Being the daughter of a refugee prepared me to travel and tell my story from a young age. To me, travel does not just take the form of tourism. It has many different forms, including migration. My father reached my home country Germany at the age of 24 after walking through various European countries to escape the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria. Because we didn’t have the funds to travel far in my childhood I learned to appreciate travel even more when I was able to afford it. But even before I began traveling I was taught that I would always be a global citizen.
I learned that citizenship might be taken from us (my father was stateless), but our connection to other people is what really matters. When I travel I always try to get an understanding of how the local population lives and consider what it would be like to live there myself. I try to go where locals go to understand a place beyond the tourist attractions. Starting conversations with people about the things that matter to them is an essential part of my travels.
Perhaps this is made easier by the fact that people assume I’m a local in many parts of the world. In fact, people sometimes think I’m lying when I tell them I don’t understand the local language. But maybe it’s not only my phenotype which makes people from Europe, the Middle East, or the Americas ask if I’m from there. It could just as easily be my attitude. Since I am acutely aware that every place I travel to is somebody’s home, I don’t treat any location as merely a tourist destination.
I firmly believe this attitude towards a place and its people has served me well. They can tell I respect them and don’t only see them as extras in my personal travel movie. As someone who has never fully fit in at “home,” I’m happy for people who have a real home. And I don’t want their home to serve my interests. I want the real experience, the one of the people that live there.
Seeing how people act in the places they call home fascinates me because I don’t have a strong sense of belonging to any one place. The nomadic life runs in my blood. Even though my father was from Bulgaria, he belonged to the minority of ethnic Turks, and we trace our roots to the nomadic tribes of Central Asia — a region I haven’t yet visited because I know such a trip will be extremely emotional.
Growing up in a mid-sized German town, I went to a school that didn’t have much diversity to offer. Out of 1,000 students, only about a dozen of us didn’t have two ethnic German parents. We always stuck together which is why to this day, I am particularly drawn to people from other marginalized communities.
I’m very grateful to be able to travel for leisure as the daughter of a refugee. Refugees are not often talked about outside of the context of pain and hardship. And that’s certainly one side of the story.
But refugees are also people with dreams, passions, and interests. And when refugees get asylum and settle down, one of their interests could be travel. So I hope that refugees will also be considered fathers, mothers, siblings, engineers, doctors, basketball players, and travelers — not only refugees.
I’ve always been fully aware of what refugees are capable of, that they’re not just defined by and limited to their political status. It came naturally to me as it is the story of my family; my father never stopped being a refugee, as evidenced by his refugee travel document. I don’t want to glorify the state of mind of being the child of a refugee but I have to acknowledge it.
Travel is relatively easy for me. At the time of writing this at the end of 2020, the German passport is considered one of the most powerful in the world. But I didn’t grow up in a family where we had the money to ever take advantage of that. Now I appreciate the enormous ease with which I can travel, and have made it my mission to see as much as possible of the world — in honor of my father who wasn’t lucky enough to solely travel for leisure. Perhaps through being so close to his experience and gaining his perspective that borders are just man-made after all, the cosmopolitan spirit of a global citizen was always going to be with me. Now, I just wish for my upcoming birthday that we will all travel more freely again after the pandemic.
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