A human perspective.

    October 7, 2015

    The Syrian refugee camps are more than numbers, they are people with stories.  Singer/songwriter and Sun Valley favorite Korby Lenker visited a camp one day while performing in Germany. He and a friend rode their bikes out a camp, not knowing what they were doing, or what they would say, or if anyone could speak English.  Then they found Muhammad.  This is his story. And their connection.


    ‘This is my new friend Muhammad. He’s a Lebanese-born Palestinian who worked for a news program in Syria before everything went to hell and he fled to Germany. We met here, in a small town called Lüneburg.

    I’m sleeping in a house down the street for the next few days. What happened was, this morning over coffee my friend Jas told me the city had accepted several thousand refugees and that they were living in two separate camps at the edge of town. She said one was close by – we could get there by bike. So we got on the bikes and went. Neither of us was sure what I had in mind.

    We biked through a forest and past a jail and alongside a cornfield and then we were there. A metal fence surrounded what looked like ship containers, white, with a little square window cut into each one. Jas and I stood outside the fence, straddling our bikes, hesitating. It was a nice day, warm and clear. She looked at me like what are you thinking here pal so I said, “Maybe we just go inside and ask the first person we see if they speak English?”

    “Or German,” she added.

    Yes. So we pushed our bikes through an open gate and up to one of the open doors at the entrance to a container house. The area felt deserted. I could hear noises inside the buildings, but outside it was pretty empty. Short dry crabgrass filled the small courtyard. A couple kids were pushing something around on a blanket. A guy leaning against a wall was talking on his cell phone.

    I kickstood my bike and looked inside the door, but it was just a long empty hallway. Unclear the way forward.

    Definite moment of awkwardness here. Borderline trespassing. Maybe I shouldn’t have left my passport back at the house. I avoided Jas’ eyes because I imagined she might be a little uncomfortable and I knew if I saw the discomfort I would have to do something conciliatory, like leave.

    Suddenly the guy on the cellphone had finished talking and was heading back toward the container house, toward us.

    When he got close I said “Hey.” Then I said, “Do you speak English?”

    “Yes,” he said and stopped walking. He had large eyes with heavy lashes and close-cropped tight curly hair. Also he smiled, which is all I ever ask for really when I wander into a stranger’s home uninvited, so I said, “Hey cool. Well, I don’t know what I’m really looking for, I just wanted to say hello to —”

    Then I was like, well what are you trying to do here Lenker? Come and gaze at the real-life dispossessed so you can put another adventure in your bag? Is this man and his story the next souvenir to go into your suitcase, beside the gummy bears and Ampelmånnchen? Do you think you are going to actually help him?

    And then I thought, well probably not, but it would be fun to play ping pong with someone here. Maybe he plays ping pong.

    So I said to Muhammad, “I guess I was looking for you.”

    “Well you have found me,” he smiled with all the teeth. “I am here visiting my friends. You will come with me?”

    I looked at Jas. She seemed to be down for it.

    I said: “We would love to do this.”

    So he lead the way and we followed him into the container ship house that was actually a dozen container ship houses stacked side by side connected by a long white hallway. Manufactured everything. But clean. Very new. No ping pong tables anywhere, but there were plenty of other things going on so I was feeling okay about it.

    We walked past a dozen or so open doorways and in each, I saw a man or a handful of men, sitting on beds and chairs, sipping what I assumed was tea. Some wore tunics, some old-looking jackets. A gathering theme was not forthcoming. Beside the two kids outside, I didn’t see any children. No women in sight anywhere.

    Finally Muhammad stopped in front of one of the doors and made an unfamiliar gesture I took to mean enter here. So I entered here and Jasmine followed. There were three other men, all older than our new friend, sitting around an boxy old-style television. One wore a white hat like a baseball cap with the brim missing. The tv was tuned to the Al Jezeera channel. I could tell because Arabic writing filled the bottom of the screen. The subject being discussed must have been the recent drone strikes the UK had done on those guys who fled to fight for ISIS because it was showing clips of the British house of commons. I recognized the footage as the same I had seen on the BBC channel in the hotel I stayed in in Cardiff two days before.

    It’s not like I sat and stared. I saw this for one second and then who cares, because there were real people in the room.

    An old man stood up and shook my hand. His skin was dark and his face looked unnaturally smooth with sharp straight lines etched in it like he had been burned all over. I didn’t ask. Muhammad gestured I should sit on the bed and he pulled a seat up for Jas and then the man with the burned skin stood up and walked across the room and picked two enormous bruised bananas out of a basket and handed one to each of us. It was all very easy going.

    These people had known me for less than one minute and they were just opening up their home to us and here’s some fruit and okay let’s talk. So we talked. I asked Muhammad his story and he told me in mostly perfect english about his journalism background, his term at the news program in Syria which he named and I have forgotten. He said ever since coming to Germany months ago (he was in an earlier wave than the most recent) he spent his time learning German and helping his friends send emails to the embassy and navigate the considerable sturm and drang that precedes legal immigration.

    He asked me where I was from. I said Nashville. His expression said he had never heard of it.

    I asked him where his family was. He said they were all back in Lebanon, waiting for an appointment with the embassy February 16. I could tell the date had great weight. It was the only really specific thing he said.

    “Do you think you will ever go back?” I asked.

    “No,” he said. “I am here until forever.”

    When I asked him if he felt like he was starting over he didn’t understand what I was saying. Jas said to ask him a different way.

    “Beginning again.” I said. “Do you feel like you are beginning again?”

    “That is it,” he said the large eyes glowing. “I am learning German. I am getting better at English. I am beginning again.”

    I’m not trying to make a hero out of him. I think I just want to point out that he was, well, a person. A normal, intelligent man facing a way more difficult situation than you or I will probably ever endure. And he was meeting the challenge and helping out his friends and he also had time for some idle chatter with people who couldn’t really actively help him in his cause. We were just hanging out.

    We talked for awhile and I ate what admittedly was a pretty far gone banana and then that was done and Jas said we had to go rent my PA system for tonight’s show. Muhammad and I traded numbers, email, Facebook and I fully expect to hear from him again soon.

    Who knows where it’s all going? I just asked him if he spoke English.’

    Posted by dayle at 10:55 am
    Filed in: Café News
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