Don’t let anyone tell you that English and German are close cousins. After four weeks spent in small-town west Germany where the majority of townspeople do not speak English and my German does not go past “Hello” (Thank God we have at least one word in common), I am pretty much at the mercy of hand signals and Google translate to fulfill even the most basic tasks. However, look at the title of this blog post. Can you tell what it says? “Willkommen” sounds a little like “welcome” and “kultur” sounds a lot like “culture”. So there you have it: welcome-culture. In 2015, it was the word of the year in Germany, and it refers to the attitude of welcoming that Germans have adopted towards incoming migrants.
As immigrants continue to flood into Europe and terrorism simultaneously increases across the continent, it’s easy to become a little fearful. I’ve tried to imagine what it would actually be like to be German and to consider the future of my home as the face of the country rapidly changes. I can’t speak for Germans, but I can speak to my friendships with some of these immigrants, and to my knowledge of Arab/Middle-Eastern culture in general. And in my experience, it is the very same people who are forced from their home nations that are themselves warm, hospitable, and welcoming.
For many people from the Middle East (or North Africa), it is truly an honor and a joy to feed new friends and even strangers. It’s hard to imagine an American inviting someone she (or he) barely knows into her home for lunch, and spending all morning (and maybe the previous day) preparing to make a meal of holiday-size proportions for guests she may never see again. But that’s exactly what many Arabs and others from the Middle East will do, without thinking twice about it.
In the past month, I have been invited into home after home, fed massive plates of gormeh sabzi (a Persian beef stew), dishes of stuffed grape leaves, mountains of perfectly cooked rice and of course, glass after glass of sweet black tea. Keep in mind that most of these people are counting every penny and unable to get jobs, and yet they do not hesitate to purchase pricey meat, fruit and veggies, soda and ice cream just to feed me and my friends into stuffed oblivion. It’s humbling, to say in the least.
There was Wazgeen and his wife Bessima, Yazidi Kurds from Iraq who laid out a feast of grilled chicken and peppers, grape leaves, koobeh (semolina dumplings), two kinds of soup, salad and massive bowls of rice with nuts, dried fruit and chicken for me and a friend. We were invited to their home after teaching our host during a one-week English camp. There was so much food we laid out a plastic tablecloth on their living room floor and feasted. Then Mohi, a 27 year-old student from Iran, single-handedly prepared a giant lunch for six including two kinds of beef stews with lemon, tahdig (crispy Persian rice), tomato and cucumber salad, olives and of course, french fries. Paniz and Maryam are a mother and daughter, friends of a friend, who fed us chicken with barberries and saffron-spiced rice with the most amazing yogurt sauce I’ve ever had. All of these people hosted me and my friends gladly and warmly, expecting nothing in return.
We sit, we eat, and we chat (sometimes with the aid of Google translate). Every refugee with whom I have eaten has a horrific story of escape and trial to which I can barely respond. They have survived the unthinkable- shipwrecks, death of friends and family and dangerous escapes. They have trekked across countries by foot, bus and boat with no idea of what the future holds and no idea of how to secure their families’ safety. They have been through hell. And yet we sit together in a quiet living room in suburban Germany, eating chicken and fries and pouring glasses of coke. It’s surreal, and sometimes I feel all I can do is thank God that they have made it safely.
As I near the end of my time in Germany, I am left with more questions than solutions regarding the refugee crisis. I am also left with: a few phrases in Farsi, plenty of food memories and friends I can at least stay in touch with on Facebook (social media’s not all bad). Most importantly, I am left with names and faces for refugees rather than labels or assumptions and stories of suffering and survival that I won’t forget. They will continue to come, identities shaken but intact, Middle-Eastern willkommenskultur and all.