The Balloon

By Kent Becker, Ed.D. 
Dean, College of Social Sciences

Education Beyond Borders: Immigration in Contexts provided students and faculty the opportunity to take part in a study abroad course that examined global topics from a multi-disciplinary lens. Dr. Kent Becker reflects on how this experience in Berlin impacted him by highlighting the challenges that refugees face and providing clarity to the connections that all human beings share.

The image was brilliant. To help tell her story, she captured a photo through the lenses of a pair of eye glasses. Everything through the lenses were in black and white while the rest of the image was in vivid color.

I was invited to reflect on how life can be seen in different ways.

His story began with a compelling image of a sculpture of two individuals, riddled with holes.  They were caught in intense conflict, clutched in each other’s grip, and unaware that they were both drowning.

I was drawn into a civil war in which neither side wins and both sides lose precious lives.

What do they have in common? Both told the stories of a refugee. Both stories challenged my limited understanding of a “refugee.” Both stories were shared with grace, confidence, and passion. And, both stories unfolded inside the Balloon.

The Balloon, as they call it, is the home for approximately 250-300 refugees or newcomers to Berlin. Having arrived from a variety of countries, each refugee and newcomer has a unique yet interconnected story. And for a brief period, I was blessed to be a part of their journeys.

As one of five faculty members for our first cross-affiliate study abroad course, my primary task was to teach students, faculty, and shelter residents how to use photovoice as a tool to share one’s story—facilitating the telling and sharing of their stories through personal photographs and narratives. Their lives. Their images. Their words.

Prior to our first photovoice session inside the Balloon, the shelter manager (Majdi) and I met with our cross-college group. Majdi provided the group with a deeper understanding of the shelter and those it served. He emphasized that the shelter residents desired to share who they were as human beings—beyond their current identity as refugees.

After providing a quick overview of the photovoice process, I stressed two points:

  • The importance of being flexible and open. Community-based advocacy has a life of its own and needs to be malleable so the work best meets the needs of those being served.
  • As photovoice facilitators, our primary responsibility was to be truly present (physically, emotionally, spirituality, etc.). This way, the stories that yearned to be told could surface within a safe space.

At this point, I would guess that most of the group understood our role but in an abstract way.

That was soon to change.

Over the course of five sessions across a twelve-day period, students from diverse disciplines (psychology, law, education, marriage and family therapy, etc.) and shelter residents from diverse lands (Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, etc.) stepped into relationship with total strangers. Limited by language barriers, they connected through photos and stories of the past and hopes for the future.

However, it was not until our final session that I allowed myself to witness these connections. I had lost myself in the details and pressures of the project (not my first time). While right in front of me the true work—the meaning of our trip—was filling the room. Finally, I allowed myself to sit back, breathe, and take in what was unfolding all around me.

Within the Balloon, our students connected and listened as shelter residents shared their stories. At Saybrook we often discuss the importance of the relationship and the critical need of demonstrating compassionate presence in the lives of others. As the residents stood beside their photovoice projects and shared their stories, those listening and viewing the stories were completely present.

And so was I.

On the evening before our final session and celebration, a terrorist attacked a Berlin Christmas market by driving through the crowd with a stolen truck. Tragically, he killed twelve people and injured 56 others. It was a somber night as we confirmed the safety of our students, and all of us reconnected with loved ones back home. For a moment, I experienced what the shelter residents had experienced in their home countries.

For a moment, I feared what might come next. That line between refugee and non-refugee faded. That line between American and non-American faded. And as these lines faded, the purpose of becoming globally engaged surfaced with absolute clarity.