“S’il vous plaît! S’il vous plaît!” (please! please!) She ran up to us frantically, cell phone in one hand, and a baby girl in the other resting on her hip with a sucker in her mouth. She was a round woman with wireframe glasses and brown curly hair, dark skin.
“Uh…désolé…je ne parle pas Français.” (Sorry, I do not speak French.) It was one of three phrases I had hastily memorized on the plane ride over. Dave and I still had our giant backpacks on, having just arrived to the Paris airport to begin our honeymoon. He was mid step, as we were en route to the customs check.
“You speak English!” Her accent was thick. Maybe Middle Eastern? “Please? Please!!” She threw the phone in my face, actually placing it on my ear. ‘Hello!’ a man on the other end shouted with a similar accent. ‘You speak English? Please, can you help my wife? She is lost.’
“Uh…” I looked to Dave wide-eyed. What do I do? Who is this guy? “Well, she’s still in the airport. Um, terminal two, I think? We need to go through customs, I think?” I just noticed two other young girls, maybe five or six, sitting quietly on a bench with luggage behind the mother and baby. Their dark brown eyes and solemn faces were watching me. The man on the phone said he would wait at baggage claim. ‘Please. You show her the way? Ok, thank you. Thank you.’ I handed the phone back to this woman and stared at Dave, trying to communicate with my eyes. Do we trust this guy? Do we go through customs with this strange woman and three kids? In that moment I almost turned and walked away. I exhaled.
“Ugh, come on,” I threw my arm over my shoulder, gesturing for her to follow us, figuring it was worse to do nothing. “Where are you from?”
She threw the baby into Dave’s arms. Never have I been closer to understanding the phrase, deer in headlights, than looking at Dave in that very moment. She grabbed her luggage and hustled the two little girls towards us. “Syria. We just arrive. First time. I wait – four hours! Now we here.”
The loud, bustling airport spun sharply into focus. The situation: we are heading towards customs with a woman and her kids who just arrived from Syria. We are taking her to a man who claims to be her husband. And Dave is holding their baby.
This is not how we envisioned we would start our Europian honeymoon. We were a little jet lagged from no sleep on the plane, but giddy at the thought of baguettes and cheese and and endless supply of red wine. We had blissfully packed our bags with clothes for the trendy cities and a few hikes along the way. We brought journals and books, travel maps, and had our phones ready to document the whole romantic journey. But this is the thing about life: as we were dreaming of croissants and quaint cobblestone streets, the universe puts a woman in our path, a woman who has who fled gunfire and bombings with her babies, who has most likely moved around several refugee camps, and who was now scared and alone in a foreign land. We had to make a decision: what was our role as Americans? What was our role as humans?
Four days later we were really forced to ponder that question as the President of the United States of America closed its borders to a select group of unlucky souls. As Dave and I were lounging at a friend’s house in the south of France – a friend whom I met on the social travel network, Couchsurfing, ten years prior – we read the news and broke down. Would people think of us differently now? Would we be the ‘hated Americans’? Would we be able to get back home? I thought of refugees spending years trying to get to America, only to be turned away at the last moment. I thought of those who left the country on vacation and were now unable to return to their family. Is this real?
We talked a lot that night with my French friend and her Spanish husband, about our fears and frustrations. But we also spoke about our love of America and all of the great people in the country. We sang classic American songs as Dave and their young daughter played guitar by the fire. They laughed and reminisced about trips they had taken to America on various occasions. “Mmm..I just love the big cups of coffee,” Aude remembered fondly.
The rest of our trip was still very privileged – staying in coastal villages, eating delicious traditional meals, visiting art museums – but it was jaded in a way. I looked at history differently, especially when in Rome. The ancient Romans believed they were the greatest empire on earth, the greatest empire ever in history. They believed they were too great and superior to ever fall. They conquered lands and people because they truly believed they were the best. Looking at the ruins, knowing Rome eventually fell, I felt the need to ask again:
What was our role as Americans? as humans?
Who are we as nations, as empires, as individuals? We all have a duty to self-reflect, if even for a moment, on our role in the world. Empires, nations, and civilizations have fallen throughout history, but humans are still here, and we are more globally connected than ever.
In that airport on the first day, my role was to help another human in need. This woman was exhausted, scared, and all alone with three children. Were flags going off in my brain? Sure. But if I saw a real, true threat I wouldn’t have helped. So we all trudged along, Dave holding this adorable little baby with black curly hair, sucker still in her mouth, down the long halls, down the escalator, and through customs. No problems. And when we exited, there was a man running towards us, smiling from ear to ear as he scooped up his children, hugging them in a universal language: unconditional love. We slipped away as they reunited, knowing our role was complete, at least for now.