Making Friends With Syrian Refugees

Making Friends With Syrian Refugees
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I am re-posting this because of the Muslim ban. If Safaa and her family had been part of this ban, a large part of my life would be missing. My friendship with this Syrian family has enriched my life. I love them.

This blog consists of a series of letters written to my friend, a Syrian refugee who has moved into my neighborhood. We have become close friends in spite of a language barrier. Love needs no language but there are things I wish I could tell her. I write these letters in hopes that one day she will be able to read them. I share in hopes that others will follow me on this journey and learn with me along the wayMore posts available:


To My Dear Friend Safaa,

How can I tell you everything that I wish to say? I wish I could tell you how I experience our friendship. You are the Syrian refugee mother of six and I am an American career woman who has no children. We couldn’t be more different but I think that we might be more similar than we realize. There is so much that I want you to know. But we have a barrier between us. This barrier is not religion. It is not culture. It is language. I can’t communicate my fears or my insecurities to you. I want to share with you the details of my journey to this friendship so I write them now while they are fresh in my mind. I hope one day you will be able to read this so you will know all that I was unable to say in those first months.

I remember the day we met. I wonder if you were as nervous as I was. I didn’t know much about Islam but there was one thing I did know in November 2015. I knew that I wanted to represent the America that I believe in. The Paris bombings had caused anti-Islamic rhetoric among the politicians that saddened me. As an American, I did not want to be identified with the hate language I was hearing. I felt an obligation to my country to do something that represented the United States of America as I understood it to be. I know that I am an idealist but I have to admit that I love the language in our constitution and the values that our country was founded on. I love the words found on our Statue of Liberty that my own ancestors sailed past four generations ago:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

When I learned that two Syrian refugee families were living so close, I went to the neighborhood Mosque and volunteered. Yes, I would be the good American; the welcoming American. Before I even met you I tried to think of ways to help you. I thought maybe I could drive you to the grocery store or to run errands. I would be a person who said “welcome to this country”. I hoped you wouldn’t see the anti-Muslim hate that had been sensationalized in the media or from people you encountered in your daily life in this country. At the Mosque, I asked what I could do to help, I was directed to a wonderful man, Mahmoud, who has helped you and many Muslim families in the community. Mahmoud explained to me that what you needed was an English teacher. I had no idea how to begin such a task but I said I would do it. I then went home and called all of my teacher friends asked, “How do you do this?”

I gathered teaching materials and called Mahmoud to set up our first meeting. A date and time were set for us to meet within a week. I was excited and nervous all day as I was thinking about how to begin the first English lesson. I was daydreaming about what a wonderful teacher I would be, then I would worry if I had any idea how to begin to teach English to people who had no knowledge of this language.

My mind went back and forth from hopefulness to feeling unqualified for taking on such a task. I wondered what I should wear, what I should or should not do. My ignorance of Islam as well as my American attitude about women might be a problem. This made me wonder if I would be suited to do this at all. I didn’t want to offend. I wanted to be welcoming but I wondered how I would communicate my message of welcome. These are the thoughts that went through my head on December 2, the day we met.

Our meeting was set for 3pm and sometime around noon I turned on the television news and discovered that just a few miles away in San Bernardino, there had been a mass shooting. I watched the news in horror as I learned the shooter was a Muslim. His motive was not yet known, but it seemed to me unlikely to be terrorism. I wished that with all my being that it was not terrorism. What a strange thing to think, as if a domestic shooter is somehow better. Fourteen people were killed and no matter who killed them, it was tragic. On that day, I didn’t have time to think more about it.

I grabbed a scarf from my dresser drawer and headed for your home. During my short drive I wondered if you were aware of this news and what you thought. Would you be uncomfortable? Would I be uncomfortable? Would you think that you escaped one violent place to come to another? How could we even communicate such complex ideas to each other? I realized how much the American culture made terrorism about Islam while not defining extremism. I feared for you as a Muslim in a country afraid of Muslims.

I arrived at the address I was given by Mahmoud. He arranged to meet with us to help with introductions and plans for future meetings if I was a good fit to help your family. I felt like anything but a good fit at this point. I looked at the apartment building, a block long with tall rod-iron fence running the entire length like a fortress. I wondered what I was doing here. Was I dressed appropriately? Should I cover my head with my scarf? Would you like me enough to want me to be your teacher?

