I was watching them on the train platform: three guys, one holding a large box, the other smoking a cigarette, and the last one feeling a bit uncomfortable. When our train arrives, the smoking man pushes the other two towards the tracks, still puffing down on his cigarette. He looks anxious, in a way a man does when he is waiting for people to follow his orders. I rush into line because I don’t feel like making a connection. My sunglasses are on because they know I am watching them, everyone is watching them, but I still try to hide. On the train I sit in a seat that doesn’t feel like it has the space to accommodate anyone else. They sit down right in front of me.
I am writing in my journal, feeling their eyes scanning the pages. I hear them question, “English?” It must be nearly impossible to read my scribbled, manic thoughts upside down, especially for a non-native English speaker. They continue their conversation. I hear “English” again, so I look up and say, “Yes.”
“Where are you from,” I ask them almost immediately.
“Afghanistan,” they reply. “And you?”
“I am American.”
What do I see in their eyes when I tell them I am American? It is a mix of reluctance to continue the conversation, interest, hate, and trying to rationalize with themselves why and how all of those things apply to a person they have barely met.
“The Americans are the reason there is war in our country,” says the more confident of the two.
I respond, “The American government, billionaires, and the Islamic State are the reason why there is war in your country.”
All of us sit and ponder whether we should continue or just proceed by being exactly what we are—strangers on a train.
“How long have you been here?” I continue after some moments of silence.
The quiet one responds, also in English, “Me, four months and he, one year. And you?”
“I’ve lived in and out of Austria for about a year,” I tell them.
The outgoing guy begins speaking to me in German. I don’t fully understand him.
“I speak better German than you,” he states.
“I am learning.”
We weave in and out of English and the little German I have picked up in my last week and a half of language courses. The quiet friend explains that the other guy speaks six languages, some of Arabic, Latin, and others of German origin. I feel ashamed and assume they are judging me. I am probably the only person on the train who thinks, feels, speaks, reads, and writes in one language. I feel guilty. There is something so ugly about wars started by people, countries, and governments that make no effort to understand the world through the words and symbols of other languages.
I am trying.
They tell me they like it in Austria, that it is a beautiful country, more beautiful than home. They can’t work here, but the Austrian government gives them money for food. I watch the talkative one scroll through his cell phone and wonder if he uses Facebook and Instagram to stay connected with people from home. I ask them if they miss it: home. The quiet man gazes out the train window trying to avoid the question that hangs in between us and I see tears in the eyes of the other man. Of course they miss home, they tell me, along with the story of the year-long journey they both took alone to get here. Months waiting in Iran and Turkey and the boat they took to Europe. They have walked, waited, taken trains and boats to be here, and they both did it leaving family and friends behind.
“But we want to stay here now,” they both say. “We don’t want to leave.”
I try to picture how it will work. Mosques next to the church steeple you find in every Austrian village and city? It is a place of tradition, heritage, culture, and I find myself feeling protective of the space. But, I am a foreigner too. It is a small country. How will it accommodate new ideologies and still remain what it is? Isn’t protecting culture necessary in a world where so many are slowing fading away? Do cultures have places and outside those realms they can’t exist? If this is true, the men on the train might always feel like they are somewhat in hiding. I am just like them, but American. None of us will ever be Austrian.
I wonder if they have seen war. If buildings in their neighborhoods fell and people they know died in them. They are no different than any other immigrants throughout history: people seeking a life beyond survival. Or maybe they are here on a religious crusade. Afterall, nearly the entire history of civilization alludes to wars betweens Muslims and Christians. Why would this be any different? The two religions exist believing that the other doesn’t. How is it possible that they cohabitate?
“Why are you here,” I finally ask as I watch a woman who has been listening to us as she gets up to move away. People are beginning to feel tired of being confronted with these issues here. Morality and ethics, at their foundation, are nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. The woman sits down a few seats away, where she doesn’t have to hear and then think about this any longer.
The man of six languages looks at me very intensely and says, “Because, just like you, we don’t want to die.”
I choke back an emotion that is too powerful to describe. My heartbeat thrusts into my chest and this time my eyes fill with tears.
The train stops and they get up to leave. We say good-bye and I try to smile, wishing them luck on their journey.
I turn to the window and watch them carrying the box across the train platform. Behind them rise the mountains of the country that none of us belong to.
The train departs. I am still wearing my sunglasses.