The Explorer: Poor But Sexy

Upon arriving in Berlin for the first time, it only took a matter of hours before I fell in love. The people, the culture, the history, the vibes - it all felt so electric, attractive and inviting to me, as if the city itself wanted me to experience everything it had to offer. I distinctly remember a barista in her mid 20's casually referring to her city as "poor, but sexy". At the time I thought it an interesting choice of words, but soon discovered what she meant. 

My favorite thing to do during my time off was to walk around and explore. Around almost every corner I'd find a new shop, restaurant or coffee shop worthy of a photo or new Instagram post (see below for my fav local spots).

I loved meeting the people inside each of these places, too. And no matter who they were, where they were from or how old they were, the city appealed to them all. 

The city wasn't poor in the way I imagined. Sure, there are parts of the city that are run down or less glamorous than others, but what I witnessed was a culture deeply impoverished by a lack of relationship. 

During a conversation with one of our connections there, I was grieved hearing her talk about the way her German friends viewed relationships. As a whole, Germans live very private lives and consider the title "friend" something to be earned, proved or fought for over a length of time. 

Contrary to Greek culture, there is little emphasis on sharing in German culture, whether that be traditions, customs or social norms. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, less than 30% of Germans believe it's important to share customs and traditions, while over 2/3 of Greeks believe sharing culture is vital to their national identity. 

My brother, Greg, and I in front of the Berlin Wall - April 2016

My brother, Greg, and I in front of the Berlin Wall - April 2016

After being in Greece for a few months, I was always a little disheartened to hear refugees refer to Germany as the "Promised Land", saying things like "If I could only get to Germany then our family will be ok" or "I just need to get to Germany and then my life can begin." 

I wanted to look at them in the eye and explain that they had more than they thought they had. But how do you say that to a mother of four who barely has enough food to feed her babies and only one pair of clothes on her back? 

You don't. 

But you can choose to be WITH

The best I could do was to celebrate the relationship in their lives - celebrate the fact that some of their family was still together, their neighbors in the tent next door were reliable and trustworthy or, for some, the beginning of a relationship with the God who extended friendship toward them without expecting anything in return. 

For refugees fleeing their war torn homes in the Middle East, there is no true Promised Land. There is only the relationships they fled with and the relationship they can choose to accept and then begin. 

Those entering Germany in search of a new life and new hope may actually do more for Germany than they expect to receive from it. If that perspective shift occurs and the recipients are open, these precious people could add so much value and beauty to a culture starved for true friendship. 

I'm willing to bet we are all richer than we think we are. And maybe the best we can do is to be with, and then celebrate, too. 

Proud to be an American?

Last fall I went on a spontaneous trip to New York City with a few friends to experience the city and watch the New York City Marathon. The day after the race, a friend and I were riding the Staten Island Ferry and started a conversation with the older man next to us. 

He told us he was from Germany and I asked him a few questions about his home, his culture and his thoughts on the refugee crisis. His response stunned me and eventually set the stage for my own involvement in the crisis in Europe. 

After pausing for a few moments, the man looked at me and said intently, "This is the first time in my life I've been proud to be German." 

He was referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to allow refugees to enter Germany when many other nations were closing their borders. In the face of risking popularity, political unrest, national security and her own reputation, Merkel chose bravely. And the world was watching. 

(In fact, she was named Person of the Year in 2015 by TIME Magazine)

Although the influx of refugees into Europe has been a controversial issue, this man was proud his country chose to embrace those fleeing their country seeking refuge in another place. And to me, that's very significant when taking Germany's previous history into account. 

I told him I hoped to visit his country someday, to which he replied he felt so privileged to visit the United States and thought I must be so proud to be an American. After watching my country's response to this crisis and the unbelievable (and honestly sickening) idea of banning Muslims from entering the country simply because of their race and religion, I'm not sure I'd agree with him anymore. 

That man's words echoed in my mind as I boarded my first flight to Germany last April. And once I arrived, I found a culture and people who, from my perspective, embraced their identity and nationality. And it made me proud to be there, to take part in what this country was standing for.

Just a few months later I visited a refugee camp on the border of Greece and Macedonia with close to 10,000 refugees. The thought occurred to me that this one individual camp housed more refugees than my country was allowing inside their borders. According to NBC News, the U.S. is considerably behind on its goal to receive 10,000 refugees, and has only accepted less than 2,000 thus far. And that deeply grieves me. 

Idomeni: Refugee Camp near border of Greece and Macedonia. It was shut down Mid-May 2016.

Idomeni: Refugee Camp near border of Greece and Macedonia. It was shut down Mid-May 2016.

I don't pretend to have the solution, nor do I intend on bashing my own country or people. (Fret not, the 4th of July is still my favorite holiday). However, I do hope the world can learn from Germany's response and choose to embrace rather than ignore what's been called the largest humanitarian crisis of our generation. 

The Millennial: Changing the World & Feeling Small

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.