You Only Wished for Safety
You lived in fairly normal city. It was a place full of peaceful people, laughing children, school teachers, doctors, markets. It was an average life by most accounts but you were happy. You had an average job in your average city in your average life. You had a spouse that made you smile even on the bad days and children that made your heart grow each time they fell asleep on your chest.
That’s the thing about kids, no matter how exhausted they make you with their endless energy and daily barrage of questions each day, you can’t help but smile when you see them sleeping peacefully. You run a light hand through their hair, careful not to wake them, and you notice again how their features seem to be changing each day. The nose isn’t the same button it used to be, now it resembles your own, the same one you inherited from your grandfather. The baby fat in the cheeks is started to fade away and you wonder how it seemed like it was just yesterday that you brought your baby home. Now you have a walking talking little person running around your small but comfortable home and you and your spouse share amused looks every time your child runs through the room at top speed chasing some imaginary foe. You’re happy. Life isn’t perfect. It’s hard. There are places you could live that would make things easier, choices that might’ve put you on a better path, but you don’t have too many regrets. How could you, really? You have a family you love who you would do anything for, a little piece of life you carved out for yourself and a roof over your head. You go to bed each night knowing it’s not perfect but thankful for it anyway.
Then the bombs came.
You fast-forward through a lot of the story — through the complicated parts that most people don’t understand or know about. You skipped through the details of your government killing its own people, of complicated allies and enemies, of political discourse that was infuriating enough to make even the most even-tempered person furious with frustration.
You watched as everything changed. You saw the defenses you counted on crumble. You saw warring factions fill your streets. You looked away from the dead bodies. You watched as the innocence that only children have slowly fade from your own children’s eyes. They look up to you for confirmation that it’s ok each day and you do your best to assure them that it is, even though you know inside it won’t be.
The buildings in the only place you ever called home were taken out one-by-way. Entire apartment buildings were missing their fronts, their floors exposed to the outside elements, looking like they were spray painted in grey foam of ash and dust.
You started selling what you could to whoever would buy it. You squirreled away as much money as possible once you made the decision. It was the only choice you had left really. After months and months and months and months of being shut down through legal channels, you knew you had to do it. You owed your family that much — your small innocent children who hadn’t left the house in months and spent their days hiding under a table because they believed it would keep them safe — and you’re determined to do whatever you can to get to them to safety.
Your brother, favorite uncle to your kids, knew a guy who knew a guy and you passed along every last bit of money you saved for four spots on a rubber boat that may or may not make it to somewhere else. You knew the horror stories of death and failure of these attempts but you knew it was your only option, your only real chance. It was the only chance that your children may not die under that table.
You waited as people died by the hundreds. You waited as even hospitals were bombed. You had the vague memory of a doctor that treated your oldest child once and you wondered if he was there when the building went down.
You waited more.
Then finally — FINALLY — you got the word that your money was good enough and suddenly there was there smallest hint of hope in your heart again. You packed four bags, one for each of you. Nothing heavy and only the most important things — a couple changes of clothes, the little bit of food you still had left, a few pictures of your kids when they were newborns and one of your own parents so you could remember what their faces looked like. You were glad they weren’t around to experience this. You put the pictures in plastic bags hoping it would protect them from the elements. You waited till late at night and you woke up your confused kids. You and your spouse tried to explain to them what was happening but they are young and confused, they don’t really understand. You sneaked out, backdoors and backroads, and after walking longer than you anticipated you finally got to the meeting place.
There was a man there you never met but you gave him all your money already — the guy that knew a guy — and you saw the boat. You could barely call it that, really. It was a glorified raft made of black rubber with a small motor on the back. You looked around at the other families waiting to leave with yours and knew right away that there was no way you’re all going to fit. You were hesitant, wondering if you were making the right decision by risking your lives in this way. Then you saw it. Your oldest is off to the side playing with a kid about the same age. They’ve never met before but were instant friends in the way only children manage. You heard it then. A small laugh. One you used to know so well and so often. One you hadn’t heard in months. It was quick. A little giggle at most. But it was there. Your baby was laughing again. Amid the horrors of bombs, death, and an uncertainty they can’t yet understand, your sweet little baby was laughing again.
It was that moment that cinched your decision. You were debating about turning back, maybe help would come in some form and you’d be ok, but hearing that little laugh did it. You knew you had to try. For their sake.
You pushed to the front of line with your children’s hands gripped tightly in each of yours. You were going to get on that boat no matter what. It was, you realized, your only chance. Certain death was all that was behind you so you pushed on.
You skip through this part of the story too when you tell it. It’s too hard to relive, too gruesome. You don’t want to relive the way people fell overboard, how you weren’t able to help them back in despite your best efforts. You don’t want to talk about the way it was too dark, too windy, the sea too mean and rough. You don’t want to think about the children, the one that made your kid laugh again…you don’t want to remember the horror you felt when you realized that child was no longer on the boat, that another baby was forever lost at sea. You push the thoughts away because it’s too hard and you don’t have the option of shutting down. So you tell the rest of your story.
You eventually arrived on a rocky shore. You didn’t know what to expect but you thought there would be more than what was there. Two men, ones you would never trust otherwise, explained that you weren’t done yet. Now, you walk.
You skip forward again. You don’t go into detail about the way your kids cried because they were hungry or the way their feet hurt. You lost two bags on the journey and the little bit of food you brought was gone. You don’t tell about the things you witnessed. You don’t talk about the shoes that wore down to nothing on the walk. Miles and miles and miles and days and days. You hid from authorities looking for parties trying to get into the country. You hoped your kids were too young to remember most of it.
