My Syrian Neighbors

A few weeks ago, I was walking downtown in Portland, Maine, and, while waiting for a traffic light to change, I waved at a young boy sitting on his father’s shoulders. It was just before six o’clock in the evening and the autumn air had the first pang of winter as the sky faded to gloaming. As the cars went by on Washington Ave, I smiled at the boy’s mother and noticed she was holding a white binder. She smiled back. I asked if she was going to class at Portland Adult Education, which is just down the street. Her husband said, “Yes, her first English class. I am walking her.” We spoke in broken English and lots of hand gestures for the next five minutes as I walked with them to PAE, where I volunteer.

I learned their names were Nader and Jamileh, that they had been in the US for three months and that they were from Syria. I asked if they had what they needed: clothes, an apartment, warm jackets, food, etc. “Oh yes,” said Nader. I wasn’t sure he understood all my questions, so when we arrived at the school, I gave Nader my phone number and told him to text me if he needed any help with anything. I explained that I was an English teacher and could help them with paperwork or finding supplies. He thanked me and shook my hand.

That evening I received the following text message: “I was happy to meet with you. We want you to come visit us.” He sent me his address and said, “we are waiting for you.” Now, I have lived in Maine for my entire adult life, with the exception of two years in Barcelona, and no Mainer has ever invited me to their home immediately after meeting me. Usually it takes several encounters, a few beverages out, a walk or hike and then perhaps an accepted dinner invitation before the doors open. I was born 15 miles from the Maine border and I am still, as they say here, from away. In Portland, most of my friend circle is from away, as well, and so the rules are a little, shall we say, easier. But still. I was in awe of Nader’s message. It reminded me of my home, a small town in northern New Hampshire, and the ease with which neighbors became friends and friends became family. I texted him back saying I was going out of town for the weekend but that I would love to stop by soon. “We are waiting for you,” he wrote.

We arranged to meet the following Tuesday. I googled Syrian hospitality. It wasn’t an easy search given the tragic war stories and outrageous, xenophobic diatribes about refugees by my very own governor and the Republican candidate for president. I broadened my search and found several rules that served me well: take off your shoes, accept offers for tea or coffee, never finish everything on your plate if you are full because your hosts will continue to serve you food, never compliment something that isn’t bolted down to the wall because they will give it to you. Armed with this superficial knowledge and a bouquet of flowers, I walked over to my neighbors’ house. Nader, Jamileh and I sat in their living room, smiling, talking a little, using Google translate and sipping tea. Their children played in another room and occasionally poke their heads around the corner to shyly smile. They welcomed me with kindness and with generosity.

We told each other about our families. I explained that my paternal grandmother also came to the United States as refugee, and that my mother was from another country, as well. They explained that they each had siblings living in Jordan, Lebanon and, most dangerously, Syria. Nader said, “So you live with your father and brother?” I explained that my parents lived a three-hour drive away and that my brother lived with his own family. “Oh, sister,” Nader responded, “You live alone? You must know you are welcome to our house always. You will be our sister.”

I let the sentence echo in my head as my eyes filled with tears. I smiled and said, in my clearest English, “Thank you. I am happy where I live and that is very kind of you.” He insisted, “Jamileh loves to cook. She will make meals for you. You will be her sister. We think of our friends as family.” Jamileh smiled and nodded. “Sister,” she typed into her phone in Arabic. Before I knew it, Jamileh was in the kitchen making me falafel. I stood with her and told her the English words for spoon, spatula and stir. She repeated each word carefully and showed me how to expertly drop the falafel mixture into the oil.

We stood together in the kitchen, over 5,000 miles from Syria, our language one of friendship and family, despite having spent only an hour in the other’s presence. She put homemade yogurt in a bowl, sliced and salted a tomato and piled golden falafel balls on a white plate. “Here,” she said, and Nader said, “You must eat, sister. Eat.”

On my walk home (which Nader offered to accompany me on) I thought about my hometown. I thought about the brothers and sisters I acquired, not through blood but through proximity, through open-heartedness, through friendship born from meals shared, rides given, help offered. These were the threads in my life’s fabric, the sometimes invisible strands that continue to be ever-present. I thought about my life in Portland, filled with wonderful friends, but also unknown neighbors. I thought about the stereotype of the Syrian Refugee that the Republican candidate for president and Maine’s Tea Party governor try to make us fear.

I don’t yet know the full story of Nader and Jamileh’s journey to America nor do I know the extent of the hardships they have endured, the family and friends they have lost and the fear that lives inside them knowing their home country is a war-zone. I do know that they opened their doors to me, offered me tea, food and friendship. They opened their hearts with a love that transcends language barriers.

On Tuesday, my grandmother, a 95-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany, who is one year older than the 19th amendment, will vote for a woman president. On Tuesday, I will walk past Nader and Jamileh’s apartment to my polling location. I will think of the final lines of the poem by Emma Lazarus, engraved in the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” I will vote for Nader and Jamileh. I will vote for my grandmother. I will vote for the hardworking refugees who work 12-hour shifts and still carve out time to take evening English classes. I will vote for my niece and nephew. I will vote for the demonized and the down-trodden. I will vote for love over hate, for hope over fear. I will vote for human decency and for the principles upon which our country was founded. I urge you, dear reader, to do the same.

North Street, Portland, Maine