I saw some women walking around in hijab. At that point I pulled my scarf up over my head. I was sure that I was not prepared for this. I never told you how I feel about hijab. How could I explain that I never understood why you cover up? I am a woman who loves to dress up. I like my high heels and I like to wear makeup. I had always thought that hijab looks oppressive. I have to admit that I felt hijab as a sort of wall, separating Muslim women from others. How could I know you, if you are were hiding a part of yourself? But then, how could I know that I would come to feel more real as a woman when not defined by my body, but rather by my heart. That is a lesson that came later, after much struggle.

First, I had to meet you. I took a deep breath, put a confident expression on my face and approached the section of the giant white whale of a building that matched the number I had scribbled on a piece of paper. I tried to open the gate, but the knob held tight. I realized it was locked. Maybe I shouldn’t have come I thought to myself.

A women in a head scarf shouted something at me from her car on the street behind me. I could not understand what she was telling me and by now my heart is beating hard in my chest. She called to her child who was on the sidewalk in front of me and he ran up to a window and knocked. I realized she was trying to tell me to knock on the window to gain entry. This was indeed strange. My fear gave way for a moment to curiosity.

An elderly middle-eastern man limped out of the apartment door and I instantly felt guilty for disturbing him but I was fascinated by this unusual procedure for gaining access to the courtyard. As I entered, I noticed people staring at me. There was the old man who let me through the gate and a middle aged man with a child. A woman in hijab looked out from her doorway. All eyes followed me. Why were they staring at me? I couldn’t think of anything wrong with my appearance. I had loose clothing, long sleeves, no makeup and a headscarf resting on my head not tight but each end over the opposite shoulder to cover my neck. What did I do wrong?

I ignored all those eyes following me and looked for your apartment number. I went to the door, knocked and was greeted by your son, 20 year old Omar, smiling and happy, “Welcome Teacher!” he said. I noticed many pairs of shoes outside the door, so I started to take off mine, but Omar told me, “Don’t worry, it’s ok”. I removed them anyway, smiling. Removing my shoes was not as difficult in my mind as putting a scarf on my head. I stood in the doorway and reflected on that for a moment. I was invited in and instantly you and your daughters greeted me so warmly that I felt so welcomed.

I remember feeling clumsy as you reached for my right hand and held it as you pulled me close and kissed each cheek in greeting. Your husband extended hands only, which surprised me because I thought Muslim men never touched women. That was one of the few things I knew. I was also surprised to see you wearing regular clothes and no headscarf. Your smile was so beautiful and friendly. You gestured for me to sit on the couch and you sat next to me. I looked around your apartment, furnished with mismatched donated furniture.

Then my eyes caught a scene on the television, a news channel, sound muted. This would be the backdrop to our first meeting. It was 3:00 pm and as we were trying to introduce ourselves, a police pursuit was underway in San Bernardino.

I was able to bring my attention back to the present because there was something about your family that put me at ease and I remember much laughter. I think we communicated quite a bit with hand gestures and smiles. We were waiting for our translator, Mahmoud as we laughed at our attempts to speak words from each other’s language.

By 3:20, you placed a plate of fruit in front of me and served me the most delicious Chai tea. I was enjoying this visit and instantly I knew that I liked you very much. Across the room, I hadn’t noticed that the television was showing a shootout between police and two armed suspects.

By 4:00 your cell phone rang and there was much talking in Arabic. All of a sudden you disappeared out of the room with your older daughters. When you returned a few moments later, you were all in hijab. Mahmoud had arrived. I looked at you and your beautiful smile was the same but the tightly wrapped headscarf changed your appearance so much. I didn’t know how I felt about it anymore, I was so confused. It was interesting to be a witness to your transformation. Mahmoud sat down and asked how we were getting along. He spoke to you in Arabic for a little while. He told me that you like me very much and I felt the tears well up in my eyes but I held them back. I told him that I liked you very much also. We smiled at each other and I had a feeling in that moment that I have always felt whenever I enter your home. We made plans to meet the following week for our first English lesson.

