I never thought of my students as backward or from an undeveloped country. They all had smartphones when I still had a flip. And if their paper was a bit too short, they were certainly tech-savvy enough to try to change the margins or font size by fractions of an inch.

That was why I was so flabbergasted when one of my high school students took a folded up Euro and tried to stick it into the ticket machine. I’m sure my cry of “What!? No!” came after a bit of a pause.

As I explained the process of how to use a train token machine in Rome I was hit with a dozen new revelations about Iraqi and Western culture and how much I really take for granted. It had never occurred to most of these kids that there would ever be any reason for keeping your money flat and crisp. Wads always work fine. Public transportation is a personal cash affair via buses or in taxis.

What the Vending Machine Taught Me

Now I grew up in a small town where we didn’t have a large public transit system either. But at least I’d seen and used a vending machine. Who knew that the soda machine in my school would have been so important to my ability to function in the world!

There were no ticket or token machines, no vending machines of any kind in Kurdistan. (I have since seen a few, but none of them ever functional.)

This may seem small, and in a way, it is. But when compounded with another little thing and another little thing and another, life gets difficult and exhausting. 

If you’re a high school student traveling Europe with your friends and teachers, it just ends up with you taking longer to get anywhere. Or maybe you so desperately want food from home that you get a local Kurdish restauranteur to cater you a Kurdish meal while in Florence surrounded by amazing Italian food (I’m trying not to be bitter). Or maybe you get more excited about the world’s largest shopping mall instead of the ancient architectural masterpieces? These are your hardships.

My Own Kind of Privilege

I am glad that I was able to guide these youths through Italy and to help them navigate the cobblestones and coffee. I could understand how easy it is to become disoriented whether you are an Iraqi touring Europe or an American traveling in Iraq. I had personal experience with culture shock. Even with that background, it was easy for me to assume that others had the same cultural understanding I did. 

But if you are a refugee, alone or with a few family members… if you don’t have teachers there to ask questions of or to guide you through the confusion… if you don’t have someone there to explain to the hotel owner that you will never set off a fire extinguisher in the hallway again and were just curious about the weird contraption… you might just end up on the street, vulnerable and exposed, confused and hungry.

Want to help refugees in Europe?

Go to Greece! or Donate!