The Refugees Downstairs

In May we opened our home to an Afghan refugee family of five: Fahim, Zarifa, and their three kids (a 9-year-old boy, a 6-year-old girl, and a 10-month-old baby boy). They have lived with us for six weeks.
Their story, like those of most refugees, is emotional and complex, full of ups and downs. A few days before they started sharing our address, a friend spotted them living in a park in our neighborhood. That friend called another friend, who called us; she knew we’d been working with a resettlement agency to host a refugee family, and so she asked us if we could take in this family. We said yes.
I had this picture in my head of how it’d be: one big Kum Ba Yah, the kids playing together, everyone teaching each other English or Dari, all of us sharing meals, the grown-ups sitting together in the evenings to swap stories.
It isn’t not quite like that.
There are lovely moments for sure, and I savor them. The kids play together, but they argue sometimes, too. So far my kids have learned Thank You in Dari (and that’s it). Shared meals are tough; our kids eat at 5:30 and are in bed by 7. Their kids are on a much later schedule, especially during Ramadan. Zarifa insists on delivering huge plates of rice to us every single night, just as Reza and I are heading to bed; we know it’s her way of saying thank you. The adults haven’t swapped many stories because the only shared language is a little bit of Farsi, and only the men speak it (and they seem to have way less of an appetite for hanging out to chat). Zarifa and I hug each other a lot, and we talk in our own way; during the first 24 hours under the same roof we had a whole wordless conversation about each of our kids’ birth stories, by pointing to each child in succession and then various body parts or flashing C-section scars.
I suppose I had expectations about what we’d “get” out of this experience as a family.

What we’ve gotten is not at all what I had expected. It’s better.
One thing we’ve all been learning, or re-learning, is that sharing isn’t always easy, nor should it be. Generosity is an elusive practice. I thought I was pretty good at it. Now I’m honestly not so sure. Most of the giving I’ve done throughout my life has been on my terms, on my own time. It’s almost always been opt-in. But not this. This experience is a test in persistence, personal boundaries, patience, and lots else. It’s one thing when your own children are up with a fever in the middle of the night, or need to go to the pediatrician in the middle of a workday; it’s another to care for someone else’s family going through those ordeals. It’s one thing to proactively go out and find someone to help; it’s another to have five people who may walk into your living room or your kitchen at any time with a need, big or small.
Our family’s practice of generosity has become, as of the last few weeks, a collection of small daily acts of kindness. It’s getting up from the sofa, just as you’d sat down with a book at the end of the day after your own kids are asleep, because Fahim wants help setting up some apps on his new phone. It’s asking my sons to wait for my time and attention because the 9-year-old boy needs help with his homework. It’s letting toys get borrowed and broken. It’s giving up TV and fast Internet for a month or so (everything is downstairs, where the family is living). It’s driving Zarifa to the grocery store when I wanted to go on a run instead. It’s taking turns with household appliances you’ve never had to take turns with before.
There are other things we’ve been learning as well — insights around what it really means to own something, or fresh convictions around the ways I wish our country’s policies and refugee assistance program were different, or the profound joy we felt watching our friends and neighbors rise up to help this family too.

But here’s what feels most important to say: hosting this family is worth doing not because it may leave us with a nice neat list of lessons. It is worth doing because it is right. It is worth doing because it makes the world a tiny bit fairer. It is worth doing because no one person is better than another, and it is arbitrary that our family happens to have a safe, stable place to live right now and theirs does not (yet). Every day I think: that could be us. I mean this quite literally. I think of my own family, emigrating to the U.S. generations ago. I think of Reza, just thirty years back, when his family fled Iran with nothing but a suitcase each.
I’m not one to tell anyone else what to do. But for what it’s worth, this is what I am saying to myself and to my own family these days: It is right to give what we can. And the world needs us to give more than we have been.

Let today — World Refugee Day — be your reason to do a little bit more. If you don’t have a good place to start, here are a few of my favorites:
- Habitat for Humanity
- Kiva World Refugee Fund
- World Relief
- Hello Neighbor
- Miry’s List (LA)

Update: This piece was written two weeks ago, in preparation for World Refugee Day. Happy to share that the family was able to secure and move into permanent housing a few days ago!

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