We stood in the airport terminal, a group of friends from our church and their children, holding balloons and flowers. A few of us displayed signs reading “Welcome!” and “We are so glad you’re here!” in Arabic. We attracted quite a few glances while we waited.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, standing there with two case managers from Catholic Charities and holding posters scrawled with the swirls and loops of a language I didn’t understand. After the In Justice talk at Summit Church on refugees, my friend and I had walked up to the Catholic Charities table in the lobby and asked one of the case managers how we could volunteer. As soon as she said a family from Syria would be resettled in Orlando within a week, I said, “Yes! How do I sign up?”
The next thing I knew, I was standing in the airport, waiting to see faces I wouldn’t recognize, but that I hoped would become as familiar as the ones I see at work each day and on a Sunday morning at church. And in that moment, I knew I would commit to this family long-term, beyond just a brief moment of holding a bunch of balloons and smiling.
God calls us to care for the poor, the orphan, the foreigner and the widowed among us. But what does it really look like to build a friendship with a refugee family?
Well, for starters, it can look a lot like huddling over Google Translate in order to communicate. But it also looks like preparing an English lesson so our friends have something to practice during the week. It looks like riding the bus with them for the first time to places like Centra Care and the library, or bringing a box of mint tea for us to share, or helping them understand what life is really like in America.
Our little group has celebrated birthdays together, and we’ve laughed around the dinner table about how difficult it is to pronounce words in each other’s languages. Spending an hour together at the park, climbing the ladder and going down the slide brings easy smiles. So does pulling out tall bottles of soapy water and blowing huge bubbles into the wind. These are easy moments to organize but they are so grounding to a family for whom everything is new.
In return, my friends are teaching me how to love. We can so often complicate this, thinking love is something idealistic, romantic. But loving someone is very simple. It looks like making room for them in our lives—showing up consistently, offering help or to just be present without being asked. It’s not always easy, but it is simple.
And while I am falling for my Syrian friends, I am slowly recognizing the ways their lives have been permanently disrupted.
They tell us about their home in Aleppo, how they would wake up early on the weekends and spend the entire day with their families. Their new reality is to not know if they will see one another again and they grieve. They long for the comfort and familiarity of the people who know them best. They long for the ease of independence they had back home. Before they fled, Adnan* had just opened a brand new tailoring business. Now, he is starting all over again.
So we show up and offer to be family as best we can. They open the door and we all break into smiles. “Marhaba!” we say, the familiar greeting of hello in Arabic. Rasha* and I greet one another in a customary way—a kiss on one cheek, three on the other. We sit in the living room and wait for their two kids, a boy of 4 and a girl of 2, to move from being shy to being ready to play. Once they are, we are immediately beckoned with “Khala!”, auntie, and ushered into a world of Legos, Etch-a-Sketch drawings, and the cutest smiles.
Rasha comes into the living room, carrying cups of dark, thick coffee with a hint of cardamom. I take a cup and a saucer and I say to her, “Shukran, yisalam idayki.” Thank you, bless your hands, a common Arabic response that feels more like a prayer.
There is not a single line the Lord did not cross to come after me. And when I think about the millions of refugees who have been forced to leave their homes and live in unknown places around the world, I have to ask myself what lines of comfort and unfamiliarity am I willing to cross for them, too. And the answer for me is: every single one.
* Not their real names.