paper with me, so I simply left them on the doormat and hoped they might know who they were from.
R would have turned one last month, like my son. He is ein Deutsches Kind. They have been in Germany now for just over two years. There are still some signs in people’s windows but the shipping container villages have gone, and Germany is wading through the long process of settling hundreds of thousands of foreigners. The language courses are still booked solid, but the government offices have quietened a little. There is still doubt and fear and people setting fire to buildings. There has been fresh terror from people who hid amongst those simply looking to live. It is still muddy and messy and exhausting and the world has shifted shape. Aber wir schaffen das. A and H may never speak perfect German, but their son will. They will fold into their generation of Germans, along with my children, and they will tell their stories and remember their daughter, and we will all talk about the horrors of war and how it must never happen again.
And one day, humanity will move again; it always does, the world endlessly shapeshifting.