Each new year, Winter acts as a demarcation of time, a gentle reminder of a changing of seasons. After meeting an old friend and former aid worker from our time together in Southeast Asia, we spoke of life in Germany over familiar scents of coffee and cigarettes and caught up on recent news in Europe. Sipping coffee, there was mention of a local refugee camp in the Northeast of the city that could use some extra hands. With the new year upon us, there was no better way to spend our time than meeting the faces of the harrowing stories I had only read about in the paper. The daily ingest of stark images of those fleeing their homes---now reminiscent of piles of rubble---can sometimes lose impact. The need for basic infrastructure, language and culture integration, resource management, job creation, and safety is often overlooked. How do communities live, and how do hearts play amidst sites of conflict and controversy?
According to reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Germany is said to have led initiative in the European Union in accepting the greatest number of asylum seekers into the country at a peak of more than 1.3 million migrants in 2015 alone. It is difficult to imagine a country offering asylum to more refugees in a single year than the US has taken in over the last ten years combined.
Within a fortnight, we found ourselves in a kitchen suiting up and meeting local and international staff at a make-shift tent, a camp servicing beds and hot meals to hundreds of families who had somehow found their way to the tent. We quickly split duties in cooking, cleaning and serving hot meals that typically take place on-site three times a day. I was handed a hot plate of chicken and pasta and instructed to serve two slices of bread and a banana to each person and family passing by. Winter never felt so warm and cold at the same time. Quickly and repeatedly, I shuffled trays to hungry, outstretched hands in front of me. I noticed some smiles and mentions of "danke shon," while others avoided eye contact altogether. My eyes quickly lowering to meet theirs on a plate of pasta in search of common ground. Preparing food and distributing adequate amounts for hundreds, if not thousands of mouths three times a day for seconds and thirds is not easy. It requires planning, resources and seriously sturdy feet.
This New Year, I was reminded that sometimes our best contributions manifest in simple honest forms of direct action. It took serving sliced bread and bananas to meet the smiles of the Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi and Iranian families often overlooked in our media. What if a simple solution to a global crisis could begin in sharing a hot plate of pasta? These life lessons we simply cannot learn siloed in classrooms staring blankly at screens taking our online MOOCs. Don't get me wrong. MOOCs are great and all, but only in conjunction with a learning first rooted in shared human experience.