The next day, around 10 am the news reported that the shooting was an act of terrorism. I learned about Syed Farook and how he traveled to Saudi Arabia to marry Tashfeen Malik he brought her home on a fiancé visa. They carried with them so much hate. Your presence in America and the San Bernardino terrorist attacks are two separate issues that are tied together only by the fear in our American culture because many Americans associate Islam with terrorism. Now that I know you, I can never fall into that type of fear. I am not perfect but you have helped me become a better person. Did you know that?

With each passing day together our friendship has grown and I even forget to think about you as a Muslim woman. I think of you as a woman, a friend who happens to also be Muslim. I see no barriers in our friendship. Taking off my shoes to enter your home has become habit. Waiting for you to put on your head scarf before we leave the house, is just part of the routine. I no longer wear head covering in your home. You have embraced me as part of your family.In these strange times you and I seem to counter the world’s hate with our Love.

On the day of the Brussels airport bombing, your family and I were at our first outing celebrating your son Omar for passing his driving test. We all had so much fun and your husband said to me that he felt like your family has known me for 10 years. You called me sister and told me that you share your children with me. I was overwhelmed by the love you showed me.

When I think of the hate that I hear coming from this political campaign, and some Americans that buy into that hate, I wish I could tell them a different story. I would tell them a love story and share with them what I have learned. I wish they could sit at your dinner table as I do and watch your children interact. I wish they could hear the laughter as brother and sister tease each other. I wish they could taste the delicious food that you cook. I wish they could hear the music we play for each other, each sharing favorite songs. I wish they could see both you and me sitting side by side, nervous mothers at the dentist office with five year old Massa as she received an injection to numb her mouth. I feel that I am family and in fact you have told me that I am your sister. You have showed me love and acceptance and I feel so much love for you and your family. This is the love story to share with the American people.

I know there are more love stories, and we need to share them all until they drown out the hate. This is how we separate the misconceptions that equate Islam with terrorism: We learn to know each other as neighbors, friends, and family; We share food with each other and respect each other’s religion; We learn to love each other.

I didn’t go to your home with the intent of falling in love, but that is what happened. I love you and your family and knowing you enriches my life. I began this journey to help you, but you are the one who has helped me. But I confess, some, that I am ashamed to say. When I met you and your two older daughters, I accepted you in hijab. I guess I should say that I got used to it as part of who you are. We talked about it and you showed me some scarves and how you wear it. We were like best friends playing with clothes, laughing and talking about cosmetics and hair color.

But you have a daughter, Maram, who is young and not yet in hijab. She has captured my heart the way she runs up to me and hugs me whenever I come over. I love this little girl and her auburn hair. I never saw such beautiful hair, and when I think that in a few years, she will cover it with hijab, my heart breaks. I think I will cry on that day, and how do I tell you why? Is this because I can’t break out of my cultural understanding? I wish this didn’t exist in me but I don’t know any other way to be.

I am afraid that I am not the person that I think I am. You are totally accepting of me. When I asked you to help me understand your customs and to not offend, you said that, “we are all human”. You never asked me to change. You never asked me to cover my head in your home. Maybe being Human is the problem. We all have to learn and grow, and maybe with time I will understand, but maybe I won’t understand. I promise you this; I will always be respectful.

You are my teacher more than I am yours. I also want you to know that if you ever encounter someone who seems to hate you because they see only your hijab, please know this; that person does not hate you, Safaa. That person hates something that does not exist. That person is like a child that hates the monster under the bed that is created in the imagination. That child is very afraid, and only love can shine the light that dispels fear and conquers hate.

You and I are only two ordinary people caught between childish imagination and politics. Now when I enter your courtyard I don’t feel uncomfortable. I smile at your neighbors and they smile back. They always smiled but I didn’t see it. I didn’t have imaginary monsters under my bed; I was my own monster. I doubted myself and that lack of confidence came from what I did not know.

Today I am wiser but I have more to learn. Our love story continues and I am a better person because I know you. I am a better person because you are my friend.

Your friend,


<p>My Friend Safaa and family with Ban Ki-Moon, the South Korean diplomat and eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations from January 2007 to December 2016 </p>

My Friend Safaa and family with Ban Ki-Moon, the South Korean diplomat and eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations from January 2007 to December 2016

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