When We Were Refugees

Most days, I drive to work. It's just a three mile distance, but Connecticut Avenue at rush hour provides countless outlets for spasms of misanthropy. Within the metal confines of my car, I have bellowed all manner of expletives at my fellow travelers. The last minute, left-turn signal engager who makes me miss the light. The beer delivery guy commandeering an entire lane of 19th Street to unload his truck. The Metro bus driver who can't be bothered to look left before cutting back out into the stream of traffic. Some days I've leaned on the horn. Other days I've idled in the standstill, knocking my forehead lightly against the steering wheel. It is rare that I keep front of mind that we are all just trying to get where we need to go, to work our day and get back home again.

From time to time, my husband needs the car, and I commute via bus and Metro. This of course means closer contact with whatever portion of humanity happens to board these transports at the precise moment that I do. There's plenty here to irk one into a foul temper, too. The woman reading her paper who won't move to the center of the train so more passengers can board. The guy who pretends no one else might want the seat occupied by his bag. Most of the time, we don't bother speaking up about it. We avoid eye contact and position for a modest amount of personal space.

But on occasion, the train stops short without warning, lurches, and bodies are thrown against one another. And in the moment in time that follows that jolt, we apologize to the person behind us who just took a backpack to the face. We ask the woman who fell because she hadn't held on to the metal pole if she's all right. We vent to other nodding heads about how Metro needs to get its damn act together.

When the train begins to move again, by any objective measure we are the same miniscule subset of the species that began the trip. But not quite the same. Amidst the shared experience of a force that stood to harm us all, we are not exactly the same.

I rode one of the last Metro trains that ran on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the morning of the day that an entire nation was stopped short. I had been scheduled to attend a conference at a Capitol Hill hotel, but when I entered the lobby it was packed with heads craning up at television screens. I don't remember who told me I should probably leave, but I took the advice and - without even thinking about it - descended back into the Metro station. The ride was smooth, while high above bodies hurled on bodies, a mighty skyline was laid low, a landmark synonymous with our might was battered, and for that day and many days to follow we all forged a new relationship with fear.

But in spite of - perhaps because of - that fear, millions of us lived and gave and received and retold countless acts of love and selflessness. Blood banks had to turn away donors who arrived by the thousands. In New York, strangers pulled each other through smoke and ash, or took in the shellshocked who had no way to get back home. Here in Washington, as people emptied out of office buildings and walked shoulder to shoulder, unsure even where we should go, I knew I would never leave this city.

But lest we forget, it was not just Americans who took care of our own that day.

When the FAA shuttered American air space, there were dozens of aircraft already making their way toward our shores. Many of them were rerouted to Gander, Newfoundland, to an airport that began operating in 1938, and in its heyday had been the primary staging point for the deployment of Allied aircraft to Europe during World War II. But Gander International Airport had quieted over the succeeding decades. The jet age made it unnecessary to stop to refuel, so the major carriers bypassed Gander altogether.

Not so on this day, when 38 aircraft holding 7,000 bewildered souls touched down, one after the other.

Gander's entire population was 10,000.

What happened next has gained some modest renown, inspiring a book called The Day the World Came To Town and even an offbeat musical, Come From Away, the term that Newfoundlanders apparently use to refer to, well, everyone from everywhere else.

Gander had no hotels to speak of, and so churches, schools, and community centers were repurposed into hostels for unexpected refugees who quite literally had descended upon the native citizenry. They became known as the "plane people." Many were American, but in a telling snapshot of who is bound for this country on any given weekday in September, the plane people hailed from 100 different nations.

The stories from Gander have been playing over and over in my mind these last few days. When my kids are tucked in to sleep, I've watched the You Tube videos, some made in real time in 2001, and others capturing the reunion of the "plane people" with their hosts a decade later.

An American couple who had been bound for their honeymoon in Las Vegas recalled how an older couple from Gander insisted that sleeping in a church pew would simply not do for two newlyweds. They opened their home and gave them their bed.

Another American recalled the women of this tiny hamlet arriving with fresh linens, and collecting laundry to wash, and how in that moment the comfort of a clean towel meant more than she could have imagined.

Another couple would learn that their son, a firefighter, perished that day.

Imagine being in a foreign land and in the hands of strangers when you are living the unimaginable. What would it mean to be comforted? What would it mean to be the one giving comfort?

Sixteen years later, it is hard to grasp how in those first hours and days we had no notion of when life might return to normal, now that normal would always be a little worse. But I do remember feeling sorrow for Americans who couldn't get home, even if just to absorb the reality, mourn, and cling tightly to family and friends.

Some of those people had become Gander's Come From Away's.

By all accounts, the people of Gander didn't consider what they did to be in any way extraordinary. Not a one would accept a dollar for the food, shelter, clothing, blankets they gave freely to 7,000 strangers.

I can't stop wondering, what really happened here?

Did centuries of peaceful friendship on a shared continent make it more compelling to answer the call for help?

Was the sheer excitement of an overnight flashmob immigration wave enough to spur everyone to leave their homes and take all of it in?

Do they simply make better people in Newfoundland?

Maybe. But I'm guessing that even the Ganderites fume and curse and resent and cower from time to time, just like I do from inside my car. But for that span of days, because these living and breathing bodies were cast upon them, some light we each carry within us compelled the people of Gander to make sure they were all right.

In her book Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Mellon reflects on the word "crisis," and how the Greek root of the word is "to sift." She offers: "That's what crises do. They shake things up until we are forced to hold on to only what matters most. The rest falls away."

To compare the relatively short displacement of those 7,000 people to the refugee tragedy playing out on a global scale would take reductionism to a grotesque extreme. Last year, our spinning planet reached a grim milestone, as the UN High Commission on Refugees announced that there were more forcibly displaced people around the world than at any time since World War II: enough mothers and fathers, grandparents, teenagers and toddlers, infants and newborns to comprise the entire population of the United Kingdom. The scale of the suffering and need is so daunting that it risks crushing the spirit. The desire to look away is almost irrepressible.

For two centuries, though no one would say we've done it perfectly, we have not looked away.

It is a fluke of our geography that our nation borders only two countries, but it was the animating spirit of what formed us into a people that drew millions of fellow riders on the storm, from virtually every corner of the globe, here. Many made the decision freely, though leaving family and all that was known to them is no less displacing. Many have the choice forced on them, that simplest of analyses - life or death - hurtling them toward the hope of what we so proudly call America.

Last Saturday, a Syrian family who had survived against all odds, passed every screening, and had a new chapter within their sights instead found themselves detained at Dulles Airport. They were headed to Ohio. Somewhere in the heartland, a community stood ready to be Gander, choosing to share the ride on the train and stop shouting from the car.

And yet, consider that Gander welcomed 7,000 - no screening, no background checks - and a country of nearly 320 million has given refuge to just 15,000 Syrians trying to escape nearly certain devastation or slaughter.

Beneath that number, and in the bewilderment of this moment, lies not just the shame of failing to save as many souls as we can. Far worse is an extension of the Good Samaritan story, where the high priest asked, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" The Good Samaritan famously flipped the question, and asked "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

This moment confronts us with the third question, perhaps the defining one: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"

Who will we be when it all falls away, when the sifting is done?

In answering that question, we would do well to think about a small place that would never be the same, even after its Come From Away Americans made their way home.