I have been incredibly fortunate in my life. I have never fled war or known terror. But I’ve had small moments of being afraid.
I knew fear when I was eighteen and had an expired inspection sticker on my New York City Honda and was driving through Louisiana and the cops pulled me over and locked me in their New Orleans Chevy and drove me through the bayous to scare me and they laughed, said I wasn’t as pretty in person as the photo on my driver’s license, said they didn’t like Yankee girls.
I knew fear when I was nineteen and my father’s boss stuck his hand up my skirt and said I dressed like I “wanted it” and when I told him to leave me alone, he pushed himself even closer.
I knew fear when a cab driver pulled the car to the side of the highway, grabbed my hair, tried to kiss me and when I resisted, shoved me back into my seat with a force of anger, then drove fast and recklessly, almost hitting a truck.
I knew fear when I sat powerless before the doctors as they told me that my husband was going to die in six months, in three months, in six weeks, when he began to have seizures, when he lay in a coma, when he died in my arms and I was without him.
I knew fear when I moved, alone with my children, to a house on a dirt road with no cell service and the landlord told the utility guy that I’m a girly-girl and the utility guy let me know that he liked girly-girls.
I knew fear when I stood on a pre-dawn street corner in Ljubljana, Slovenia, waiting for a ride to the refugee camp and I didn’t know the driver, but I knew there would be 2,000 refugees at the camp and people who might not speak English and soldiers with guns and possible violence maybe.
But when I got to the camp on the Austrian border, I had no fear.
I had no fear when I saw the hundreds of refugees, mostly from Syria, lined up behind a fence in the freezing rain, waiting to come to the tent where I was working, to ask for a shirt, a coat, a pair of shoes without worn-out soles.
I had no fear when a mother, alone with her baby, pointed to mittens on the laminated card we had to guide us through the language barrier, though most of the refugees spoke English, so communication was easy for me.
I had no fear when young men, profiled as a threat because of deeds done by a monstrous few, teenagers, needing pants, a sweater, a pair of socks, something that might even make them feel attractive, the way most teenagers want to feel, came to the tent.
I had no fear when one boy, sixteen years old, started to cry because time was almost up and soldiers were about to move him along and we hadn’t found anything that fit.
I had no fear when I grabbed the soldier’s arm, the arm without the gun, and held up my finger, asking please one more minute and he nodded an “okay.”
I had no fear.
I was no longer vulnerable, alone in a world I’d known to be harsh, no, I was part of a bigger world, a world of humanness, all around me, in the donations of the Slovenian people, in the care of the doctors at the camp, in the heated tents erected for sleeping, in the eyes of the refugees, in their struggle, in their vulnerability, and this place of no fear is where my heart was forced to expand instead of contract, to love instead of fear, to use my own vulnerability, as a woman, as a human being, to be the kind of strong you can only be when you see another person as you see yourself, empathy, they call it.
I am you.