Three months ago, my husband and I packed up our lives in Cleveland and made the move across the Atlantic to Düsseldorf, Germany. We are both lifelong Clevelanders, and though we love our hometown, we also love traveling, learning languages, and experiencing a different culture. Plus I believe that living in other countries gives you a sense of perspective for the world around you, where you come from, and it allows you to really understand your own heritage and background.

The move to Dusseldorf was not our first international move, so we felt ready for the challenges that come with such a large shift in your daily life. This time around we had my husband’s company supporting us in the move. They sent us a to-do list covering everything from the visa application to registering with city hall upon our arrival. The list was long, but we felt it was manageable.

It wasn’t until we were sitting in the German Consulate in Chicago that I realized we were becoming immigrants. The German government has been recruiting young, professional workers to emigrate to Germany to make up for their population loss and low birth rates for the last several years. We fit right into that category, and just like that we were officially immigrants.

Our first week as immigrants was a struggle. Between awkward cultural mishaps and German bureaucracy, we were wiped. We had to register with the city of Düsseldorf, open a bank account, apply for health insurance, register our dog with the city (he’s an immigrant, too, after all), get new cell phone plans, set up our Internet and settle into our apartment. We also had to do all of this in a particular order, because you know how Germans are with their love for orderliness. “Ordnung muß sein,” as they say here. Or, “there must be order.”

We were able to make our way through most of the above with broken German and assistance from my husband’s company, but it took a full week of crisscrossing the city and making repeated mistakes.

Just as my frustration with German bureaucracy was at a boiling point, we stumbled upon a government agency that helped refugees right down the street from our new apartment. I’m not 100% certain about what services they provide, but there was a steady stream of people coming in and out every day.

I realized not only how lucky we were that we had my husband’s company guiding us through the move, but that we at least had some language skills in our pocket. Not to mention that it was our choice to move to Germany. We weren’t compelled by a lack of opportunity or daily threats to our lives owing to dissident political beliefs or terrorism, like so many of today’s refugees and migrants are. We also arrived on a date of our choosing without the fear of being rejected at the border. We weren’t greeted by xenophobes threatened by our existence. We didn’t have to cram ourselves into a rickety old wooden boat destined to sink. Instead, we comfortably boarded an international flight and watched Key and Peele’s Keanu.

You know that saying, “walk a mile in their shoes”? I think my husband and I walked about a tenth of a tenth of a mile in the shoes of refugees and migrants, and even that was especially difficult. These types of experiences are what makes living in other countries worth it. This shift in perspective, this new insight builds compassion and understanding.

In my mind, this experience also reinforces why we need to be welcoming in our own communities and help Cleveland’s newest populations set down roots and bring them into the social fabric of our town. Inspired to help? Start with Global Cleveland, Refugee Response or the Cleveland Refugee Bike Project. Want to do more? Ask around, because the work never stops.


Written By: Melanie Furey