On Tuesday, March 22, my brother and I were on our way back from Ghana, visiting our cousin who is studying abroad. We had a five-hour layover in Brussels. During our flight from Ghana to Brussels, we talked at length about what an incredible opportunity it was to have been able to experience life in a third-world country.
What struck us most about Ghana was how welcoming and genuinely happy the people are. They live simple lives marked by their commitment to their family. To them, family includes friends too—not just direct relatives. Before we left on our trip, we received so many comments about how sad it was that Africa was so “poor.” But there, wealth is measured by how large and caring their family is. Despite their lack of resources and corrupt government, I noticed that they do not let these factors spiral them through feelings of self-pity and hopelessness. Instead, they focus on the blessings that were bestowed upon them. And they have faith that everything happens for a reason.
This gave me such perspective on how complicated and excessive our culture can be in comparison. On our flight, I decided that I was ready to simplify my life back in the states. I had everything I needed. And rather than constantly chasing something bigger and better (as is easy to do where we live), I focused on being content just where I was. As we arrived in Brussels, I was filled with feelings of gratitude from the love and support that I knew was waiting for us back home. I couldn’t wait to share stories of our adventures in Ghana.
We got off the plane and headed right to our terminal, where we went in and out of sleep for a few hours. And then, everything changed.
At 8:00am that morning, travelers were ordered to relocate to the last terminal, drop all luggage, and evacuate immediately. It was then that we realized that this layover would amount to much more than five hours of dozing in and out in an airport terminal. “It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay,” Brian and I whispered back and forth to each other as we scrambled to grab our passports, money, and phones out of the front of our backpack. Everything else was left behind.
As soon as we overheard the flight attendant cry “explosion!” over the phone, we recognized that something was terribly wrong. Over and over again we repeated, “We’re fine. It’ll be okay.” We say it until we believe it. I am working on letting go of the painful memories of that day. I choose to remember the faith that we held onto so desperately—from the time of evacuation to three days later when we arrived home safely.
Following the airport evacuation, we stand outside, shaking, in the crisp morning air, in shorts and t-shirts. When we packed our bags for Ghana, we certainly didn’t factor in the possibility of an airport evacuation in Belgium.
After some time of anxiously waiting outside of the airport for the next bit of information, I felt a tap on my right shoulder. I swiveled around and a woman immediately offers: “You look freezing. Would you like to borrow some clothes?”
“Oh, thank you. But I’ll be okay,” I quickly reply.
“You don’t know how long we’ll be out here. I insist. Here, just keep them,” she reasons, as she digs into the bottom of her luggage and pulls out a pair of black jeans and a faded dark grey long-sleeved shirt. Before I can even thank her properly, she is gone, disappearing back into the mass of confused and terrified people standing outside of the Brussels airport.
As the day progresses, we are led from one location to the next. After waiting outside for roughly four hours, buses arrive to transport us to the airplane hanger, where we would be warehoused for the next eight.
Throughout the day, we crossed paths with countless people. And as with all life-or-death situations, we see people at their most raw and vulnerable selves. We see who they are when appearance is irrelevant, careers are unrelated, and money cannot buy safety. We witness people push others out of the way to be the first on the bus. After a few hours, meals and blankets from the airplane are brought into the hanger. We watch in shock as some people try to hoard as many airplane dinners as their arms could hold.
But it is not these people that left a lasting impact on me. I observed these people, but they didn’t consume my thoughts.
As I sift through the details and perplexities of the day, what I do remember is the woman who so readily gave me her clothes. I remember the informative man who has friends who work in crisis control in various countries, and was updating my brother and me as events were unfolding around us—events we were completely unaware of (the subsequent bombing in a nearby subway, for instance). I remember the man who gave us Ritz crackers during hour three of waiting outside, before buses transported us to the airplane hanger.
When we finally arrive in Leuven, a town outside of Brussels where we made a hotel reservation, I remember the woman who stopped us on the street. In broken English she approached us and says, “You look lost. Can I help you?”
“Yes. Please,” my brother and I immediately respond in unison.
We were scared, and in a place where we couldn’t understand the language. We were trying desperately to reach safety, and this woman was our north star. She walked with us all the way to our hotel.
When we arrive in our room, it has been fourteen hours since we had first been ordered to evacuate. We could not have been in that hotel without the guidance and care of complete strangers—people who were also facing grave danger. I’m holding onto the faith that people are good. This is what I choose to remember when I think about March 22, 2016.
My thoughts drift back to where they were before chaos struck: Simplicity. Just as the Ghanaians measure wealth by the size of their family, I feel incredibly lucky to have a family at home that stuck with us through the entire series of horrific events in Brussels. After traveling from Brussels to Leuven to Amsterdam to Dublin to New York, we finally made it home. And I am forever grateful for that miracle.
It wasn’t until I reached safety that I started to tune in to the media that was covering the events in Brussels. I started to realize how grateful I was to be safe. Watching the video carnage of those who were injured and killed invokes intense feelings of sorrow, misunderstanding, and resentment.
But when I start to feel angry for all the innocent lives lost or injured that day, I have to remind myself that hate is what started this chaos. And hate only breeds hate. Love is what will cure us. We must continue to keep everyone who was involved in our thoughts. For the large act of terror that was committed, there were a million small acts of kindness that are so much more prevalent. And that is what I choose to remember.
Ghana provided me with lessons that I will carry with me each waking day. And being in Brussels during the attack solidified the importance of these messages. I channeled the faith that was so ingrained in the culture of Ghana to stay strong in Brussels.
Having been in two places where safety and love were the predominant things on my mind, I have gained such an appreciation for knowing what truly matters. When I finally was connected with my family after days of travel, I could not have been more thankful.
What I took from Ghana was invaluable, and what I experienced in Brussels does not stop me from wanting to explore the world even further. In fact, I’m more enthusiastic than ever to travel. There’s a big world out there, and the lessons for life are within our grasp if we open our hearts to new experiences. What I choose to remember from the attack in Brussels is not fear. What I choose to remember is courage.
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