Letters From Exile

At the Crossroads WUPPERTAL, West Germany, Nov. 9, 1981.

How right you were, my heart, when you said to me that in order to live, I must emigrate over the ocean to a country of freedom. This was my goal from the beginning, the first night I arrived in Stuttgart from Romania.

I was told to be patient and to stay here for a while. The police had to check on me. So many people from around the world, and many of them ask for political asylum in West Germany. The authorities need to know who they are, who is a robber and who a spy, who is a freedom fighter and who is just an adventurer, who was persecuted and who wasn't, who escaped the Iron Curtain under fire and who left as a tourist? Who was a foreign-affairs employee? Did the person suffer a long time in jail as a prisoner of conscience or as a criminal?

An Ethiopian man who lives here, in the other room, had trouble with his name. He received a letter from the immigration service saying that, in his home country, he had another name. Now he has to prove who he is, which upset him. A lot of paper work has to be done and he doesn't know German. He asks people for help, but everyone is working for his own salvation. We are all at the crossroads.

Trying to immigrate, you have to prove your real identity, your honesty, and the real reason for leaving your home country. Those people who have to decide about you are humans, and they make mistakes, which must be corrected later. It happened to many of us here, in this building.

On the day I was interviewed, there were hundreds of applicants from dozens of countries. I waited all day long, and finally, at 6 in the evening when everybody was rushing home, I was called in. I was told that it was too late; the bus with the other people was waiting for me to go back to the camp, hundreds of kilometers away. ``It's winter time, it's dark outside, and the bus driver is impatient,'' the officer said. ``You can sign this paper. I'll translate your application. In about a week you'll receive it at camp.''

I signed the paper and I left. It took not seven but hundreds of days, and my application didn't show up in the mail. Every time I called the officer he assured me everything was fine with my file, so I shouldn't worry. My application never showed up. After 11 months, I got a negative answer. I needed advice, so I found a lawyer. But I didn't cease praying.

Searching for a Job

Feb. 8, 1982. Over 400 days have passed since I arrived in West Germany, a country full of immigrants. In this beautiful city of Wuppertal, situated on the Wuppe River, graffiti cover the walls: ``FOREIGNERS OUT!'' We eat their bread, drink their water, wear clothes from their wardrobes, sleep in their beds, spend their income. And we produce nothing. We play chess, watch their TV, read their books, go for walks, go shopping, go to school. We chat over a cup of coffee. We meet friends, but we miss our families.

And we wait for mail. We wait for the most beautiful day. We have dreams of freedom.

Sometimes I feel bad, like a parasite. After more than one year as a political refugee in this country, I have the right to work. But to find a job is a most difficult thing.

I've gone to the employment agency many times. Today I wake up early. My roommates do the same. We look over a map. The city is 21 kilometers long and 17.5 kilometers wide, and we have to locate the places we are looking for. There are many jobs advertised in a local paper, but when you start to search for them, it's like a labyrinth. I'm still optimistic. No matter what kind of job I'll find, I'll take it.

The firm Greiner and S"ohne in Solingen needs Hilfskr"afte, strong people, men and women, for the mattresses and furniture department. I feel strong. I decide to go there. Outside it's still dark. To reach Solingen, I have to take the Schwebebahn, a suspension railway going along the Wuppe River, one of the traffic wonders of the world. Then I'll take the bus, No. 605.

I'm at the bus stop at 7:15. The bus had just left. It's raining. I open my umbrella and wait for 15 minutes. I take the next one. I get off and the firm Greiner is still far away. I take the trolley. After four stops, I get off. But I don't see any factory around. A car is coming. The driver tells me that I have half a kilometer to walk. I walk in the rain. I get wet. But I'm still optimistic.

Finally I reach the firm Greiner. I enter the courtyard and look for the personnel department. I hear the sounds of a typewriter near an open window. ``Personnel!'' Over 50 people are waiting for interviews.

I ask a secretary if there is a chance to get something that has been advertised in a paper. ``Sorry, we have no job available right now. All have been taken already.''

I return to the Schwebebahn with more addresses. I take it to the opposite side of the city. There is a printing shop that needs workers to wash posters under toxic conditions. I come with big hope. I think: ``Few people will be interested in that kind of job.''

But surprise: I find myself among 20 candidates for one place. An engineer has asked an experienced worker to a give us a demonstration, how to wash a panel with ammoniac, wearing a mask. The lesson is short: two minutes. Then the engineer invites me to his office. First I am asked to complete an application. When the man has looked it over, he says: ``This job is not for you. You're a journalist. I doubt you'll stay here.'' I insist, saying that I'll take the job with pleasure, and I promise to work hard.

