Gather: The Simple Act of Making Unlikely Friends
Guest Contributor Jennifer Lee | IG: @jennlee22 | Twitter: @jennlee22
Three years ago, a Syrian family of five was struggling to survive in a refugee camp in Jordan, awaiting good news they longed to receive every day. News that a country would approve their asylum paperwork and invite them to resettle and start a new life in a safe place. 7,000 miles away, in a comfortable, suburban neighborhood in Idaho, my family of five was bustling around the house getting homework done, cleaning up from dinner, with the evening news on in the background. Everyone paused when a tragic news story came on and the horrifying images of a small boy that drown in the Mediterranean Sea flashed across the screen. His family was so desperate to escape the violence of the Syrian Civil War and ISIL, that they attempted to cross the dangerous waters in a small, rubber raft. Those photos shook the world awake to the global refugee crisis, and my family was no exception.
That night, my tender hearted 8 year old sobbed as she asked how this could happen to any child anywhere. I stumbled through a vanilla description of the some injustices plaguing our moment in history, and how so many people are experiencing suffering in this broken world. We cried together, prayed simple prayers for them, and all went to sleep broken hearted and feeling so helpless. How could we help people so far away in such different circumstances? A charitable donation seemed our only option, but what I really longed for was to hold those terrified children in my arms, look their mamas in their deep-brown eyes and say, “It’s going to be ok.”
My friend’s mother worked for our local World Relief office, helping refugees resettle in Boise. I remembered her talking about volunteer opportunities and something called “A Good Neighbor” team. I emailed her for more details and started to ask other people from our church to join our efforts. We scheduled a training where we talked through some of the cultural sensitivities we’d need to be aware of, and learned more about this commitment. We would be asked to help one refugee family as they transitioned to life in America for the first 6-12 months they lived here. We would help them learn the transportation system, connect them to services, and help them learn English. But most importantly, we would be their friends. We were astonished to learn that most refugee families are never invited into an American’s home. And we were given the names and details of our family of five from Syria, coming from a refugee camp in Jordan in the next few months.
As we prepared to meet this family on their arrival day at the Boise airport, butterflies filled my stomach. What would our interactions be like? How would I relate to a Muslim family from the other side of the world that spoke no English? My best friend made a sign that said “Welcome” in Arabic, we brought flowers for the mom, and teddy bears for the kids. We waited nervously at the welcome area of the airport for what seemed like forever. All the people from their flight filed through the doors, with no sign of a middle-eastern family. We waited and wondered, maybe they got confused and got on the wrong flight?
Just as we were preparing to leave, we saw this family of five round the corner and come through the doors. Our interpreter asked their names, and they nodded. They looked bone-tired, overwhelmed and under nourished, but the children wore brand-new American clothes and smiled shyly . We said our nervous hellos, handed the teddy bears to the children and the flowers to the mom. Our interpreter explained who we were, that we would help them get adjusted to life in America. Smiles of gratitude broke through their tired faces. The dad put his hand over his chest and explained genuinely, in Arabic, “You will be our family.”
It’s been two years and three months of getting to know what being “family” means from these beautiful, resilient, loving people. We’ve shared meals together (I’m officially a fan of Syrian food!), holidays, birthdays and many cups of tea. We’ve stumbled through conversations with the language barrier, including many hand gestures and giggles over misinterpretation. We’ve seen them get jobs and lose jobs, get driver’s licenses, go off to school, become fluent in English, and learn to love American things like bowling and Dutch Bros coffee. Their favorite pastime is to head to the lake for a picnic and fishing, and as you can imagine, the restorative peace they experience there is pure joy.
We’ve cried and prayed with them as news of family members still in their war-torn country have been injured or killed from continued bombings. We’ve listened and encouraged as our country’s borders have closed to their people seeking asylum from the now 7 year old civil war...and counting. We’ve been heartbroken and angry alongside them as tragedy and trauma struck right outside their door in the community and country that has been their hope for a better, more safe future for their children. And yes, through tear-streaked conversations surrounding their difficult reality and their longing for home, I’ve held their children in my arms and looked into my beautiful friend’s deep-brown eyes and said, “It’s going to be ok.”
What a beautiful miracle to see how God has led this family into my city and into our lives! The lament we experienced from news headlines showed up as living heartbeats right in my kitchen, cooking the most fabulous lamb kabobs and tabbouleh. We thought we signed up to help this family and teach them English, but they’ve taught us more than we could’ve ever expected; how to dance through fear, how to celebrate in lack, and how to persevere through hardship...over and over again. Our feeble attempt at charity was actually a push off the edge of uncertainty, into an understanding of what Henry David Thoreau said to be the truest definition of friends… “they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.”
We must believe that the gaping chasms of divide (racial, economic, social, gender, et al) in our present cultural moment can be bridged with the simple, committed act of making unlikely friends. Our understanding of the generous grace of Jesus should move us out of our convenient, comfortable circles of those that look like we do, act like we do, and believe what we do and into the presence of those that need an encounter with this very grace and it’s companions, unswerving hope and extravagant love. Chances are, there are people in your community that are outside your circle and in need of many, many things. But I’d bet the farm that the one thing they are in need of most, is a friend.