The Bedford Park Lasallian Community in the Bronx, New York, has a reputation for hospitality. There is a quote on our dining room wall that reads, “What we love most about our home is who we share it with.” This mantra has been given new life and meaning with our decision to host a Syrian refugee in our community this year.
Jamal and his caseworker, Hadiya, from the International Rescue Committee, visited our community for dinner in December 2016 and shared some of his story with us. He is Lebanese, and was living in Syria near the border of Lebanon. Jamal worked in real estate back in Syria, and owned property that he rented out. He told us how his hometown was destroyed in the war, and it now looks the same as Aleppo. His son made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea twice, and is now living in France. His daughter was able to flee the violence as well, and now lives in Germany. Jamal was granted asylum status in the United States and has been here for a few years. He had been living in Brooklyn, staying with different friends, but had no place of his own. That evening after dinner he decided that our community would be a good fit for him, and that weekend he moved into our home.
Jamal is a warm and joyful presence in our community. He often participates in community prayer and dinner. He has cooked Lebanese food for community dinner and is always making tabbouleh to share. He recently started taking intensive English as a Second Language (ESL) classes during the week, and everyone has been helping him practice around the dinner table. Matt found a creative way to better include Jamal in prayer by having him read the Gospel passage in Arabic. He has invited us to join him in attending services at the Arabic-speaking Christian church he attends in Brooklyn. We recently learned that he writes poetry in Arabic and he shared some of his work with us. His presence in our community has made all of us more intentionally inclusive.
Before we decided that we wanted to house a refugee, we had all read the news articles about the war and seen pictures of the destruction taking place in Syria. We have prayed for the people whose lives have been destroyed by the Civil War, and for refugees. Living with Jamal, someone who survived the war and fled his native country, has given us a new perspective on these issues. We see more clearly the human faces behind the photos, and connect more deeply with their stories. Brother Bill shared that our faith calls us to action in the service of others, and that inviting Jamal to live with us in community is a manifestation of that. Each of us should reflect on how we are called to action on behalf our refugee brothers and sisters who are fleeing violence and are being turned away.
Having Jamal join our community this year has been a gift for each of us. We have learned to build relationships with him despite a significant language barrier. We may not be able to say a lot to each other but consistently asking questions about how his ESL classes are going or how he liked church each weekend shows that we care and are invested in building our relationships with him. Recently we had Hadiya over for dinner, and she is able to translate for Jamal. Jaime shared with her proudly that she had been helping to teach Jamal English and that she taught him how to say “sandal” in English. That is when we learned that the word sandal is the same in both Arabic and English, and that Jamal knew this all along, but allowed Jaime to believe she taught him a new word. The whole room erupted in laughter at this prank that Jamal played on Jaime! There have been many such moments of joy and laughter that have been brought to our community through his presence with us. Brother Bill shared with us that “we are in the holy presence of God” in the presence of Jamal. Hadiya told us when she visited last week that this is the happiest that she has seen him in her past two years of working with him. He brings so much light and joy to those around him despite all of the difficulties that he has gone through. We are thankful for Jamal’s presence in our home, which has given new meaning and purpose to our experience of community.
Jacquie Martin is a second-year LV serving at Serviam Gardens in Bronx, New York and is a 2015 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California.