I have a love hate relationship with my generation. All the negative stereotypes frustrate me; they cause me to want to be different, to prove we aren’t just a bunch of entitled young people. One of the redeeming qualities of my generation, though, is that it is filled with one's and two's who believe we really can change the world. And simply because we believe it, we will.
I’ve heard many people say that this refugee crisis has been championed by the millennial generation, and for that I am proud. I want to be known as the generation that runs to the pain, the suffering, the questions, the hard things. And when we choose to come face to face with the realities of the world, we can’t help but speak out, take action and do something.
When I first learned of the refugee crisis in Europe, I knew I had to respond. However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the magnitude of suffering I was about to witness.
I remember the moment it all became real to me. I was volunteering in a clothing distribution center at a refugee center in Berlin inside Tempelhauf, the old Berlin airport. Once the busiest airport in all of Europe, the space became even more infamous when Hitler delivered one of his speeches, promising a “new awakening” for Germany in 1933. I was also surprised to learn that the airport had housed refugees previously in the early 1950’s when “East Berliners” fled the Soviet’s control. The amount of history represented overwhelmed me as I thought about thousands of refugees from all over the Middle East currently housed and seemingly trapped inside.
About 30 minutes into my shift, a shy Syrian woman and her three children approached me at the front of the counter. She handed me her clothing card, which consisted of icons of different clothing items she and her children qualified for each month. She pointed to a few items and then tentatively pointed to the picture of undergarments on the page, avoiding all eye contact with me. I could sense the deep shame she carried as I brought back a few items for her to look at and try. The woman turned red as I brought out a pair of underwear and bras and I painfully watched as she attempted to convey to me that neither were the correct size. I tried to conceal the contents of what I had found from the rest of the room, but couldn't stop the embarrassment from flooding the poor woman’s face while men, women and children stood in line behind her.
I went back to the bins containing women’s undergarments. The fact that I couldn’t speak this woman’s language and her only clothing options depended on me, a twenty-five-year-old American white girl, guessing the right size in the time allotted was all of the sudden too much for me. I started weeping as I dug through the drawer, desperate to find something the right size.
After a few minutes I came back to the front with two more options. The woman turned red again and then shook her head in disappointment as I held up the new sizes. She slowly gathered her few belongings and children and turned to leave, giving up on the possibility of receiving something as basic and necessary as a new pair of underwear.
In Greece the situation is also sobering, and even more desperate than the cold distribution center in Berlin. In one of the camps in Thessaloniki, my team and I distributed clothing a couple times a week. I won’t quickly forget standing in the middle of a shipping container, dripping in sweat, frantically running back and forth trying to find the correct sizes as men and women approached the container yelling, and oftentimes fighting to get the items they needed.
I even came close to being punched in the face by a man who had incurred brain damage because a bomb exploded behind him, who was fighting his way to the front of the line demanding a new pair of pants because his only pair had ripped down the middle. It was in moments like these I felt completely helpless, realizing I had no idea how to identify with this kind of suffering.
But rather than retreat by the sheer rawness of it all, I chose to engage. Although I couldn’t identify with the reality of these people’s circumstances, I could let them move me. And if I allowed myself to be moved, to really feel the reality of the situation as best as I could, then all of the sudden my own needs seemed less important and I realized just how small I really was.
In both Germany and Greece my team was made up of college students and young adults – each believing we could be one small voice in the midst of a giant overwhelming crisis. I believe my generation has the opportunity to learn the delicate balance between believing we can change the world, while simultaneously coming to grips with our own smallness. And that is a really beautiful place to be.