By Robbie Schaefer
Pikpa Refugee Camp, Lesvos, Greece. June, 2016.
“No problem?” asks Sahar, pointing at my guitar. This is her favorite English phrase. She is 14 years old and has recently arrived from Afghanistan with her father and younger brother.
I am not sure why I’m in this camp. All I know is that one night I was home watching PBS, footage of flimsy, overcrowded orange life rafts filling the screen, and something deep inside of me said,
Lech Lecha. Go. Go unto. So, I grabbed my guitar and went.
“No problem,” I answer, handing my guitar to Sahar. She has played it every day since I arrived. She asks me to teach her chords. “Sad one,” she says, smiling. On the fifth day, I ask her about her mother. She points her finger to her head and makes the sound of a gun going off. “Taliban,” she says. Her mother was a teacher, she says. Her mother played guitar.
Torah tells us, “And thou shalt love (the stranger) as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). And yet, our rabbis say that to love is not enough: “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as though they came forth from Egypt” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5).
Together, these texts tell us we must find ourselves in one another. This is why, on Passover, we do not hold up the bowl of matzah ball soup or the brisket and say, “May all who are hungry, let them come eat.” No, we hold up a cracker: the bread of affliction, the meager food that marks our own release from bondage. Even as we offer to share it with others it reminds us that we are what we eat: Matzah. Freedom. Come, we say. Let us ingest these together.
And suddenly, as I look at Sahar, I see every bit of my father — once a Holocaust survivor, a stranger in a strange land, wandering through the world, hoping it will find him acceptable, worthy. I see every bit of myself. “Yes,” I hear my recently deceased father say, “we are all refugees.”
The story of the Jewish people’s redemption from slavery is foundational for good reason: It is the lived story of every human. Even those of us, like myself, who live in relative comfort and safety — do we not struggle to escape the shackles of our self-doubt, the tyranny of our pride, the slavery to our cell phones? We live it every day, and because we do, we love that story. And if we, as Jews, love that story, then we must love it for everyone.
“Do not set aside one life for another,” the Mishnah tells us (Ohalot 7:6).
On Passover, right after inviting the stranger in to eat, we say something even more important: “Whoever is in need, let them come and conduct the seder of Passover.” Let them come and conduct the seder of Passover. All humans have a right not only to tell, but to live out their own freedom story. Who are we to deny Sahar that? Indeed, we must not only confirm it, but because our becoming is bound up with hers, we must aid in it.
And now I know why I am here in a refugee camp in Lesvos. I am here because I am a Jew. Fighting back tears, I want to run out of the camp toward the sea that carried her here, the sea not unlike the one that delivered my ancestors to freedom, my father to Israel, the sea in which I can dive and scream and be washed of the world’s brokenness.
Instead I look in Sahar’s eyes — the ones that have seen too much, the ones that are inseparable from my own — and tell her how sorry I am. She looks down and begins to play my guitar.
“No problem,” she says. ■
Robbie Schaefer is a singer-songwriter, theater/film artist and rabbinical student. He lives in Alexandria.