The Syrian Refugee Crisis Moved Into My Neighbourhood

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M_Leah

I’m in love.

I was fretful and anxious, but now I’m in love.

The context for my emotional bi-polarity has been the Syrian refugee crisis.

In my anxious phase I posted a great number of guilt-inducing refugee photos on Facebook. I sent money overseas to worthy causes. I applauded the heroic efforts of volunteers and the inhabitants of Lebos.

But most days I wrung my hands and felt ineffectual and therefore sad and worried.

But then the Halabi* family arrived. The Syrian refugee crisis took on flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood (to tweak a phrase from Eugene Peterson). 

To be accurate, the Syrian refugee crisis took on flesh and blood and moved into the guest quarters on our community farm.

This is what the big scary refugee crisis looks like up close:

Hospitable. As I write, I look out my window and into the kitchen window of the Halabis. There I see Asna, who has been cooking constantly for two days. She’s cooking a feast of stuffed peppers, eggplants and zucchinis for each of the six families that call this farm home.

The guests have become the hosts and we are the beneficiaries. I can’t walk within sight of her door without being invited in for a cup of Arabic coffee (personally imported by Asna herself from a Jordanian market near the refugee camp in which she lived for three years. She brews the stuff so strong I can feel blood vessels popping in my head as I drink!).

Enthusiastic. My husband and I took the Halabis to the neighbourhood park on their first Saturday with us. On the way home, round-faced, six-year-old Sera kept running ahead and shouting, “Let’s go to Canada!” as if the magical land called Canada was just around the corner and not the very ground we walked on.

Cheeky. When trying to explain to the Halabis what we do for work, my husband dashed to retrieve the book I wrote to show I’m a writer. Asna studied the author’s photo on the back of the book and then looked slowly across the table at me. A sardonic grin spread across her face. Pointing to the photo and then to me she said quizzically, “Leah!?” and then burst into wry laughter. With zero command of English, this woman cheerfully exposed my vanity, epitomized in this photoshopped author’s photo. It was an ironic coup de grace worthy of Steven Colbert.

Tender. Asna’s cell phone lights up with an image of her mother. She and Asna’s six sisters are still in Syria in an area increasingly under attack. Those family members on her husband Shahram’s side who’ve escaped Syria are scattered around Europe. Not a single long lost cousin or uncle lives on the North American continent. “Nervous” is one of the first words Asna has learned.

Persevering. They have lost so much. A beautiful olive orchard and meaningful work as a farmer. A home and a town full of sisters and cousins and dear friends. Shopkeepers who knew their names and sold spices in combinations found nowhere else in the world. Yet Asna still jokes. Still cooks. Still cleans her new house until even long-forgotten corners gleam.

Can you see why I have a crush?

It’s not just that Asna and Shahram are genuinely kind and cheerful. It’s not that their children are really and truly doe-eyed, round-faced darlings. It’s not that they are all appreciative beyond expectations.

It’s that we know them. They are eating off my grandmother’s china. The children are bouncing on the communal trampoline with a gaggle of farm kids. Shahram is pushing his youngest around the farm in our farm wheelbarrow. They’ve moved into our neighbourhood and we’ve found ourselves smitten.

It’s tempting to over-analyze our infatuation and its source. There’s sure to be a heap of narcissism mixed in with the altruism. After all, it feels good to do good.

But when you’re in love you don’t over-analyze your feelings. You just go with them. That’s why when, at our first community dinner with the Halabis, one of my farmmates pulled out her guitar and struck up Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” we all joined in with gusto. From an objective, outsider point of view it was probably the shmaltziest thing we could have done, but we sang like our hearts would break.

Because they were breaking.

For Syria.

For refugees everywhere.

For this one particular beautiful family, far from their beloved homeland and beloved family.

It’s a relief to know them. But it’s also heartbreaking, because their suffering is just a small window into a world of suffering. Which must be why when chubby little Rihan—a year and a half old, born in a refugee camp—puts her head on my shoulder and snuggles in for a nap in my arms I am nearly undone.

*Names have been changed.

_______________

Image credit: Leah Kostamo

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Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo is the author of Planted: a Story of Creation, Calling and Community, a book Eugene H. Peterson called “remarkable” and Margaret Atwood called “clear-sighted and humorous.” She likes to read (and write) wise and winsome stories that inspire people to be the change they want to see in the world. She can be found online leahkostamo.com and @leahkostamo. She ministers with the Christian conservation organization, A Rocha.
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo

Latest posts by Leah Kostamo (see all)

  • Siki Dlanga

    I love this story so much!

