A Syrian Refugee's Story
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
From today’s psalm:
Some wandered in desert wastes;
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty;
their spirits languished within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He put their feet on a straight path
to go to a city where they might dwell. (Ps. 107:4-7)
Over the last few years, our newspapers have been dominated by stories of refugees and immigrants — of people displaced from their homes by warfare, by endemic violence, by climate change, or simply by the hope of making a better life for their families. Such people have always existed; in fact, our earliest ancestors were nomads, but 2015 saw our world hit a new record in the sheer number of refugees. According to the UNHCR, there were 63.5 million displaced people last year, which is about one person for every 113 alive on this earth. (Those numbers don’t include immigrants who are not fleeing danger.)
St. Alban’s has responded to this crisis by raising funds to better the lives of Syrian persons who have been displaced into camps within the Middle East; by increasing the enrollment capacity of the St. Savior’s School in Jordan, which is adjacent to one of those camps; and by helping to support a few families here in the DC area. Today, we are going to hear from a member of one of those families, and then we are going to reflect together about what we have heard. It is my pleasure to introduce Khaled Smaisem.
TESTIMONY of Mr. Smaisem
My name is Khaled Smaisem. My wife is Fadia and my kids are Lidya, Enana, Fadwa and Hamada. I arrived to the United States almost two years ago. I was very frustrated with my personal situation, having lost everything in Syria and leaving Lebanon where I had managed to take care of my family and other refugees while practicing my profession. I was, however, optimistic about starting a new life, far away from the smell of death that pervades the Orient, our kind and beautiful Orient that is now an incubating environment for extremism because of our ruling dictators’ ruthless policies.
I arrived here and met great people who embraced my family and helped me with every detail of my new life. I didn’t speak English nor did I have any money, I only knew how to relate to others especially those that are different from me; I valued diversity. I worked as a journalist in Syria where I had an office, a secure job, a house, a family and friends, the majority of whom were killed in the war.
I still have some pictures in my memory of my original homeland. I say original because all of the landmarks of Syria have changed today. I only have beautiful pictures of sites which I may not find there in the future.
Because I didn’t speak English well back then, I looked for a job that required a minimal use of the language. I decided to work in landscaping and I learned it quickly due to the fact that I came from the Syrian countryside, where most of the Syrians work as farmers.
For the first few months of my life here, the future was not clear and I was confused concerning my goals. I was working full-time but I couldn’t pay the rent. When I did not understand that I needed to re-apply for food stamps, I ran out of food and was distraught that I could not feed my children. Luckily, I met people like you who wanted to help; you and other churches paid the rent for several months and people brought me food and moral support.
Today, my English is better after going to school. I started a little landscaping company called, “Neat Gardens”, with help from Ms. Najla Drooby. I am working on my own and I am sure I will succeed.
I thank the kind American people and the churches that helped me, in particular Langley Hill Quaker Meeting, St Albans Episcopal Church, Springfield United Methodist Church, Grace Presbyterian Church and Ravensworth Baptist Church. I thank Lisa Sams, Najla Drooby, Kay Tarazi, Helen Samhan and many others. You kept track of all the details regarding my work and financial situation. You referred your friends to me for gardening. Today I work every day without any fear. My kids are doing well in school and my wife helps me pay the rent with her Syrian cuisine catering business.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to all those who have shown that they truly care for all human beings. I also would like to say that I highly respect the great American people who sympathized with the refugees and helped them with everything.
Right now in these moments while I am standing in front of you, I have a lot and a lot of optimism and very little of sadness.
Thank you, Khaled; it is a privilege to be part of the same country as your family.
When we hear about immigration and refugees on the news, the word that often follows them is “crisis.” And it is true: leaving your home, your family, your language, and your culture is a brutal decision — one few people make if they have a choice. If you are financially stable and well-educated, you might choose to live abroad for a time to serve your country or to learn or teach in a foreign university or to work in a corporation abroad (as many of us have), and you might well enjoy it, but that’s not the choice that these 63 million people are making. Most of these people are fleeing home in the hope of staying alive, and that is, indeed, a crisis.
The Judeo-Christian story begins with one such man: Abram, a man who was living in Haran with his family when God spoke to him and called him to leave home, saying: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) Those are the first words God addresses to any human being within historical times: “leave your home and your people.” We don’t know why God wanted Abram to leave, although scholars have pointed out that Abram lived in a time of significant global population movement, just like ours, but God’s words establish a pattern. Over and over, God calls his people to leave the place of their belonging and enter the unknown — the place they can find only with God. Abram moves from Haran to Canaan; Joseph’s family flee famine in Canaan to Egypt; the Hebrews leave Egypt and return to Canaan, are later exiled in Babylon and Assyria. Some of those exiles return to Jerusalem, then, in the time of Jesus, God sends them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. God calls them to encounter other peoples, other lands, new ways of being in the world.
Each of these displacements calls for radical trust in God, because each one renders the people involved acutely vulnerable. We heard some of that from Khaled this morning: not knowing the language, finding new work, struggling to feed his children. But these displacements also call for trust in people. God’s history can be read as an ever-expanding circle of trust: from family to tribe, tribe to kingdom, kingdom to the dispersed Hebrew people, and then, finally, with Jesus, from Jew to Gentile, Jerusalem to the whole world, until “there is no longer Greek and Jew…, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but” only the people of God. (Col 3:11)
Think for a moment about the intense vulnerability of the disciples: sent out two by two, with no weapons, with only the barest minimum of what they need, utterly dependent on the hospitality of strangers. Even Jesus experiences this utter vulnerability, saying “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20)
God responds to this human vulnerability by making hospitality fundamental to the holy life. We Christians speak a lot about loving our enemies, which Jesus taught, but long before that, the Hebrews received a different commandment: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut 10:19) Our experience of being marginalized is meant to teach us compassion, to help us shape a nation that shelters those in acute need. When Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs, he says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (Matt 10:14-15) In some way, our salvation depends on how we welcome strangers, for that welcome we offer to others is bound up in the welcome we offer to God and even to our own selves. In being broken out of our comfort zones, we are broken open to God in a new way.
And yet, Scripture is also clear that exile is the ultimate hardship. We all dream of home. Like the man in the Jesus’ parable, we want to be in comfort in our own space. Exile is what people endure when something has gone wrong, and at the end of today’s reading from Hosea, God promises, “I will return them to their homes.” (Hos 11:11) And so we live in the tension, knowing that nothing is permanent, knowing our own vulnerability, yearning together for the promised time when all persons “shall…sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”(Micah 4:4)
So I invite you to form groups of three with your neighbors and talk about the following question:
Think of a time when you have had to depend on the kindness of others — of people not in your family, perhaps even of strangers. Share that story with one other person. What did you learn about yourself? About other people? How has this experience impacted your understanding of God?
I want to close us out with one more image, taken from the letters of Paul. In this life, we are all exiles and aliens. Our true home is in heaven, and until we arrive there, we must always depend on the kindness of strangers.
31 July, 2016
Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister
Hosea 11:1-11; Col 3:1-11