Spring is coming. Let’s not give up on hospitality yet.

Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany.
Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if migration is our natural lot and living peacefully in one place all our lives a rarity. Cranes are migrating and their calls remind me of spring.

The current news shows destroyed cities in Syria, failed cease-fire talks, and a refugee bus being shouted down by people in the former Democratic Republic of Germany.

At my mother-in-law’s birthday party, some friends told how their families fled from the invading Russians, near the end of World War II. One family fled as late as 1945. Here’s my rough translation into English:

A knock came at three o’clock in the morning: we had to get out. We fled in a matter of two hours, with only the clothes we had on. The snow was up to the horses’ bellies and my mother packed us into the hay wagon with bedding, so we wouldn’t freeze.

Our father was one of three men assigned to the farm, to keep producing food. Unarmed, they were supposed to stay at the farm to defend the front against the Russians.

The countess, our angel, helped us to get out. She didn’t take any extra luggage for herself and invited three new mothers with their infants into her carriage, so they would survive the trip.

She bought a big sack of bread whenever we came to a big bakery and hung the sack from the side of the carriage. We had a camp kitchen, a “Gulaschkanone,” to cook huge quantities of soup. We had plenty to eat then.

Once we came to an abandoned town with a castle and people had fled, leaving everything behind. We slept anywhere we wanted, even in the castle. The houses were full of food, because these people had also fled. But after three weeks, we heard the Russian guns.

Eventually, we arrived in Schleswig-Holstein.  The countess’ brother had made arrangements for us, but the Nazi’s were still in charge, so they assigned people to various houses in the village as they saw fit. It was awkward and unpleasant.

We lived over a bakery in a tiny room with five other people. Baked goods were rationed, so we smelled a lot more bread than we ate.

People looked at us funny because we weren’t from there. My mother and sister argued about words for years, because my mother didn’t want us to blend in. She thought we were still going “home” one day. She wanted us to fit in there.

Epidemiologists like to study the “immigration effect.” That’s the idea that people who stay home are systematically different from the people who don’t.

For example, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar in their home country may have a low risk of colon cancer. If some migrate to a country with the opposite pattern, they will probably increase their risk of colon cancer compared to those who stayed at home. But because they keep some of their home country traditions, they will probably have a lower risk of colon cancer than the natives of their adopted country.

For epidemiologists, a pattern like this means the risky behavior is “modifiable,” not genetic. If you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar, then you will probably see less colon cancer. It’s hard to change behavior, but it’s possible. It means hope.

After World War II, many, many people fled from the Eastern block into West Germany. They know what it means to be forced to rely on strangers. They know first-hand that the scarcity mentality isn’t true. Hardship can teach us generosity, if we let it.

We all wish for peace, but in the mean time, people all around me are eager to help the new arrivals feel at home. When peace comes, I think our hospitality will be gladly returned.

Spring is coming. Let’s not give up hope.

 


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Hope for February: ESPERANZA RISING and Esperanza Spalding

Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves and a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany © Laurel Decher, 2016
Hopeful signs: Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves under a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Hope keeps cropping up. This weekend, hope took the form of an audio book, a YouTube video, a walk under gray skies, a skit, and a newspaper article.

Last night I listened to the first part of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s ESPERANZA RISING with Trini Alvarado as narrator. I’m looking forward to the rest!

ESPERANZA RISING the kind of story I like: the 13-year-old Esperanza has to find courage to take a big risk, to make a new life in a new place with her family.

She has a big challenge in front of her because it’s 1930 and the Great Depression is coming.

While I listened, the relationships between the characters gave me hope. Early in the story, Miguel and Alfonso and Hortensia demonstrate their friendship with Esperanza’s family.

In Mexico there’s a big divide between Esperanza and Miguel, but what will happen when they get to California?

My eldest sent me Esperanza Spalding’s 2016 performance at the White House. Esperanza sang about choosing hope with Louis Armstrong’s ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.

