For my cultural anthropology class, last fall, I had to complete an ethnography assignment. The main purpose was to learn about something new. I decided I wanted to learn more about Middle Eastern culture, Muslim religion, Islam, and what it is like for people to learn ESL (English as a second language). Specifically, people who were forced to flee their country and come to start a new life in America. I wanted to educate myself instead of fearing something, a culture and religion, I didn’t fully understand.
I ended up volunteering with a ministry that offers free ESL classes at a church about a mile from my house. This is part of organization called Refugee Care Collective. Not only do they have free classes with 4 different levels, the ministry offers free childcare and free transportation to and from class three times a week. How amazing it is that only volunteers coordinate all of this. There are about 40 adult students who attend the ESL classes.
(Myself and some of the ladies from the ESL class at SW Bible Church)
My assignment led me to interview, Sami, a prior Muslim now Christian, and learn even more about his culture. I also had the opportunity to take a 3-week class to learn about Islam. You can read Sami’s story here.
A couple misconceptions I had- that ISIS was only killing Christians. That Muslims did not know whom Jesus was. All Muslims believe Jesus was born of a virgin and that he was a great prophet—yet he was only a man- not the Son of God. Reading Carl Medearis’ book Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships, he points out that, “Jesus (Isa in the Qur’an) is regarded as the holiest prophet, without sin, born of a virgin, and interestingly, called ‘his word’ (Q 4:171).” This book is a must read!
I attend Westside: A Jesus Church and 20 percent of every dollar tithed goes to Hear the Cry. Hear the Cry partners with another organization called refugee care collective to help people that arrive in Portland from other countries settle into their new home. They help by providing restart kits, which include household items, they acquire and deliver furniture, and they provide mentors to families to help them adjust to their new life in a new country. Often times the new families do not speak English and have no family or friends to rely on for support.
I was asked by Hear the Cry to take a few pictures during an interview with a family from Iraq. The interview was be led by a Hear the Cry volunteer named, Savannah Dimarco.
Most people may be unaware that in fiscal year (FY) 2015, the United States resettled 69,933 refugees. In 2015, there were 12,676 Iraqi refugee arrivals. Nationals of Burma (also known as Myanmar), Iraq, and Somalia were the top three countries of origin for refugees in 2015 (http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/refugees-and-asylees-united-states) .
In 2015, the state of Oregon welcomed 1,357 refugees (https://www.oregon.gov/DHS/ASSISTANCE/REFUGEE/Pages/data.aspx).
I sat among this beautiful family – Noora and Suroor who are sisters and Khitam, their mother. While listening to Khitam share their story in Arabic and then Suroor translating, I was in awe of the sacrifices they have made and in shock of the realities of what they endured. The bravery they displayed was astounding.
(Suroor, Khitam, Noora)
I couldn’t help but think about what it would be like to have to leave my home in a matter of hours and leave everyone and everything I know and move to a new country in a matter of weeks? My mind raced with the horrible thoughts of leaving behind possessions. Wondering how I would feed my daughter? Where would she go to school? What about violin practice? How would I communicate? Would I be accepted? What about my culture? Would I find a new church?
But this is the reality that about 5.9 million people (internally displaced and refugees) face when they decide to flee the violence and leave their home to find safety (http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/refugees-and-asylees-united-states).
Khitam told the story with tears in her eyes. The year was 2011 when the AL Mahdi militia, a group of Shia Muslims, left a bloodstained threatening letter at their home in Baghdad, Iraq. They had a matter of hours to leave their home or find out if the threats on the letter would come to fruition. The family had received verbal threats and aware that AL Mahdi militias had been killing many people in Iraq. They gathered some belongings and headed to a families house for 3 weeks. After 3 weeks, Suroor flew to America and her sister (Noora), 3-year-old nephew (Ahmed), brother (Mustafa), and mom (Khitam) flew to Lebanon.
Why would AL Mahdi militias want to kill this family? They discovered that Suroor and her father, Tawfeek, worked for an American based NGO (non-government organization) that helps Iraqi’s with medical needs. Suroor told us, “For 2 years no one knew, however once the people found out we were called infidels because of where we worked and the fact that we didn’t wear hijab.”
I was curious to know if it was because they were Sunni? Noora clarified that Khitam is Sunni while Suroor and Tawfeek are Shia.
In Lebanon they were unable to work due to the fact that they were from Iraq. They tried to stay away from political and religious organizations. Fearing for their lives, a decision was made to head to northern Lebanon, where there were mainly Christians.
Tawfeek would send money to Noora, Mustafa, and his wife since they were unable to work. Without enough food, Khitam suffered from Anemia. The four of them lived in one small room with only a small oven. Three months before leaving for America, Khitam suffered a heart attack. Thankfully there was a Christian, a friend, who paid for her to have surgery expecting nothing in return.
Suroor received a scholarship to study for her master’s degree in Salem, Oregon. She was offered a job working for an international company in Portland, Oregon. After 2.5 years, Suroor sponsored her family who remained in Lebanon and everyone except their brother made the journey to Oregon.
What was life like in Iraq before Lebanon Savannah asked? “We had a normal, sweet life. Our father was a professor and we loved our life.” Noora replied.
