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Fun with Syrians: Sharing a Meal (part one)

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

*** Fun with Syrians is a series to be written by both me and Chris to share our experiences among refugees. We hope it will make you laugh a little, cry a little, and perhaps inspire you to knock on your neighbor’s door and make a difference in your own community. ***

Part One: Sharing a Meal

What is the single most important skill to have when working cross-culturally? What is possibly more important than linguistic abilities, adaptability, or even compassion?

Humor - I might argue. An ability to laugh at yourself and others and just keep rolling. Without humor, you will be helplessly frustrated, often discouraged, and you will probably just quit.

When a refugee family arrives, there is a stressful flurry of paperwork, medical appointments, and 1,000 other things. Case workers with resettlement agencies are maxed out, so they partner with local churches and other entities to form teams of volunteers to meet practical needs. The goal of resettlement efforts is to help a family become self-sufficient and thriving in America - obtaining housing, applying for social services, learning English, obtaining a driver's license, an income, education for children, understanding our basic processes for everything, and eventually meeting emotional needs like healing from trauma and forming community. The needs are endless, and they are layered with complex economic, linguistic, and cultural challenges. All of this takes an immense amount of manpower, time and money. But of course, helping in a way that creates independence rather than dependence can be tricky and frustrating. Agencies are involved for only 3-6 months before efforts become the sole responsibility of well-meaning but often under-equipped volunteers (like us)!

Challenging as this may be, we live in the age of a worldwide refugee crisis. Christians, especially in American resettlement cities, desperately need to step up and love our neighbors as the hands and feet of Jesus.

Chris and I joined a welcome team for a new Syrian family last June. Our purpose was to gain experience and see if we could recreate this ministry at our own church, since we own several properties which could be used for transitional housing.

The family we partnered with comes from a rural village in Syria, where they owned a tomato farm. Soon after the start of the civil war, their home and farm were bombed. They fled to Jordan, where they lived for nearly a decade and had two more children. Their application to resettle to the USA was finally approved, and after the standard two years of preparation, screening and paperwork, they moved here in 2022. They came with nothing, and they arrived not knowing a single world of English.

The day we met them, we brought vegetables from our garden. They had a nostalgic look on their faces, and perhaps some tears in their eyes. We had yet to learn their story.

In many ways they are a stereotypical family: Ahsan, a husband who is desperate to get a better job and provide for his family; Zaynah, his wife, who loves and serves her family well; two young boys (8 and 10) who love racing cars and video games; a teenage girl (16) who loves nails, hair, clothes, and makeup; A 17-year old boy who wants to go to the gym, impress girls, and wears cologne entirely too strong. Teenagers are teenagers - no matter where they’re from.

Talking about refugees is heavy. But today I’m going to highlight some of the more humorous aspects of this cross-cultural work.

Have you ever seen the 1990’s cult classic Dances with Wolves? Kevin Costner plays a Union army lieutenant who befriends the native Sioux tribe. At first, their communication is limited to hilarious games of charades, such as when Costner holds his forefingers to his head and jumps around wildly to act out “buffalo.”

… This is what my time with the Syrians is like.

I speak only a handful of Arabic words. After months of tutoring, they are learning English, but we are still communicating in one- or two-word phrases. For important matters, I may bring along an Arab friend to serve as translator. But mostly we communicate through what is called "total physical response" in the ESL world. I'm calling it charades.

One of the funniest things that happens when you communicate in short phrases and gestures is losing your own ability to speak English properly. Too many words in a phrase and they’ll misunderstand you entirely. So, you break things down, perhaps more than necessary.

“I … go … house … baby sleep!”

“Me… no eat… sick … go. house. now.”

“Chris… work … home… with babies”

I often use translation apps. But there are 25 dialects of Arabic, so apps often create more confusion. I have more success with charades.

Some of my funniest moments of acting included helping a woman have a baby (my tent-making profession) and acting out the abstract words gluten allergy by pointing to noodles, clutching my throat and pretending I’m dying. I go really over the top to get my point across, because if I don’t tell them I’m going to die, they’ll still put it on my plate and insist I eat it. Zaynah might actually shove a fork in my mouth.

Syrians are some of the most hospitable people in the world. Like other ‘warm’ cultures, they value people and relationships over efficiency and time management.

I met a saleswoman a few weeks ago. She goes from home to home around the crowded, trashy streets of Philly row houses trying to convince people to switch their internet providers. She said she never packs dinner, because around 4pm all the Syrians and other Middle Easterners will just invite her in.

Syrians love to serve, and their cooking is delightful. Among all the many North African and Middle Eastern world cuisines I enjoy, Syrian is towards the top - fresh falafels, hummus, tabouli, lemon chicken, rice, soups, and a myriad of other things I don’t recognize and can’t pronounce.

Tonight, after a very stressful shopping outing (another story entirely), I stayed for dinner. They served me soup made from fried onions and red lentils, a beef dish with pita bread (which I avoided) and cabbage rolls stuffed with lemony rice. As I was enjoying my food, Ahsan got my attention and was acting out eating the soup while rubbing his chest and making a guttural “Mmmm” noise. I honestly thought he was trying to tell me that this soup was good for the breasts. Like, maybe eating it would make me grow big breasts? I spat my soup out on the table and started laughing nervously. Zaynah, his wife, realized I had seriously misunderstood this gesture. She pointed to the soup, rubbed her throat and said, “Eeeeeeat … No sick! No sick!” Then I realized that they meant that this soup was healthy; it would keep you warm and boost your immune system.

Some of us are better at acting than others.

Then, Ahsan hands me a green onion. (What on earth am I supposed to do with this? I thought). He raises his eyebrows humorously and takes a big bite of his own onion, challenging me to do the same. Then Nabiha looks at me with wide eyes to warn me that green onions are very spicy. I imitated Ahsan, by raising my eyebrows proudly and taking a bite. Then Ahsan quickly ate his entire onion. I did the same. It was spicy, but I love spice. They all cheered and laughed, and I felt like I’d passed some sort of Syrian family gang initiation.

My efforts to impress them backfired though, because if you eat an entire green onion, you will wake up the next morning with a strange body odor. Try this if you think I’m kidding.

The green onion was only slightly less strange than the time I was having tea sitting cross-legged on the floor of their living room, when Zaynah smiled and brought me a whole romaine lettuce leaf. Why? I have no idea. But I ate it and said “shukran.”

Roll with it.

Zaynah has a magical ability to get my children to eat food. She scoops up my 5-year-old son in her arms and spoon feeds him like a baby. He hates this. He shoots me a grumpy look, but he’s often so confused and disoriented that he complies.

Roll with it.

Our many miscommunications and frustrations are balanced by these moments that make me have a hearty laugh. In many ways, their warmth and hospitality are a welcomed relief from the gruff exterior of most Philly natives. The Northeast can be a hard place when you’re from the South.

And if you’re one of the lucky ones with Syrian neighbors, just show up at 4:30pm with a brochure for something. You’ll be happy you did!

*All names changed for privacy.

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