Welcoming the stranger
In 1952, when I was six years old, my parents scrambled together a down payment on a chicken coop. that’s what we called the strung together shed-like building on half an acre in the flood plain of the Wabash River at the edge of Indianapolis. Linoleum floors, drafty fireplace in a small living room, funky kitchen, big yard, a few climbable trees. My parents put in a garden, bought real chickens for eggs and meat, and we began subsistence farming while my father worked two jobs, and my mother managed the harvest, the chickens, and sewed clothes for three little children aged 6, 4, and 1. We got new underwear for Christmas and one real toy. I thought it was paradise.
In the wider world, I was oblivious then to McCarthyism, Stalinism, nuclear arsenals, the Cold War, the subjugation of women, racism, etc. etc. I was a child in a pocket of relative safety in a difficult age. We all just held on as best we could. And then the Hofmann’s came to live with us.
In that tiny house, we absorbed Doktor and Frau Hofmann, their daughters ages 13 and 17, and their 20-year-old son. I was just learning to read and came home with my picture dictionary, seating myself between these big girls and teaching them basic English vocabulary and pronunciation. They had been living in a displaced persons camp since the end of the War—7 years in a railroad car. Dr. Hofmann had stood up against fascism and spent the war imprisoned and tortured; his son Christofe was so mentally traumatized he required the full-time attention of the Frau. Gisela, the older girl, did housework helping my mother, while Angela occasionally came with me, crammed in a tiny school desk, learning to read. Refugees.
Our family, borderline poor by American standards, was borderline rich by theirs. My parents, stressed and unsure how to make their own way in life, sponsored this family’s immigration and integration into American society. Soon they had an apartment downtown, clothes, second-hand furniture. Eventually the family moved to Iowa where Doktor Hofmann got a job as a medical assistant in a mental hospital, and, hopefully, help for his son. We got Christmas cards over the years, always thanking us for saving their lives.
I don’t know what happened to them (and their names are changed here for privacy). They were part of my childhood. They remain unforgettable teachers who opened my early awareness to the realities of the wider world. And it is through this intimate experience that I watch the current refugee crisis in Europe.
I acknowledge the social, political, economic, and religious complexities regarding what is happening there. I understand this unstoppable influx is overwhelming even the most welcoming countries and raises important questions about what it will mean to be “European,” as the continent becomes more and more multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-worldviewed. The consequences of centuries, are swirling around: shall we increase the razor wire or increase the dialogue?
Our friends in Europe are on the lines in Austria, Slovenia, Germany, handing out food, helping to maintain calm among exhausted, stressed people who can barely speak a few words of common language, who are looking into one another’s eyes to grab a bit of trust and courage to stay on the path.
I have no idea how my country, state, or community, would react to 10,000 people crossing over the nearby Canadian border every 24 hours, walking down the Interstate desperate to get somewhere…anywhere…safe.
Even if there is “no solution,” there is choice in how we respond. We have turned into a new age and I believe we can show up for this!
What I know is that welcoming the stranger into our homes and communities makes them not a stranger. Six years after WWII, a German family needed help: they got it. They were no longer the enemy. Now people who are largely Muslim, largely from Syria and Africa need help: it is up to us, the white, privileged folks, to stop seeing them as the enemy, and to react with so much kindness that our actions breakdown barriers and misunderstanding.
I am well if you are well.
I am safe if you are safe.
I am home if you are home.
Dr. Hofmann, Frau Hofmann, I hope you had good lives. Christofe, may your suffering have been alleviated. Gisela, Angela, somewhere you are women in your 70’s, may you remember the little girl on the couch earnestly teaching you first grade English. I remember you.
For more information:
This video helps explain and calm some of these fears about immigration into Europe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvOnXh3NN9w
If you want to HELP– support the World Food Programme of the United Nations: wfp.org. They are desperately in need of money to keep feeding the millions of people displaced in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is not the time for them to go broke.
I love you, Christina. Thank you for this. The Pfiffer family moved to our neighborhood and the children went to our grammar school. They were German Catholics who had escaped. No parents, just the children. They were adopted by a family I didn’t know. I made Gretchen my best friend. She spoke no English but some how we could understand each other. Perhaps that’s where I learned to understand people who speak a different language. I don’t know where she is either.
I’m awash in tears reading this story, overwhelmed by your family’s example of the most precious of gifts: kindness. Thank you, Christina. In Canada and the USA, just imagine if every home welcomed someone else escaping a terrible life. “Yes, come to our home. We welcome you. We are all one human family. We will help you start a better life.” Imagine if our governments would expedite and simplify the paperwork and process for refugees. Working together – systems and individuals – we have the capacity to truly create a global community. Everyone deserves to have what so many of us have in North America – the right to have our basic needs met – shelter, food, water, clothing, freedom from persecution, opportunities. In matters of the heart, there are no borders.
Christina – all I can say is Amen.
This is a very touching and humble story. What it reminds me is that none of us are too poor, too small, or too limited to open ourselves in some way that is presented to us in any given moment. I was reminded recently by a friend that we are all bigger than we think we are. Thanks for this story and for the blessing bestowed by it.
Your words move me to more action – stopping a moment to contribute to what is going on, during an otherwise busy time. Thank you for stepping out on this and sharing your personal story of this very thing as well.
Christina, This is beautiful, and a stark reminder of what is truly at stake here: our humanity.
Thank you for sharing your personal story of refugees. I also appreciated the easy to understand video about the refugee situation in Europe and the link to the World Food Program. I am moved to help…
In the British newspaper The Guardian, various writers have commented on the refugee crisis. One writer asks, “whether the people of Europe wish their countries to become the sorts of societies that are capable of taking the steps that will be required to stop the flow of migration.” He goes on to describe what this might look like… and suggests that Germany’s response comes in part because they have known this reality. Another writer reminds us that Britain redrew the map in the “Middle East” and the US “took over its imperial mandate”… she blames political meddling for the current situation. A third writer lays blame at the feet of President Bush and his lust for war. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the US and Britain got together again only with an entirely different aim? Not on the horizon so far, but many citizens of many countries doing what they can.
The suggestion to donate money is lovely, and I’m also curious about ways we might help Syrian refugees to settle in our communities, as your family modeled so remarkably, Christina. Does anyone have connections to groups in the US or Canada doing work related to that?
What a lovely reminder of how to manage this ongoing human struggle. Thank you for all of your inspiration in my life!
Thank you for grounding me in the midst of busyness. This is a marvelous memoir.
This memory moved me. Canadians are reaching out to help settle Syrian refugees here. On my small Island, Gabriola [ just North of the San Juan Islands ], we are currently fundraising to welcome a family here. If we raise enough funds, we’ll welcome more. It’s difficult to imagine the hell they’ve been through. I came to your site simply to look for more information about meeting in circles. Blessed to have also found humanity. Thank-you!