“A friend is the one that lends a hand during the time of need.” —Arabic proverb
I stood inside my local food pantry, looking at the family before me. The man was dressed in a gray sweat suit and white tennis shoes. His black hair and moustache were neatly combed and he gave me a broad smile. With him were two women, both dressed in long, dark purple dresses and hijab. One was young and stout, with heavy makeup; the other was petite and wizened. Both eyed me warily.
“Welcome to the pantry,” I said. “Do you speak any English?”
“I speak little,” said the man, his teeth shining white in his full smile.
The older woman lifted a single finger and waved it back and forth like a warning. “No English.”
I silently said a prayer for assistance.
I started to lead them around the small pantry space. Metal shelving held rows and rows of cans. At each area, we stopped and they had the option of picking items.
“Beans,” I said, pointing at the picture on the can. I held up two fingers. “Two.”
The older woman selected a bag of dry beans.
“No,” I said. The bag of beans was larger and therefore counted for a total of three choices; they could only have two.
She held up two fingers with a questioning look.
“Yes,” I said, “but not that one.” I waved my own finger back and forth in front of the bag, then gestured at the cans.
The woman gave me a piercing look and I felt guilty, like I was arbitrarily keeping her from the dried beans. I couldn’t explain.
“Where are you from?” I asked in front of the meat cooler. I pointed at the man.
“Iraq,” he said.
“Ah,” I said, falling silent. For most immigrants who came to the pantry, I would smile enthusiastically upon hearing of their home country.
Iraq was different. The history of our countries’ interactions, the events that likely led this man to uproot his family to bring them here to the United States, and now he was here at a food pantry. Had this been the land of opportunity for them? Did they know anyone here? Were they making ends’ meet? I wanted to say something that showed I did not support all of my country’s actions, that I did not support war. But I did not have the words for that.
The woman pointed at a package in the meat cooler and I put my hands together to mime a fish swimming.
“Fish,” I said.
We moved to the vegetable aisle. They studied each of the labels, examining the pictures on the front. The man and the older woman discussed with each other which ones to take, a stream of unintelligible speech to me. The younger woman stood silently to the side, watching.
I had read a lot about women in Muslim cultures, most of it negative. In the first few minutes, her silence seemed to confirm my worst assumptions. She seemed stripped of her voice.
But then I noticed the quick glances from her husband to her as he moved from can to can. A message passed between them in a look. She did not speak, but she had her own communication.
We progressed to the dairy section, followed by the grains. At each area, I held up fingers for the number of items that they could choose, and gestured at the appropriate shelves. For some sections, it was straightforward. For others, I was at a loss.
Take fruit. They could get four total choices, but how to then explain that while six apples counted as a choice, only four oranges would count the same? They understood the numbers; the complex relationship between them was harder to translate.
We reached the end, their cart overflowing with cans, meat, dairy, grains, hygiene items, bread, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I turned to wave goodbye, disappointed that I had not been able to forge more of a connection. I would have loved to have learned more about their culture, their experiences, and their life. I felt like I had failed.
The family paused before exiting. The man bowed his head. “You are very kind.”
“Thank you,” said his wife softly, her accent thick. The older woman nodded her head.
I nodded back.
I may not have been able to tell them what I felt, but I think they knew.
Hi! I’m a thirtysomething Ohio girl who loves serving the disadvantaged and her community. Having recently gotten married at 33, I love to encourage Christian women in their 30s, 40s, and later who are still believing God for Mr. Right. Come join our community at Modern Ruth Project—I look forward to seeing you there!