The Syrian Refugee Crisis Moved Into My Neighbourhood



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