My three-year-old son tightly twisted the long strand of strong black hair round and round his fingers as he emerged from the guest room yesterday. I peeked through the bedroom door and found my one-year-old daughter squatting on the floor, peering into a fish tank at the “fiffy”—a silky black Betta fish that fluttered to the surface of the bowl. Next to her, Shirin, a 26-year-old Saudi Arabian girl, sat cross-legged taking videos of my daughter that will no doubt make her famous on Snapchat in Saudi Arabia. I smiled silently at the scene, reflecting on the treasure of an unexpected relationship.
Three years ago, living back in Chicago after spending several years abroad, I was hungry for relationships with anyone who wasn’t a white American. Though I felt limited by my new mommy status, I volunteered to help ESL students at a nearby university practice their English on the condition that I could bring my eight-month-old son. Desperate for native speakers for students to practice with, the teacher agreed and invited me to her class of Saudi Arabians.
The class was made up of six women and four men who were forced to practice English together despite the fact that in conservative Islamic Saudi Arabia, men and women aren’t even allowed to attend mixed-gender classes. Most of the women wore traditional Saudi clothing—headscarves called hijabs and black, lightweight cloaks called abayas. They were painfully shy, though the presence of a baby magically cracked their solemn demeanor. After the third week volunteering, the teacher of the class whispered that there was something she needed to talk to me about after class.
Scooping up my son who had spent the class crawling under feet, skirts and chair legs, I handed him my keys to play with as I curiously sat down with the teacher.
“So,” she started. “Do you know Shirin from class?” I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “she wanted me to ask you if she could live with you for three months. She’ll pay you rent,” she added.
Surprised, I told her that I wasn’t sure, but I’d talk to my husband.
Though this was something that excited me, I was pretty sure my more level-headed husband would simply shake his head with that smirk on his face that says, “I love you for being so different, honey—but you’re kind of crazy.”
Instead, he leaned back against the kitchen counter, smiled, and shocked me by saying, “There’s really no reason we shouldn’t have her.”
Shirin moved in with us at the end of the summer and three months turned into ten.
“Boo!” she said to my son as they played peek-a-boo one afternoon. It wasn’t long before my son began referring to her as “Boo” whenever he would see her. Auntie Boo became an honorary member of our family. She ate meals with us, accompanied us on road trips and family vacations and babysat, so my husband and I could skip down the street alone for an hour to grab Thai food.
Auntie Boo spent the next year in Delaware, but decided to switch schools when we told her of our plans to move to Colorado. This past year she has been in Denver while we have lived an hour north of her and we’ve seen her a handful of times for dinners, hikes, mountain drives and her recent graduation.
Now, she is spending her last month here in the U.S. back in our home. My blond, white children truly believe she is family, in spite of the fact that she has long silky black hair that reaches to her waist, huge dark eyes and speaks another language over the phone. When they barge in on her, they are used to her wearing a prayer veil or sitting on her bed reading the Quran and cradling prayer beads. For the ten days she was here for Ramadan, they stopped asking why she wasn’t eating with us since they knew she was fasting and would instead sleep during the day and be up most of the night. And they gleefully accepted the chocolates and money she gave them during the culminating celebration of Ramadan, called Eid.
I wonder what memories they will retain when they are older. It makes me glad for them to know from such a young age that not everyone looks like us, talks like us or believes the same religion that we do. And not only that, but that someone so different from us can become like family.
Having always lived in a house of blonds, at first, those black hairs unsettled me. And it wasn’t just pulling them out of the drain—it was overcoming prejudice and catapulting over my stereotypes about Muslims.
But now? Those hairs have naturally woven with our blond ones into the fabric of our daily life. Our trash is swept up with hers to tell the messy story of life that doesn’t have the luxury of cleaning up to “do ministry” or “build relationships with international students.” She has seen (and heard) the tensions, tiredness, tantrums and frustrations of daily life with little people. But I think that she has experienced the love, joy, faith, friendship and laughter, too.
In less than a week we will drive our Auntie Boo to the airport to leave us. I imagine myself sweeping the kitchen that night and pushing the last strands of black hair into the dustpan. And I know that in that moment and many more, I will grieve the absence of my Muslim sister who made her home with us.