I hunched over a screen, staring at letters that looked like the childhood scrawl of Jackson Pollock. With the refugee translators returned to their tents after a 12-hour brain-frying shift, poor technology was the only way to communicate. I sat, legs crossed on damp concrete with a hunched back and tired eyes, squinting at a cell phone taking too long to load. We can do penis transplants but can’t create useable language translation apps.
I managed to ask my newfound friend what he wished the world knew about Afghanistan, where he left two months prior and 6,000 Euro richer, as if I had the means to distribute any response to the “entire world.” The question itself contains weird past perfect subjunctive tenses, so I highly doubt our communication was translated well by this second-rate piece of software.
His response was equal parts defensive and sincere, and read back some poorly translated version of: The Earth not knowing we are proud loyal people.
It left a lot to be desired. I selfishly hoped for a long diatribe to appear, revealing intricacies of the Afghani psyche. But no, I had to rely on an off-brand piece of translation software most likely written by some second-rate engineer who funneled a lot of beer in college (During times of great frustration, I find it’s most cathartic to conjure up a fictionalized scapegoat).
I had dreams of romanticized life-changing conversations because isn’t that what will save us all? I instead got a lesson in how reliant we are on suboptimal technology. Luckily, I had a much more fulfilling discussion the day prior with this same man.
On line duty, I caught a skeptical glare from the line of refugees directed my way. Two men were chatting, smirking, and staring. One of them with a boyishly handsome face and a reassuring smile, A., while the other looked like he knew some terrible secret about me and wanted to kick me in the head for it, B.
Not knowing how to engage these guys who were clearly talking about me, I just stared back like I was taught on the playground as a kid. Before I had to break the ice, the younger, friendlier boy, A., spoke in nearly perfect English, “We are laughing because you look like someone. Do you know Bollywood? You look like Hritik Roshan.”
If all cultural exchanges involve an Afghani teenager telling an Irish kid from Philadelphia he looks like one of India’s most stunningly handsome actors, we’d all be in a better place. I felt very cushy and accomplished about my newfound status as a number one stunna with 36 ab muscles, that is, until B., who had been mean-mugging me all along, launched into a no-holds-barred inquiry.
It was evident this was not a quixotic volunteer-get-to-know-refugee chat where everybody hugs it out, sings Cat Stevens, and talks about how we’re all in this together. We are most definitely not all in it together.
“Hmm… well… there’s… a lot of… it’s because…,” I fumbled with an appropriate response that was equal parts realistic and respectful. The biggest epidemic in a refugee camp is bullshit, and refugees have learned to detect it without fail.
It was enough to make Kipling’s stomach churn. As I fumbled for words, an American with a Napoleon complex (who still curses the day thick-heeled shoes went out of style for men) decided the best way to distribute clothing donations was to shove them in each person’s face regardless of size, need, or recipient.
“EVERYBODY GETS A SHIRT!”
He insisted on bellowing this every minute to make sure the world knew that he was here to impose some motherfucking order, and he was going to do some charitable fucking shit. Team America meets Europe’s refugee crisis.
Slightly distracted, I made A., who translated, repeat the question so I had more time to construct a thoughtful response.
If there was a generic, whitewashed response to this question, I didn’t know it, and B. wouldn’t allow for further bullshit anyway. There was little good I could accomplish here aside from having an honest conversation.
A., our translator, was only 17 years old but had been blessed with the calm of Dalai Lama. He was here, leading his mother away from Afghanistan after his older brother, a reporter, was kidnapped over a year ago and never heard from again.
B., the interrogator, was the skeptical one. A young professional getting his life started, he had a newborn girl and wife he left at home in Afghanistan months ago. His skepticism seemed to be an occupational hazard. Due to being an honest reporter with a law degree, B. was told to stop reporting the truth or be killed.
“Why do you think we are here standing in this line today?”
B. didn’t mean just “standing in line.” He meant why are they living on asphalt thousands of miles from their families, with no running water, no showers, using uncleaned portable toilets. Despite all his accomplishments, his life had taken a cruel twist of fate, and he wanted validation that his anger was justified.
Before I could stutter a response, “EVERYBODY GETS A SHIRT” boomed from the back of the hundreds long line of men yet again. Port winds picked up, the rains started.
There was no need to explore the nuances and complexities. B. knew them. I knew them. He was testing my authenticity. He continued to pepper me with questions about Donald Trump, Islamophobia, U.S. refugee policy, and lack of concern for Afghanistan’s return to peace. B. did not smile.
A fellow volunteer and I offered a mix of honest answers acknowledging America’s shortcomings while also pushing back about America’s role in the world.
I couldn’t help but grin. In no world could I imagine an Afghani person giving the U.S. more credit than we deserve. But doesn’t it make sense? We have invisible drones that pick off people from the sky. Why can’t we just eliminate bad guys, dust our hands off, and lead Afghanistan on their way?
“We’re really good at destroying things, we’re not really good at building things,” my friend wisely asserted. Not since the Marshall Plan have we done any successful rebuilding of anything. Blowing shit up is more our specialty.
B. nodded. After an hour, the skepticism finally fell from his face, and he smiled. I’d like to think that B. knew that Americans were not all Donald Trump Islamophobes and Team America volunteers, but he needed to pressure test that idea.
A shirt abruptly appeared in his face.
B. grinned, threw his hands up, and walked back to his tent, “Shoes! Just shoes!”