The shoeshine boy kept trailing me, insisting on polishing my walking shoes, which were a little dusty from my stroll through Aleppo’s ancient souk. His sweet, sad eyes haunted me so I relented. Those shoes, which I used for another 12 years after my Syrian trip in 2000, stayed pitch black forever.
Today, I sit in Berlin watching thousands of Syrians walk to freedom. I wonder if that boy is among them, or whether he died in one of the numerous artillery battles or barrel bombs or gunfire fights that have scorched Syria into a charred memory.
I was in Syria for two weeks. I tasted homemade ice cream in Damascus, stood in the immaculate and stunning Umayyad Mosque, ventured through the desert to wander the ruins of Palmyra, helped a waiter write a love letter in English to a tourist he had met, devoured the most delicious falafel in Hama and ran into Alexander, who owned a table mat and cloth stand in Aleppo’s 1,000-year-old souk.
“You are Canadian? You look like your Governor General — Adrienne Clarkson,” he told me. Shocked I asked him, how did he know this?
“Oh she was visiting here. I met her. I follow Canadian politics. I listen to Radio Canada International.”
Alexander, who looked like the actor Danny Devito with a bushy moustache, was a delight to chat with and knew everything that was going on politically in Canada.
I don’t need a photo to remind me of any of these people, especially the shoeshine boy. I cry every time I think of him.
I have a hard time reconciling the enthusiastic response in my current home to that of Canada, my country of citizenship. Germany will likely welcome 500,000 to 800,000 Syrian refugees within a year. In Canada, it is a paltry drip: 2,300 have been resettled with plans for another 10,000.
Canadian Rebecca Dumbrill is also upset about the numbers. She just moved to Berlin with her daughter and husband from Ontario back in February. Dumbrill is collecting donations from friends in Canada (about 500 euros so far), planning a welcome party for refugees next month and looking to see if they can foster a Syrian child who has made it on his or her own.
“I strongly believe there is no neutral,” she told Yahoo Canada News. “If we don’t open our borders, let people in … we may as well be the ones sealing their fate or sentencing them to death.”
In the past few weeks, I watched my Facebook feed as some Canadian friends posted critical pieces lambasting the German and EU governments for not doing more. I started posting “good” German stories to balance it out - there is a beautiful, almost silent video of Germans in some anonymous town greeting a bus of Syrians. Germans opened their arms. It’s not just that they did the proper thing; it’s that they started organizing in ways I could never have imagined.
On the Facebook group Free Advice Berlin, there are frequent posts from someone gathering supplies to bring to the refugees waiting at the registration centre, or another is reminding people to “help the refugees who are in Lageso,TurmStr 21, they need personal hygiene products :tooth brush, tooth paste, shampoo, shaving foam, razors, babies's hygiene, pads. it's block C, on the left when you enter the centre.”
Lucy from England is one of many expats pitching in to do their part. She offered to collect donations around the city on her Facebook post and described the response as “overwhelming.”
“I personally don’t have much to spare to donate, but I do have a car ” she told Yahoo Canada News. “Lots of people in Berlin don’t drive…It took me about two hours to do 18 pickups.”
Lucy, who did not want her last name used, dropped a batch of donations at a hostel in the eastern part of the city and is organizing the rest of the stuff for other drop-offs.
One young couple hosted three Syrian men for a few nights as they waited to be bussed to an official refugee centre outside of Berlin after registering at the government office. When the couple asked for some winter clothing, they were inundated. It’s the same everywhere. Germans and ex-pats have all contributed to the response for donations and help.
Dumbrill says that kind of can-do attitude is pervasive in Germany.
“Ever since I moved here, I am shown repeatedly that people just don’t sit down and expect someone else to handle things. They take action!”
Another example of that would be what’s been called the “AirBnB for Refugees” organization started by a young German couple matchmaking citizens with refugees. This is apparently spreading to other European countries.
Almost 800 Germans have signed up to the Flüchtlinge Willkommen (Refugees Welcome) website. The site’s Berlin founders, Jonas Kakoschke, 31, and Mareike Geiling, 28, live with Bakari, a refugee from Mali.
Some Germans can cover the costs through social welfare payments and about a quarter of the rents are paid for by donations through the website.
Lists of how to help are being passed through social media. NGOs in Berlin collaborated on one site so people could help in just a mouse click.
Vietnamese boat people
I grew up in the 1980s and it was with bursting pride when I watched the Canadian government stand up to declare it would take in 50,000 Vietnamese refugees in one year. For a country of such a small population at the time, the gesture would shame other governments into proclaiming they would help out as well.
In 2005, the country received 35,775 refugees but last year that dropped to 23,286. According to the United Nations, Canada went from being the fifth-highest refugee-receiving country in 2005 to 15th last year.
“Many Canadians want to open their borders to refugees but, at the moment, Canada does not have a government that is interested in it,” said Dumbrill.
“Canada was once on the right track to something great. It’s really sad to see the direction it has taken.”
Over the weekend, in my neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, a mountain of donations was gathered in a park. While giving appears to be flowing, I have heard occasional grumblings with one local telling me “these people have good clothes and cellphones” and wondered why they should be coming here. With the massive cost of uniting East and West Germany, some citizens are wary of sharing what they see as hard-earned resources.
Mostly, I see people heading to train stations with candy and food and water.
The shoeshine boy didn’t have any shoes. And Alexander had two boys and a wife.
“I love Canada,” he told me. “I applied to immigrate but I have been turned down twice.”
I hope they are all alive. I hope they are safe.