As I wrote earlier, I have been volunteering as a Youth ESL Tutor for refugee children with iACT, the Interfaith Action of Central Texas on Saturdays. Today, I was volunteering in their other location for the first time, and I expected the general routine: come in, help out the kids, take them outside for some time, and read a book. As it turns out, life has its own surprises, especially when you least expect it.
After the tutoring session was over, I was talking to Nour*, a 13 year-old girl who I had seen when I volunteered at Camp GirlForward during the summer. We had never really talked that much, but we both recognized each other. I asked her if she was still friends with any of the girls at the camp. When she said that she never really talked to them after the camp, I told her about how I had made friends with one of the Syrian girls there, Shireen*, and how I still texted her frequently. Upon hearing her name, Nour broke into an excited smile. Who would have guessed? My friend lived right down the street!
Nour walked me to Shireen’s apartment, and we knocked on the door. We were met by her little brother and sister. Nour explained, in Arabic, that I was Shireen’s friend, and I had come to see her. When Shireen appeared, she almost screamed in excitement. Honestly, I don’t think anyone has ever been that excited to see me, and I was so touched by her response. She invited me in, and we sat in the living room, where we were joined by her parents, whom I greeted with the traditional Arabic phrase: “Assalam alaikum”. We exchanged some conversation, and I attempted to ask her little brother what his name was in Arabic, but perhaps my accent fell short, because he seemed a bit confused. Anyhow, Shireen’s parents were very excited with my attempt to speak their language. I proceeded to tell Shireen about my scholarship to study in Jordan, and when she translated it for her parents, her father said in English: “No go Jordan. You come here! We teach you Arabic!” He also asked me where I was from, and when I explained that my parents were from India, he said a few sentences in Hindi! It turns out, he had worked alongside a lot of South Asians in the Emirates for a few years, which is why his Hindi was better than my Arabic. Her mother, speaking through Shireen, invited my family to lunch sometime, saying that she would cook Syrian chicken for us! After talking for a few more minutes, I bade farewell, since my mother was waiting in the parking lot, but Shireen and I made plans to meet the next time I came to the place to tutor.
What moved me most about this meeting was the open-heartedness and kindness that Shireen and her family showed me. When I saw her at the door, I had asked her if she remembered me, and she had responded with “Of course, my friend! I am so happy to see you!” And her family, without even knowing me, were very welcoming and kind to me. It was humbling to see that they were willing to give so much, even if they had so little. Another thing that I noticed was the way I felt comfortable talking to them, despite the language barrier. These days, there is so much hate for people who come from the Middle East or speak Arabic. This experience was only a testament to the fact that people are people. No matter where they come from or what language they speak, there is an innate kindness in the human heart, that we often overlook. In Hindi, we say “Atithi Devo Bhava”, or “Guests are equivalent to God”. I now know that this idea extends far past the borders of India.
*Names changed to protect the privacy of individuals