Finally, you got there. You had no expectations really but the small city of tents was still a shock to you. But you made it. There were some aid workers. You tracked them down right away, begging for food and water for your children, for any help they could offer. They were exhausted, body and soul. You could see it in their eyes. But they tried to help you anyway, directing you here and there.
The first week passed slowly and you wondered every single day if you made the wrong choice. You still weren’t sure. By some miracle you found a couple of familiar faces among the thousands at the camp. One an old neighbor that left long before you did, another a cousin that you weren’t sure what happened to after the bombs started to fall.
Weeks turned into months. You filled out paperwork. So much paperwork. You had interviews. Hours of interviews. They separated you from from your spouse and your children for those interviews. They asked the same questions over and over again, hoping to catch you in even the smallest lie. You were honest, so forthcoming, afraid even the smallest mistake would cost you everything. Days and days of interviews over the course of months with agencies you didn’t know the names of, with people that didn’t view you as a human, as a parent, as a spouse. No, you were a number to them. An application. A potential threat that they had to suss out. You understood, or at least you tried to. They were people doing a job and had seen as many horrors as you had. Maybe more. They had to keep up a wall, turn off emotions like you did, just to make it through.
You had a job at the camp. Everyone did. Even the kids. You liked it. It gave you a sense of purpose in some small way. A few of the adults started a school of sorts, the best they could do under the circumstances, and you were grateful for it. Some sense of normalcy was good for all the kids.
It all blended together. Eighteen months of tent cities and interviews and sleepless nights and nightmares and wondering, wondering, wondering. You watched people fall ill with issues that are easily treatable anywhere else but there it could’ve been a death sentence. You’re still grateful though. Your family was still alive and together and that’s more than most people could say.
Finally you got word. Your refugee status was approved. You cried tears of joy. Endless tears. You squeezed your spouse harder than you ever have before. You kissed your babies faces over and over and over again. You would have a home again. You would be safe again. They were happy tears, you explained to your kids. Salty happy tears. Tears of relief.
It took a few more months but finally it was your turn. You were loaded on a half empty bus and taken to an airport. It was overwhelming and confusing but you did your best to appear strong in front of your kids. You were handed off from one aid worker to the next. Took more than a couple flights. You were told you’d be going to the United States. Anywhere would be fine. Germany, Canada, Finland. You didn’t care. You’d go anywhere as long as it meant safety for your family. You’d learn the language and the customs, work any job you could get if it meant you would all be ok.
You boarded the plane. The final one. You were told there would be someone to meet you on the other side and you thanked each person profusely. They were life-savers. Truly. In the very truest sense of the word. At the airport, you saw on the news that the new president didn’t like immigrants and you had a moment of concern but tried to squash the negative thoughts. You’d prove them wrong. You’d work harder than you ever had before. You’d be an asset to the community. You’d do whatever you could, whatever it would take. After all, your kids were getting a second chance of life. That was all that mattered to you.
You looked out the window when the plane started its descent. Fields and square buildings slowly came into focus. You made sure your kids saw it. “Look,” you told them, “this is our new home.” Your voice cracked on the last word and you shared a look with your spouse, seeing the tears in their eyes too. You had made it. Finally. Finally. Finally. You would have a chance at life again.
You exited the plane and were quickly found by the official you were told would meet you. There was something about her demeanor that seemed off, almost apologetic in a way. Some bad thought nagged at your brain but you did your best to shut it down. You smiled at your kids. You told them in your newly learned broken English that you were in America now and everything would be alright. They would be safe again.
There was an interpreter there and you were thankful for him but you noticed the way he wouldn’t really meet your eye for very long. You were shuffled along a corridor, led through a door and told to have a seat.
The interpreter came back then. You asked if everything was ok and he opened his mouth to say something before stopping, offering a conciliatory look instead. Someone else started speaking in long sentences, you only understood a word here and there. You waited as it was translated.
New president. Executive order. Visas. Refugees. Terrorism. On hold.
What did it mean? What did that mean for your family?
Holding pattern. New. Details unclear. Timing. Bad timing.
From what you’re told, the new guy in charge signed something today while you were in the air bringing your family to their new home. It went into effect immediately, they said. You were told it wasn’t just you. Green card holders too. You didn’t know what those were yet but they’re being held up. Visas were a problem as well. When they leave the room, the interpreter stays behind. He doesn’t have to. He’s trying to provide some comfort. He tries to fill in the blanks. It’s not all people. It’s only some. Only the ones from a handful of countries.
But why you, you asked. You’ve done nothing wrong, you insisted.
He says he understands and he’s sorry. No one knows yet what the next step is. It’s all new. No plan was put in place first. It wasn’t thought out. He wished he had more answers to give you.
You fell back into a chair. You slump down. You give into two years worth of tears. Of frustration. Of fear. It all pours out of your eyes and face and you wouldn’t recognize yourself if you saw you from the outside. You want to yell, scream, hit something. But you don’t. You don’t dare. You don’t want to give them even a slightest bit of cause for concern. But you can’t stop the tears. The last bit of strength you could muster is gone.
You’re not like the ones they fear, you say. You’re running from them too, you repeat.
You just want to keep your kids safe, you cry.
Why are they doing this to you, you ask. You went through two years of vetting. You watched people die in your city. In the sea. In the camps. You did everything you were supposed to do. Everything you had to.
You cry. A lot. For a long time. Part of you is embarrassed. Mostly though, you’re confused and angry. This wasn’t supposed to happen. After a while, you gather yourself together enough to ask one more question.
What happens now?
No one knows, you’re told. Now…now you just wait and see.
You cry again.