Trembling hands, callused and covered in sun spots. And higher up: bony shoulders, a shrunken stature. But behind that fragile façade lies hidden a silent heroism. Listen to the stories. They draw from the dark depths of child labour and sleeping on empty stomachs. Not complaining, not asking, but hanging on. Or they take root in the iron fist of dictatorship. Not speaking, not believing, but suppressing. It lasted until a chance came along. A way out, a way here. And often no way back. For a long time. Until the leaders lived no longer, until poverty threatened or until only the grave lay waiting.
Some came to Brussels in the 1950s, the others a decade later, the last of them just yesterday. With nothing but the shirt on their backs and the dreams in their heads. Travelling on nothing but luck and worn sandals.
The opportunity was a letter from a cousin, about excellent wages and wanted labour, in times when progress seemed unstoppable and papers didn’t mean a thing. Sometimes it was little more than a whispered rumour, a house built in the village from the ground up on overseas money. He must be doing well there, otherwise he’d never be able to build such a mansion… Someone else’s chance becomes theirs. He who dares, wins.
For once it is the state that gives chances, that officially invites. That resettles. With people from camps and stranded political refugees, that is, after years of war and years of waiting. A new life given.
For the children, above all, for the next generation. The present one is torn. It has had to leave its predecessor. Will I ever see you again, dearest mother? Will they come get you if they can’t find me? Will the money I send make up for my absence?
Crushing choices, yesterday’s long shadows cast over the years to come. I couldn’t bring you with me, can you forgive me? Guilt, regret, despair. There was but one chance. My chance. Don’t complain, don’t speak, silent heroism behind a fragile façade.
A barely audible sigh. And then gratitude towards the new homeland. For the education these men and women could often only dream of in their country of origin but can now offer their children here. For the housing, too, which they have managed to acquire with their arduous labour and humble lifestyle. And for the freedom and security of a democratic, just society. Am I from here or from there? Wings or roots? Oh, I don’t know. My country is a patchwork of memories, words and thoughts. My country is in my head.