The Man in Row 26

In the weeks and months to come, thousands of refugees will walk quietly down jetways into worlds they've never imagined.

OUR PLANE SITS at the gate in Brussels well past our departure time. Slowly, the empty seats fill with Somali refugees whose flight a day earlier had been cancelled. After a night in the airport, they slide wearily into scattered seats.

Ten years together in a refugee camp in Uganda has melded the group into a close-knit family. What do they feel now, I wonder, knowing that on the other end of this flight they will scatter, not to empty seats but to unknown cities throughout the U.S.? From Syracuse to San Francisco, they will look upon a world they have never imagined. “When will I see my friend?” one little girl asks, not realizing she and her friend will live half a continent apart.

I watch a man a few rows ahead of me. I learn from his friend that he suffers from headaches. I know enough about refugees to realize headaches will likely be the least of his challenges. He and his family will face a confusing culture, strange language, unfamiliar religious practices, unknown yet required skills, and new technology—from flush toilets to garage door openers, from light switches to iPads. Then they’ll have to sort out schools and jobs and health care. They’ll be starting over, basically, with nothing.

Almost nothing. One suitcase per person contains the bit of their past they carry into their future. These slim and elegant humans are traveling very light. Unless, of course, you count the weighty baggage of war and displacement.

I talk with the striking Parisian who facilitates their travel. “They are so grateful the plane waited for them,” she says quietly. Grateful. After fleeing their homeland in desperation. After 10 years in a “temporary” camp. After hunger and disease. After leaving everything that’s familiar. After cancelled flights and cots in airport corridors. Grateful.

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