I’ve been trying to write this post for months. It’s been difficult to figure out how to talk about this experience in a way that makes it insightful without sounding like I know more than I do; to express my views without coming out preachy. Part of me feels like maybe it’s not my story to tell, but maybe it needs to be told anyway.
Today as I read the news, I couldn’t help getting emotional. Another attack, more lives lost senselessly; more hatred; more sweeping statements made by the media. The world seems to be on fire and instead of compassion and sadness and grief, all that seems to be on the news, on social media, in the conversations I have with people around me, is anger and generalizations.
Every time one of these events occurs, I think of the young man we stayed with when we housesat in Denmark earlier this year and what this means for his life and that of his family.
“This is a special kind of house-sit” the message read.
My boyfriend and I had only just signed up to the popular housesitting site, Trusted Housesitters. We were excited to spend a bit of the Winter and Spring wandering Europe without having to break the bank on hotels or hostels.
Combined with the fact that our nomadic lifestyle doesn’t suit having a pet, I couldn’t wait to get started. What could be better than exploring Copenhagen by day and hanging out with furry friends each evening?
That’s what we thought when we contacted Anette in Denmark. Only a 30 minute train ride from the center of Copenhagen, I jumped at the chance to finally sink my teeth into Scandinavia, and for an entire month.
As messages began flying back and forth we learned that she had a housemate, his name was Ahmad. He’s 18. A refugee from Syria.
“Is that okay?” she asked.
Luke and I didn’t even need to discuss it.
“Yea, of course,” Luke said, “we’ve lived in shared houses before, so we’re pretty used to sharing our space.”
“We also used to teach English, so we could help him practice his English,” I added.
None of us acknowledged what she was really asking.
Anette picked us up from the airport. We’d spoken on Skype a few weeks prior to our arrival and we spotted her instantly when we walked out of arrivals.
She drove us through the city, past the curly spire of the Church of our Savior and the Royal Danish Theatre. I was in awe of what appeared to be incredibly geometric architecture. Lots of sharp edges and color.
By the time we got to her house it was dark. We met the pets, a black lab named Happy and a grey cat named Lemon, both full of character which we would learn over the next four weeks.
Anette invited us to sit down. She poured us each a glass of wine and started heating up some leftovers from a dinner party that she’d had with Ahmad and his friends the night before.
She brought out hummus, roasted vegetables, chicken, and a rice dish packed with dried fruits and spices.
I heard a key in the door and felt my heart start to race. What I hadn’t told anyone, not even Luke, was that I was kind of nervous.
Nervous about living with someone else, nervous about meeting someone from somewhere that I’d never been, from a place that seemed to have nothing by negativity spewed about it in the news. I wondered what he might think of me, an American. I knew I was letting my imagination get the best of me, but I couldn’t help my trepidation.
He walked into the dining room. He was tall, at least 6 feet. He smiled a big smile flashing a row of straight white teeth. He put his hand out, “Hello, I’m Ahmad,” he said, still grinning that enormous grin.
He and Anette spoke briefly in Danish. He was nervous to speak English, he had only recently started learning it in school here in Denmark.
He joined us at the table, scooping heaped portions on his plate and listening to us talk about ourselves. Every so often Anette would translate for him in Danish, he would say something about himself and Anette would tell us in English.
Then she told us that she had to finish packing and she left the three of us around the table.
Luke asked Ahmad what kind of music he liked, if he played sports. He likes pop music and doesn’t play sports, but he does go to the gym every day with his brother. He likes to lift weights.
We had a lot of broken English conversations over the next four weeks. Ahmad taught us some Danish, told us how to pronounce the vowels so that the people at the grocery store could understand us. He gave us his train card to use so that we saved money traveling into Copenhagen. He showed us where the recycling was, where the bakery was, the train station. He showed us where the keys were to the bikes and how to lock them up. He even found a wrench so that he could lower my bike seat.
One afternoon he came back to the house and invited us to ride bikes with him and his friends. His friends were a bit better at English, they’d been in Denmark a little bit longer. They were also from Syria.
They were kind, they were funny, they were polite, they were just like most 18 year old boys I’ve ever met. They played stupid jokes on each other and laughed at things that only 18 year old boys find funny.
Except they’d suffered through an ordeal that I cannot even begin to imagine.
It was something I didn’t really want to bring up with Ahmad during our stay. We had received quite a lot of information about his past from Anette thanks to her blog (which you can read here) and I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable or upset.
Ahmad and his brother fled Syria when he was only 16, a child, avoiding enlistment in the Syrian army as many young men have done. They paid someone that they believed would take them safely to Europe only to be deceived and thrown into jail in Tunisia. After that he sailed from Libya in a small boat with 500 people. The boat was rescued from sinking by the Italian Red Cross. He and his brother were eventually able to seek asylum in Denmark.
He was 16.
My stomach drops, my chest aches, my eyes fill with tears, for the life that these young men have had; for the fear that their mothers must have for them when they say goodbye, wondering for months on end whether or not they are safe, whether or not they’re alive.
Ahmad calls Anette Mama. He helps her around the house, taking out the garbage and recycling. He’s incredibly tidy, tidier than I’ll ever be. He’s funny, he loved to show us hilarious youtube videos. He goes to school everyday, then cycles to his brother’s place where his older brother cooks for him. He’s a chef at a nearby Arabic restaurant. Mohammad is a good cook, Ahmad said, but not as good as their mother.
He wants to go to college when he finishes high school. He was studying nursing in Damascus and hopes that when he finishes school next year that he will get into the local university so he can become a nurse.
We are all Individuals
This experience opened my eyes. I never thought a boy 10 years my younger could have so much to teach me.
We are all different. When people from other countries see American politics in the media, I imagine they are making generalizations. I know I often receive questions from people asking my opinion, wondering what it’s really like, do all Americans think this way, they want to know. It’s frustrating and exhausting constantly feeling like I have to defend myself for the actions of a few.
Perhaps worse are the people who don’t ask questions, people who simply don’t want to speak to me because I’m American. I’ve met those people, too. Part of me understands their distaste and distrust, but another part of me is heartbroken for not being able to prove myself.
Just as I want people to know me for who I am as a person, not for the labels I have associated with me, I ask you to think about that the next time you turn on the news and want to generalize. Bad things are happening in the world and they’re being done by bad individuals, by people fueled by hatred and anger and misunderstanding. Don’t associate others simply because of their labels. You might miss out on meeting really interesting people with very different stories to yours. And what kind of world would we live in if we didn’t care about each other’s stories?