I write this with a pounding, lack-of-caffeine headache, combined with jet lag, making it difficult to concentrate enough to type this first sentence. It’s hard to explain how different, in all kinds of ways, it is here and in the camps from back home, the beaches of Southern California. For starters, it’s only 9:30am, and it’s already 95 degrees here. Secondly, they don’t have diet coke or diet pepsi at this moment in this hotel in the capital. By this time, I would have already drank five glasses full of ice-cold perfection. I complain, but it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s my 19th trip out here, and the big culture shock really happens when I start my journey back home.
On the way back, as soon as I land at the Paris airport, I am hit full-on by the overabundance of…everything! There is food of all kinds, expensive clothes, electronics, and many diet sodas to choose from. They do cost more than $5 each for a tiny bottle, but still.
In 2012, I traveled with 17 Darfuri refugees from eastern Chad to Iraqi Kurdistan. I would look at their faces, as we walked in the airports in Ethiopia and Turkey, and I could not imagine what kind of shock they were going through. My good friend Adam, a refugee teacher, was traveling with us as our translator. He got really serious, when we landed in Ethiopia and walked through the large airport, full with stores and restaurants and crowds of people from all over the world. I could see him taking it all in, and it was affecting him. When he and I went to the food court to buy sandwiches for everyone, I finally asked him, “How are you doing?” He said: “Gabriel, it’s like the entire world has been moving, and we have been standing still.”
There were so many “shock” moments in Erbil, Iraq. Our guys ate big plates full of food at 5 star buffets. They went swimming in a huge, beautiful pool. They listened and were mesmerized by a classical piano player. Now comes Sweden, and it’s hard to imagine the types of moments it will bring. The weather will be one of the first things to hit them. Many have been telling me, “Don’t worry, it will be summer.” But I think Sweden summer is just a bit different than edge-of-the-Sahara summer.
I can’t wait, though. I’m excited about the games, but I’m also excited to spend time talking with the players, hearing about how the world looks from their perspective. There will be many “shock” moments for all of us, but there will also be many more just regular, fun moments. There will be a lot of laughing—and maybe even a little crying here and there.