Community Conversation

I have a story to tell you about boots.

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out my basement and had twice tripped on a pair of size nine men’s work boots. My husband had needed them for a short while when he was the in-flight physician on a Life Flight helicopter service. I was pondering what we’d ever do with these boots (not quite right for hiking, not insulated enough for snow) when I opened my email and saw a message from a friend asking about boots.

There is a new family in my town who have been assisted in their transition from Syria to the U.S. by a committee of generous folks in my faith community. (You may remember me mentioning taking cookies to this family in my musings on Guerrilla Kindness.) I’ve enjoyed getting to know them more through events such as dinner where my family and I enjoyed a traditional Syrian meal. (Best baba ghanoush I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something because I’ve had a lot of baba ghanoush.)

The email was from resettlement committee member saying they had found an employment opportunity for Zeyad (the father), but he needed work boots in order to be on the construction sight (the next day). Specifically, he needed size nine men’s work boots. I know coincidences happen all the time, but this one made my arm hair prickle. I said I’d bring them right over.

When I got to their home, Zeyad and his wife were just sitting down to coffee, and invited me in. It was 2:00 in the afternoon of a spring cleaning day, and yes, I needed coffee! We talked about many things and specifically about the possibility of Ezdahar (mom) starting a catering business and Zeyad’s desire to find steady work. His older boys have been lucky to find good part time jobs, “and the parents just sit and drink coffee,” he joked.

The coffee was dark and rich and amazing. When we parted, they told me, to “come again every time” (meaning anytime), and I said “Sure! I will come every time you’re having coffee.”

The next time I saw Zeyad, he was speaking on a panel regarding the Muslim Ban. The panel was part of an ongoing series of Community Conversations sponsored by the Glastonbury MLK Community Initiative. This is a non-profit group that works to foster the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., specifically to encourage “an inclusive community” and provide “opportunities to satisfy basic societal needs of belonging and acceptance, through a commitment to listening to all, appreciating differences, celebrating the positive contributions from all of its citizens, and increasing the level of trust, connectedness and civic participation in community.”

They certainly accomplished this goal last Thursday through their panel discussion titled The Muslim Ban: An Examination of the Underlying Factual, Legal, Religious, Humanitarian, Policy, and Economic Considerations. 

The panel was moderated by Dean Alfred Carter, and participants included:

-Rev. Dr. David Grafton, a professor at Hartford Seminary, who spoke about how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have scriptural references to “welcoming the stranger.” He explained that faith communities actually have a  compulsion to behave ethically based on these teachings. He also shared a fun and important fact that the word hospitality actually comes from the Greek words philo (love) zenos (the foreigner).

-Dennis Wilson, a caseworker at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services reminded us that “refugee status” means your family’s lives are in danger. He explained how the “extreme vetting” process can take up to two years, and fewer than 1% of refuges who start the process are eventually resettled into the U.S.  A fun fact he shared was that the rate of entrepreneurship among refugees was studied and seen to be double that of other Americans. Also, refugees routinely contribute back twice to society what it cost to resettle them.

-Dr. Abigail Williamson, professor at Trinity College gave us a great reminder of specific times in history (Anti-Immigration policies go back as far as 1830) when Americans opposed other ‘strangers’ – Catholics, Germans, etc. She pointed out there have always been periodic swings to greater restriction, despite often seamless transitions of immigrants once they get here. A ‘not fun’ fact she shared was how ‘integrating well’ can be bad for immigrants’ health. Families typically come to the U.S. with baseline healthier lifestyles than ours, but by the second generation, their health has typically decreased to our level.

-Anna Cabot, professor at UCONN Law School spoke about the legal issues with the current executive order that blocks immigration from six countries (The “Muslim Ban”).  The two main arguments are that the ban violates due process, and violates first amendment rights regarding religious guidelines. I did not realize that the ban is actually scheduled to go into effect today. But, the legal community has continued to fight it’s implementation with ongoing injunctions.

-Rev. Richard Allen, Pastor at South Church (Glastonbury) spoke about his church’s outreach in helping resettle the Albukaai family from Syria. He pointed out that in getting to know and love this family, “an intellectual text now becomes a personal narrative.” He shared how quickly he became attached to the family, and how loved they are by himself and his parishioners.

-Muhammad Albuakaai & Zeyad Al Abas, fathers of two recently resettled Syrian families, spoke with the aid of an interpreter and shared heartbreaking stories of why they had to leave the country that they loved. Muhammad told of the distress of watching fellow human beings be killed as ‘easily and as often as you would kill a mosquito.’ Zeyad spoke of living with his family in a swath of forest for 15 days as before making their way to a refugee camp in Jordan. He noted that all they wanted in Syria was freedom and democracy, and that speaking out for these two things is what people are being killed for.

Both men also shared their strong desire to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, and promised not to be a burden on our society. They conveyed deep gratitude for the welcome they had received. When an audience member asked the two fathers what their opinion was on the Muslim Ban, Zeyad responded for both by saying, ‘in Syria, we had been living peacefully for centuries with Christians and Jews. So maybe this is a better question for you here in this country.’

Another audience member asked what we should be/could be doing to help others going forward. It was pointed out that despite what happens with “the ban,” a significant number of refugees will still be barred from entering the U.S. (the number allowed is down from 110,000 to 50, 000). I believe it was Dennis Wilson from IRIS who encouraged us to contact our representatives and mention specific names of people who will now be left behind. Families just like the ones there that night, fathers who shared stories, mothers who cooked treats, and children who ran back and forth and crawled under the table during the program.

At the very end of the evening, four children (three from the Albukaai family and one from the Al Abas family) took over the mic. The three little girls sang what sounded like a playful folk song, while the littlest boy just giggled into the microphone. Their beautiful voices, set against the backdrop of the stories we’d just heard of unrest, fear, homelessness, and despair created a poignant juxtaposition. Four gorgeous, healthy kids – singing and laughing – surrounded by a group of smiling strangers in their new home.

It is a good start.

8 thoughts on “Community Conversation

  1. What a marvelous story!
    Loved the bit about the boots–there are no coincidences.

    Hospitality, according to Wikipedia, “Derives from the Latin hospes,[5] meaning “host”, “guest”, or “stranger”. Hospes is formed from hostis, which means “stranger” or “enemy” (the latter being where terms like “hostile” derive). By metonymy the Latin word ‘Hospital’ means a guest-chamber, guest’s lodging, an inn.[6] Hospes is thus the root for the English words host (where the p was dropped for convenience of pronunciation), hospitality, hospice, hostel and hotel.”

  2. THANKS for sending this! Wonderful story and SO beautifully written!! If ever I feel discouraged about the path the world is on, I’ll think about you coming along in my foot steps! Heartwarming and HOPEFUL! 💕N1

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