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thank you, Siki. I love living it. 🙂 Bless you today.

  • Undone. I love your huge heart and the beautiful openness of your community.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thank you, Michele. Living in community has enabled me to be more open and have a bigger heart. I stay pretty small when I’m on my own. 🙂

  • Leah, I want to come hang out in your community! Oh the Middle East knows something about hospitality that is so humbling. Thank you for being available and making a difference for one family. And thank you for making a difference for so many more by sharing their story!

    • Leah Kostamo

      You’re welcome anytime! 🙂 Indeed, I am so humbled by this family’s hospitality. We’ve personally had them to dinner once, and the wife has probably already cooked for me 5 times (maybe she thought I was a terrible cook and is coming to the rescue of my husband and children! ?:) Actually, I think it’s because she knows I work full time and she’s just being a good and helpful neighbour.).

  • Roos Woller

    So beautiful. I am learning more every day of our interconnectedness. I love the part were you said they have become the hosts and in return are being a blessing to the other families.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks, Roos. Indeed, it is soooo mutual. We feel so blessed by this family.

  • Beth Pandy Bruno

    Such a wonderful first hand account! Thank you for sharing this family with us.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks Beth. Peace to you this day!

  • This is so heartening. I know for me, my anxiety is always eased by active engagement and connection.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Yes, indeed. When anything becomes particular, it becomes bearable.

  • Kristy

    This paints such a beautiful picture of community. I’m so glad all of you have each other.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks, Kristy. I’m so glad too. 🙂

  • Rea

    Beautiful. When I was a child our community welcomed a number of refugees from Laos. And I was also smitten. Smitten with the tales their daughter told of having a monkey for a pet. Smitten by egg rolls (a never before tasted delicacy in a small midwestern town in the late 70’s), sticky rice, noodle soup and all the other delicacies the mother insisted I taste when I wandered down the street to play with their girls. Eventually they moved to Texas and I lost touch with them. But sometimes I wonder…what are they doing today? Is their life good? Do they still miss the country that gave them life? Do their daughters have families like mine? Did they go to college? What did they have the chance to become because they were able to leave the refugee camps and come here?

    • Leah Kostamo

      Hi Rea, Thanks for sharing your story; it was very touching. I think welcoming refugees is especially transforming for the children involved. It forever breaks down the “us and them” mentality that is sadly on the increase today. Bless you and bless your dear Laotian friends.

  • Erin Wilson

    The beauty of this made me cry.

    Salaam alaikum, Halabi Family. May Peace be upon you!

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks, Erin, I’ll pass on your welcome. (And, this is cool, two of my farm mates lived in Lebanon for 2 years. That was 20 years ago and they returned with a little brass door plaque with the words Sallam alaikum in Arabic. They kept it all these years, not really knowing why. And then, voila, we had a use for it. It was on their door when they arrived. :))

      • Erin Wilson

        Gah! That is so beautiful!! I can’t help thinking what an extraordinary gift your community is. So many refugee families suffer from profound loneliness, coming from such tight-knit cultures. You are able to give them something so foundational…mercy, I’m crying just thinking about it!

  • Michelle Miller

    I love hearing about this gorgeous, tender family joining the community of Kingfisher. Having been the recipient of the generosity that bubbles out of your farm (I’ve received bags of tubers, brand new thick wool green socks, bunny kisses, relaxing saunas, barn dances, bountiful meals and a stay in the old cabin) I delight that this untethered family has found a place to belong and heal.

    • Leah Kostamo

      So glad to have you in the extended Kingfisher community, Michelle. 🙂 Hope you can meet this dear family some day soon.

  • This is beautiful. Loving your neighbor full on. What a tough life refugees have gone through, and it is good that the ones you have “fallen in love with” see kindness from you in a strange land they are just starting to know May their family and all refugees find a true home and find more people to show them love as you have..

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks and amen!

  • Rachel Burns Kraft

    This is so beautiful! I haven’t yet read of any stories of neighbors welcoming in a refugee family. This feels like a cool drink of water to my heart that is weary of the desert of bad news and hot vitriol of political discourse.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks, Rachel. Yes, up close the “refugee crisis” looks completely different than the “hot vitriol” being thorn about by the politicos.

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