Their father, Tawfeek, currently works as a professor in a lab at a University in Baghdad. He felt too old to try and start a new life in a different country.
Once the family left Iraq -they never felt safe. They were in hiding because it was illegal for them to be in Lebanon. They had strict curfews to follow. If authorities were to find them -they would be sent back to Iraq-and possibly face death.
Mustafa was the only one who stayed in Lebanon. Not by choice. His case was denied and his family is actively looking for a way for Mustafa to join them in Oregon.
I could hear the hurt and frustration in Noora’s voice. She misses her brother and yearns for his case to be approved – allowing the family to be together again. Noora is confident her brother is a good man and would never hurt anyone. She pleads for us to help her find a way to get her brother to America.
With their mother’s health conditions, Noora is able to work from home and care for her mother, as an employee of DHS.
What are hardest cultural differences? Asked Savannah. Noora is quick to reply that her “family is open-minded. They love people.” Suroor replies that, “we do not talk about religion or ask people. We care about quality of people not their religion…what you hear about [Muslims] in the media, this is not true.”
Noora explains that finding a boyfriend is hard because of her religion. She fears people from the local Iraqi community will judge her. Her son, Ahmed, has adjusted well to living in America. He was not used to being around children since they left Iraq when he was only 3 years old. He did not see any children until they relocated to Oregon.
Noora thanks her friend, Alan, for all his help. She recalls that when they first met at a max station, Alan thought she was Hispanic. Once he learned they are both Iraqi, they bonded. She was so thankful for Alan’s help and recommends that all new refugees have someone like Alan to help them.
What was it like to come to America? Another question asked by Savannah.
Noora had little money, didn’t know the area, had no car and unable to drive. She didn’t know anyone and her home was empty. She received welcome money for refugees of $1,000. A man that knew her brother in Lebanon had moved to America and was now her neighbor. He was kind to bring her furniture and help Noora navigate her new life in Oregon.
Noora is looking forward to helping her mom and going to school. She waited 8 months to receive her diploma from Iraq so she can apply for financial aid. She earned a bachelors degree in Iraq in computer science; however, the US does not recognize her degree. She is on a mission to bring her brother to Oregon and study to be a pharmacy technician. Noora is excited to start her campaign to help children in Iraq, specifically a family she knows. This is her dream to help others.
Check out her campaign here
The family misses their country and unsure if they will ever be able to return. This is reality for many families.
Most of us seek to live in peace, work, care for our children, and enjoy life in safety. And there are some that seek the opposite. They are divisive and seek destruction.
If you are asking yourself how you can help people trying to start a new life in America because of war and hate in their home country- I have five suggestions.
- Put yourself in their shoes. What would you need if you just moved to a new country? How would you feel?
- Partner with a local organization that teaches ESL or helps in any way
- Donate – money or a starter kit
- Make time for people different than you – people with different beliefs – don’t have an agenda to “convert” them to be a Christian or any other religion. Allow the Holy Spirit to open hearts. Love them well.
This reminds me to share my favorite quote from Sami, “Just show them Jesus’ love,” he says. “I come to the Lord through someone who didn’t just tell me about Jesus, he first showed me His love. He showed me that they [Christians] are good people. He helped me where I needed it most. Then he invited me to his home for a meal and it changed my life.”
Sami also states, “we have to separate Islam from Muslims and look at Muslims as humans made in the image of God. They are our brothers and sisters- not our enemies.”
We have to move beyond giving people titles such as refugee, muslim, mormon, or christian. Move beyond prejudice, racism, and stereotypes and move towards accepting each other as human. Move beyond cultural boundaries and seek to learn from each other.
Maajid Nawaz puts it this way in his book Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, “Hatred of ‘the other’ thrives on myths and stereotypes. The sad reality is that Americans and Muslims mutually spread some of the crudest of these stereotypes, about each other and among each other. And even though the America-or-Islam juxtaposition is false, the peddlers of prejudice have no chance of gaining power unless they succeed in pushing it. It only benefits them to encourage this dichotomy.”
Towards the end of the interview, I realized they were celebrating Ramadan yet their hospitality was so gracious offering us water, soda, and Middle Eastern pastries- jalebi and baklava throughout our two hours at their home. They were excited to share the pastries that they specially ordered from Michigan.
This would have been the fourth middle eastern family I had spent time with in their own home, and hands down, they all displayed the best hospitality I have ever experienced.
I’m so thankful they shared their story. They opened their home to strangers and treated us as family. I hope there brother is reunited with them soon. I couldn’t help but think of Jesus the Messiah. During this political season it is important for us (followers of Jesus) to stand for justice and human rights.
Jesus is reconciliation. Jesus is Peace. Jesus is love. Jesus tells us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” (Matthew 5:44) The Bible has the answer on how to treat refugees and it’s pretty simple:
Matthew 25:34-40 New Living Translation (NLT)
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
I will close with a quote from Carl Medearis,
“May we show our friends how they can believe in God more fully in and through Jesus Christ…Jesus doesn’t come loaded with bias, prejudice, conflict, or war. Christianity often does.”
Photos taken by me 😉
(left to right- Rachel, Suroor, Khitam, Noora, Savannah, and Beyan (Sami’s wife)