I Looked Into The Eyes Of A Refugee Mother

by Kimberly Scanga
Originally Published: 

I didn’t mean to write about this. Really. I didn’t.

I wanted it to be something I could do quietly. To sit back a bit, to watch and marvel at the people giving up so much for this cause. I wanted to help, in whatever small way I could, and then go home and shut it out. Until the next time at least.

But I can’t think of much else these days. I wake up in the middle of the night with their faces before me. Their tired eyes. Their bright smiles. Their tears. Their fear and their gratefulness.

It all started with dinner. After spending nearly the whole summer away we were excited to see our neighbors again. To catch up on holidays and kids and life in general.

But our conversation quickly took a different direction than expected. I imagine they felt much like I do now. Like, while life goes on, there is little else to think about. Little else to talk about. Like even when you do your best to not talk about it, they’re still there. Pushing their way into your comfortable life. Reminding you.

We knew, of course, about the refugees moving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, trying to get through Hungary. Trying to get West, to safety.

But we knew about it from articles and news and, well, Facebook mostly. Now, though, we were hearing it firsthand, from our neighbors, who were there. In the train station they spent their free time, and their not free time, doing anything they could to help.

They spoke passionately about the families they met, the things they had done, and we were completely captivated. When they went to leave she asked. And I’m so grateful she did.

Joel went down for the first time that night with her husband. I waited anxiously at home. And although it was nearly one in the morning when he got home, I didn’t sleep. I didn’t ask right away. I wanted to know and I didn’t want to know. But eventually he told me everything.

After he laid down his head that night I stayed awake, my eyes both wide and tired, thinking about the baby. The mama. The kids sleeping in the park. The dad likely forcing himself up, protecting his family, planning their next move.

And so when she asked me to come I was nervous, but I couldn’t say no.

I spent about an hour wondering why I had come at all. What could I do that wasn’t already being done by the wonderful volunteers, many of whom were there nearly every day?

And then I heard some murmurings. There’s a family coming, small kids.

I looked up and I saw them, crossing the platform, nearly collapsing onto the hard cement floor. The mother carried something, and it took me a minute to realize what it was. A baby. So small he was likely born on their journey. Her other three children huddled close, one lying atop the family’s only backpack and falling fast asleep.

When I looked at the mom I recognized her immediately. I had never seen her before, of course. I had never been in her situation. I had never known anyone who was.

And yet I knew the brokenness on her face. I recognized the tears in her eyes. I saw her four small children, and understood they were both a source of grief and comfort for her. I realized that she just wanted to sit on her own, to rest, and yet she wanted them near. I heard what she was saying, that she couldn’t go any further, couldn’t do it anymore, though she spoke no words.

When her youngest child whimpered beside me I saw she wanted to comfort her, but she was so tired. So worn. I motioned that I could pick her up, place her beside her mother, who she clearly longed for, and she nodded, patting the ground beside her. I saw her eyes on me a few minutes later as her daughter laid on a makeshift cardboard bed, as she continued to whimper and I moved beside her, rubbing her back in small circles until she drifted off to sleep.

I noticed the gratefulness in her eyes as I sat near to her and offered to hold her baby in his small carrying basket. I noticed how surprisingly heavy and awkward it was in my lap. I noticed her watching him as, after a while on my lap, he started to squirm, and how anxious she was to hold him again. How she buried her head in his neck and covered his face with kisses. I noticed it was the first time I saw her smile. I knew what it was to feel exhausted by your children, and then to see them through someone else’s eyes. I understood that her kisses and smiles were those of a woman in love, falling deeper every moment.

It’s an exhausted kind of love. And while I don’t know what horrors she’s been through, or those that still may come, while I don’t know what it’s like not to know who will take you in, where you will live, when you will eat next, I do know that kind of love. I know it well.

Recently Benjamin’s been sick. Sick and needy and no one and nothing will do, but Mama. For nearly 3 days I could barely tear him away, even to use the bathroom. Our only separation came in the evening, when I finally got him to bed. And even that was short-lived.

Yesterday morning I wanted to take the big kids to church. I needed a break from Benjamin, and secretly longed to enjoy a full service without running through the halls after him. To sing without him pulling on my arm, to listen without him crying from the nursery.

But even with the best distractions, he wouldn’t let me go. His lip quivered and he clung to me like a tiny monkey. He shook and sobbed and after about a 30-minute struggle, and a few tears from Mama, I finally gave in. This wasn’t going to work. As much as I needed to be away from him, he needed to be with me more.

Sometimes it’s an easy kind of love, but often it’s an exhausted one. It’s a constant giving, even when it feels like there’s nothing left to give. It hurts sometimes, but it’s the most real love. The most sincere.

It’s what I recognized in that mom that night. It’s how I knew her so well. It’s why she didn’t need to speak a word for me to realize, at that point, she needed nothing more than a small break. A helping hand.

And I knew that while we carried and guided four exhausted children through the train station this wasn’t something she was doing to them, but for them. Even if they didn’t understand. Even if it took absolutely everything out of her. Even if it left her broken.

And I knew, in her situation, I would do the same. I would be the broken one. The tired one. The one in need of help. The one doing anything to keep my children safe.

I felt that night, looking in that mother’s eyes, what it is to be human. And I know it now, in a way I didn’t know it just a few weeks ago. In a way I can never go back and un-know.

I realize I’m lucky, to be born where I was. But I also realize it’s just geography. And that, at the heart of things, in the ways that really matter, we’re not so different after all.

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