``Thank you for your interest in our firm,'' he says, ``but, I'm sorry, you're the 30th in line for this job. I wonder what to do with the other 29 people!''

Back on the Schwebebahn to V"olklinger Strasse. There is Altes Arbeitsamt (the old building of the employment agency). I have the red card with me. This means I have the right to work and I'm already registered by the employment agency. In the waiting room I find Germans, Turks, Italians, Yugoslavs, Spaniards, and Africans. In a corner, a Hispanic man reads loudly from the Bible. He is praying for his job. After a couple of minutes here I learn I have no chance to get a job soon.

Back on the street. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And raining. I left my umbrella somewhere! But I don't need it. I like the rain. It cools down my burning blood.

I go along the Wuppe. The river is flowing fast over stones. Its murmur sounds like a song. I listen to it, while in my ears and in my heart reverberate the words: ``Sorry, we have no job for you!''

It's time for praying ... I'll get back to you. Waiting for the Mail

May 13, 1982. Oh, my sweetheart, you asked me in the morning if I'm happy and I answer like Goethe in his day: ``How happy I am that I'm gone''.... I'm gone and I'm here in Oberd"ornen Strasse, in a gray old building together with 45 other men, ages 18 to 45. All of them are intelligent, healthy, and strong. They could build a city, make the world better, change the face of the earth.

No matter if they be Czechs, Poles, Romanians, Ethiopians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Kurdistanis, Moroccans, Sri Lankans. All of them are nonconformist. All of them have the same claim: They say they left their families, their wives, their children, their sweet love, their beautiful countries, in order to search for freedom. They do not accept persecution, they do not accept communism.

Now they are free to search for their right place in the world. The only thing that could make them happy is a letter, a letter saying that they have been given status as political refugees. There is a hope in each one's heart, there is a patience in each one's thought. They wait for days, months, years.

Just listen to the daily routine! The mailman is supposed to come between 10 and 12 o'clock. At 10 a window is opened in the middle of the building. A brown face appears and looks out. It's San from Sri Lanka. He is looking to the left side of the street, leaning over the window of his room. When he sees the mailman, San calls to his compatriots and they come together downstairs and wait silently outside the door.

But their steps are heard by the others. Suddenly the 20 windows of the building frame heads with blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes, white and black faces, some of them unshaved for a year.

The curious pedestrians stop and wait to see what is going to happen next. After about an hour, from the top floor of the three-story building, come the Afghans. They are the most disciplined people in the house. Their boss, Hamid, stops them from coming out, telling them that it's enough if one person takes a bunch of mail from the mailman. Hamid is always concerned about his fellows' prestige and ethics.

We don't care what Hamid says. Each one is waiting for his own mail. Today, almost all of the people are home and there is a crowd in front of the building. The men are talking. There are some controversies. But as always, humor cools down the atmosphere.

After more than an hour, the mailman approaches. We surround him. It's a moment of high tension. The mailman bends over the little mailcar and checks a stack of letters. Then another and another. Finally, he pulls out a letter. The happy man is Waldek, a young Polish boy.

``That's all you have?'' someone asks. ``Ja!'' answers the mailman while pulling out the little mailcar and moving away.

The faces that were framed in the windows are gone. We laugh. It is bitter laughter. But it is not the first time. All hopes remain for tomorrow.

A Park, a Statue, and a Hope

May 12, 1982. I've never told you, my heart, that Wuppertal is the hometown of Friedrich Engels, the well-known communist thinker. The main street of this city connects two of its oldest parts, Barmen and Elberfeld, and is called Friedrich Engels Allee. On this street is Engels's house; nearby a park is named after him as well.

It's beautiful weather today and I'm here in this park sitting on a bench. There are so many flowers around. The city's horticulturists are creative: The multicolored flower beds and trees are displayed in an original way. It's time to contemplate and to write. In front of me, there is a statue, more precisely a statuary group, signifying the struggle of man to liberate himself from the chains of slavery. Three handcuffed and chained men are straining to free themselves.

The statue was made between 1977 and 1981, by Alfred Hrdlika, a Czech sculptor who dedicated his work to the 160th anniversary of Engels's birth. But the sculpture, like other art, offers different thoughts to different people. The idea of man's struggle to free himself from an evil empire is not a new one, but the expression of this idea given by the Czech artist is tremendous to me.

The struggle, coming from inside man through the centuries, won't be completed in a single day. You can see hope coming in the men's eyes and penetrating their muscles. The statue is telling us that there is nothing finished about fighting for freedom on the earth. But there is a hope in our gestures, there is a hope in our power, in our unity. I see my father, my brother, and myself in each of the men in the sculpture. Beyond the chain I see an eagle breaking the blue to infinity. And from inside me, I hear a song of hope, and then a chain breaking.

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