The Dignity of the Stranger

Six-year-old Atiya pulled me along through the halls of the former school building, eager to show me her room.

She stopped in front of one classroom door, knocked, and waited for a muffled response before opening it. The room had been split into different sections with makeshift dividers. A woman pulled aside the curtain hanging in front of the opening of one section and, with a smile and gesture, welcomed me into her home.

We sat around a table on mismatched chairs pulled from various corners of the room, and Atiya’s mother Jasmine brewed strong coffee for us. Her coffee maker was a simple machine balanced on a folding table wedged between two bunkbeds. As she poured the drink into Styrofoam cups, Atiya offered me a platter of cookies with a proud smile. Through translation by her friend, I learned that all Jasmine wanted was her own kitchen in which to cook for her family.

Glancing around the room, I noticed a redesigned cardboard box. It was a pretend washing machine that Atiya’s big brother, 10-year-old Sami, had built, complete with a Sharpie-drawn door and knobs. His dream is to build a real one someday.

I was amazed by Atiya’s resilience and potential as well; they were evident in her enthusiasm to practice German, form friendships, and learn about the world around her. She was also an eager volunteer in the kitchen. Everyone at the camp received a 1.5-liter bottle of water, and when it was empty, they would return it to the kitchen in order to get a full one. Atiya monitored this barter. She stood confidently in front of crates of water bottles, willing to give one up only in exchange for another. Even the biggest grown-ups didn’t dare argue with the three-and-a-half foot boss.

When I said goodbye to her family on the last day of my internship at this refugee camp in Germany, Atiya said in all her sweet innocence, “Tschüss meine süße!” (“Goodbye my sweetie!”).  Two months later, I learned that Atiya and her family had moved out of the camp and into a home.

* * *

Meeting Atiya, her family, and many other refugees was an incredibly humbling and overwhelming experience. It was also ironic. Though I had hoped to welcome them, they welcomed me with hospitality and kindness. My internship brought me face to face with so many immense issues in the refugee crisis, and with my own frustration that I couldn’t fix any of them. The one thing I could do was humble myself.

I could reject the savior complex and drink a strong cup of coffee.

By accepting their hospitality, I could acknowledge their inherent dignity and the value of their gifts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms in its first article that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This document highlights principles ingrained in many societies and has been the foundation of countless treaties, laws, and constitutions.

Yet on what is the concept of inherent dignity built?

Dr. Timothy Keller explains that the origin of human rights question has three possible answers: natural law, humanity, or God. The first cannot be true when we see the violence and predation in the natural world. The second, humanity as the origin of intrinsic rights, is actually quite frightening. Rights granted by the majority can easily be taken away when popular opinion shifts. Taken to its conclusion, it would imply, for example, that slavery wasn’t wrong in 1750 because the consensus deemed it OK.

This leaves God as the One who has endowed us with unalienable rights. Indeed, the Bible continually affirms the inherent value of every human, declaring that “God created man in His own image.”

And this is the truth that motivates me to continue pursuing my passion for public health and social justice. Working in the refugee camp has helped me realize that one aspect of acknowledging Imago Dei is humbling myself and treasuring the gifts of those we so often arrogantly deem as having nothing to offer.

God cherishes us in a cosmic way. It is incredible to think that, when Christ broke into our broken world, He allowed Himself to be cared for by tainted beings. He cherished the tears of a woman who washed his feet. He delights in our worship, even though it is still marred by sin.

If the holy, perfect God treasures the gifts of the people who rejected him, then how much more should we, who are equal in our humanity and worth, value one another?

Everyone wants to be known; everyone hopes to be valued. I saw the beauty of this when, while walking through the town with Atiya, a German classmate called out to her from across the street to say hello. I experienced it when Sami skated up to me in his rollerblades to give me a hug. I thank God for this time with these children and their families; their lives remind and compel me to value those whom we so often devalue. Tschüss meine süßen, Atiya, Sami, und Jasmine. I have not forgotten where your value lies.

—Fiona Grace Eichinger a sophomore biology and global health double major at the University of Pittsburgh, and plans to graduate in May 2019. Fiona is a first-generation American; her parents emigrated from Germany 20 years ago. Since her first year at Pitt, Fiona has been involved in a student organization called FORGE (Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment), a group that tutors refugees through a college and career prep program for high school students and an in-home program for families. When Fiona was in Germany visiting relatives this past summer, she wanted to learn first-hand about the refugee crisis, and so she contacted Die Johanniter (an organization similar to the Red Cross) and asked if she might do an internship.