This is one of those times where I wish there was a way for others to live through our memories, to feel what we’ve felt, to experience our lives, our moments. I really wish I could share what I’m about to share here with people who talk so glibly about putting Syrian refugees into “camps”.
I would rather not have to have this conversation, I’d rather not talk about it at all. I’d really prefer if people weren’t suggesting throwing refugees into camps and we didn’t have to have this conversation. I would love it if we had learned from the countless times in history that demonstrated how awful this idea is.
George Takei talks about his family’s experience with the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and some people wish to make Syrian refugees relive that experience.
I’m sure a lot of people are suggesting camps with visions of them being different. Better. Kinder. Safe.
One person I am now no longer friends with suggested it would be for “safety”. “Theirs and ours”. Ours?! Goodbye. Called out and unfriended.
See, a thing not many people know about me is I’ve been in a camp like they are suggesting.
When I was six years old, in 1987, my parents and I crossed the Iron Curtain from Poland into Germany.
We spent between two weeks to a month in an immigrant camp in Karlsruhe, Germany. I was so young that I can’t remember exactly how long our stay was, too young to remember many details, to understand what was going on exactly. But there are things I remember vividly. Things that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I wish that people who suggest putting other people into camps could have these memories, that they could feel and relive them like I do.
We stayed in a tiny room. There were these metal framed bunk beds on both sides of the room, taking up most of it. A small window with a table and two chairs. I remember that table very well. I spent days sitting at it, both elbows upon that table, chin cradled in my hands, moving only to flip the tape over in the tape player we had taken with us.
A day of Budka Suflera. A day of Black Sabbath. Maybe two. Three. Hundreds, it felt like.
First time I was depressed was when I was six years old. Six years old in an immigrant camp.
The first day or two I found other children, we did our best to play, but there was nothing and nowhere for us.
We went into the recreation building and watched adults play pool, but were too small to participate, too full of kid energy to not be a nuisance. We didn’t stay long.
We tried chasing each other in the narrow spaces between the buildings. Those huge monoliths that loomed over us, bearing down upon us with stark cold concrete. I know that there was a fence, maybe walls, around us but those buildings were what I remember caging us in.
I was a fussy eater, as many kids are, so when we had our meals in the large mess hall type building, I seldom ate at all.
My father would sneak out when it got dark, hop the fence and buy groceries. There was no fridge or stove, so my parents kept some of it on the window sill so it would stay cold.
I still barely ate.
There was a shared bathroom with a long line of toilets on one side of the room and sinks on the other. There was no hot water, we had access to that in a separate building once a week. My mom made me wash up every night, straining and stretching up to wash my feet in the sink. Brush my teeth in cold water. To this day I can’t stand brushing with cold water.
Finally, the day came when we moved on to a group house in Scharnhausen, the tiny town where we spent the remainder of our time in Germany as we applied to immigrate to the U.S.. We didn’t get accepted, so we spent years there, before finally getting into Canada.
On that day, when we were leaving, it was raining heavily. We all lined up in a courtyard waiting for the buses that would take us onward. I don’t know why, but we waited for hours in the rain.
Soaked, cold and malnourished, I got very ill. It took me weeks to recover, my mom would tell me about it even years after, because it was even more awful for her, watching her child deteriorate in these conditions.
And that was probably a very positive experience in comparison to what refugees from Syria are experiencing right now. What some people want them to experience. Because they’ve never experienced anything even resembling what they want for them.
We were a family of three, my mom had been a teacher and my father worked on trains.
My parents left Poland because they wanted a better future for all of us, but especially for me.
We were immigrants, we chose to leave. We were not in mortal danger.
While some may claim that sending Syrian refugees to camps is still better than their current situation, still better than what they are fleeing from, that rings hollow to me.
As fellow human beings, they deserve better. We can do better.