At the YMCA last night, there was a skit about the exiled tribes of Israel returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. When they got to Jerusalem, things weren’t quite the way they’d hoped. They experienced hardship in their new life.

Many people are making a new life in Germany right now and many are facing unexpected hardship. Many others are helping. It’s an adjustment for everyone.

The choice to hope has to be made again and again. In January, we learned about a shocking incident in the Cologne main train station. I found hope in the courage shown by refugees in this article (sent to me by my friend Jane Joo Park).

The U.S. Declaration of Independence describes the unalienable rights given to all of us: the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

We aren’t promised happiness, only the right to pursue it.

We have the right to choose hope, if we’re brave enough to do it. Let’s help each other to hope.

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Collateral damage: What if there’s no one to vouch for you?

Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.
Collateral damage: Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.

Someone approached me on the street the other day, needing to talk. The situation was unbelievably bad: immigration and medical problems, grief and financial hardship, difficulties around work, worries about children.

After a little while, I was asked if I would buy some things for the kids. I felt uneasy because I didn’t know who could vouch for this person. I said I needed advice.

Tears stood in the person’s eyes. “You need advice to buy Pampers for my children?”

“No,” I said, ashamed. “I guess I don’t.”

As far as I know, there’s no diaper black market or any illicit use for diapers. They’re just diapers. And if you need diapers for your kids badly enough that you are willing to approach a perfect stranger to ask for help, you probably really need them.

I asked her for the person’s name and realized, when I was only offered the first name, that this person couldn’t trust me entirely either.

One of my children is seeking letters of recommendation to go to graduate school. This is the official form of vouching for people. Some people call it the “old boys’ network” or talk about how they can never get ahead because they don’t know the people who matter.

But who can vouch for you when everyone has fled?

This must be one of the great costs of war: the loss of trust and societal structure means survivors have the additional burden of convincing strangers that they are telling the truth. Most of us have no personal experience with horrific circumstances like these. We can’t imagine them and don’t really want to.

How do we plant the first seeds of trust?

When I first moved to my little village in Germany, I didn’t know anyone outside my family. Since I love libraries, I asked if I could volunteer in the local library. The library board gave permission and I unexpectedly gained a group of friends.

They take me on field trips, give me advice about everyday life, and vouch for me in unexpected ways. They trust me and I want to extend that trust to others.

So we found a drugstore and bought cheap diapers. It’s not much. I wish it were more. But if we all trusted a little, it might be enough.

This is what I wish: that we all find places to belong and  contribute, places to trust and to be trusted.

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Past Adventures: Stories of Immigration

Double-masted sailing ship in Bremerhaven harbor
For many people, Bremerhaven was the gateway to a new life in the new world. © Laurel Decher, 2015.

Last week, my family and I visited the German Emigration Museum in northern Germany. The museum is in Bremerhaven, literally “Bremen’s harbor”, so there are ships, a complicated harbor lock, and lighthouses. From the outside, the museum is big and square, but the inside is much more like a Disney experience.

At the ticket counter, we were each given a passport with a key card and a person’s name and invited to follow that person’s story through the museum. We waited on the wharf at night, boarded the huge ship and got to see the accommodations for each era of immigration–most were pretty terrifying. Then we “arrived” at immigration and eventually at Grand Central Station in New York City.

Having made this trip many times ourselves, it was really, really easy to imagine ourselves in the plight of our relatives. Would we have cleared immigration in those days? Would we have had all the right answers to the border crossing questions?

My husband’s aunt emigrated to the U.S. and my great-grandparents on both sides did too. The museum provides laptops so you can find out what ships your own relatives traveled on, what ports they left from, and other interesting details. It’s a surprisingly fun detective activity to do with your kids.

You can research your past even if you can’t get to Bremerhaven using a free trial membership for 14 days on Ancestry.com or with the free Ellis Island passenger search.

Within the frame of a museum, their hardship looks like a grand adventure. It helped us frame our own adventure, in the opposite direction, when we immigrated to Germany three years ago. It makes me want to write a story with time-travel.

 

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