90: They Call Me “Friend”

90: They Call Me “Friend”

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

They Call Me “Friend”

A smile is the universal welcome.

~Max Eastman

I parked my car at the address I’d been given. Here goes, I thought. I walked to the door and knocked. Had I been visiting a friend, I might not have felt this churn in my stomach, the fear that I was in the wrong place.

The door swung open, and two young women and their children greeted me with smiles.

“I am Lisa,” I said. “I am here to pick up your mother.”

The women smiled. No one in the house spoke English, and since I spoke not a word of Arabic, our conversation was all smiles and gestures. They ushered their mother to the door, and I helped her down the steps. I pointed to my van, and she circled to the passenger side. I unlocked the doors and sat in the driver’s seat. My passenger was still in the street, looking at the door of the van.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. I scurried out of my seat and around the van to open the door for her. As we settled in our seats, I helped with her seat belt, silently chiding myself for not being more aware of the cultural differences. This woman had lived most of her sixty years in Iraq. She was new to our country and community. A weight of responsibility settled on me. For the next couple of hours, she was in my care.

I typed the address of the doctor’s office into my phone and let the GPS guide us to another part of the city that was new to me. I’d been volunteering with a refugee resettlement agency for a couple of months, and this was my first stint as a driver. I parked on the street in front of the office and helped my passenger out of the car. I wanted to get her inside quickly, so I left the meter empty.

At check-in, I started to fill out her paperwork with the information that was in my e-mail and on her medical card and immigration paperwork. Then I told the receptionist I needed to go outside and put money in the meter.

“Oh, we have a parking lot around back,” she said. I glanced at my charge. “She’ll be fine,” the receptionist said.

I hurried out to the van and drove it around the block, all the time worrying about the woman. Was I the only familiar face to her? I didn’t want to be gone long. In a matter of minutes, I was back in the office, sitting next to her, working on the paperwork. Her son, who spoke both English and Arabic, would be joining us when he finished work.

So, we waited. We couldn’t make small talk. Sometimes, I looked her way and offered a reassuring smile. She seemed used to waiting. I watched the other people in the office, wondering what they might be thinking about this wide-eyed American girl sitting next to a Middle Eastern woman in traditional clothing. I was instantly protective.

When her son passed by the window, the woman’s entire face displayed joy. She said some words in Arabic and pointed toward the street. I didn’t have to speak her language to know she was happy to see her son. He entered the office, and I slid over a seat so he could sit next to his mother. He thanked me for bringing her, and soon they were engaged in conversation. About what, I did not know.

At one point, the son leaned over and told me his mother wanted to make a meal for me. She was inviting me to dinner, and if I could not come for dinner, she wanted him to get my number so that I could come pick it up. I thought about my schedule for the rest of the day. I had to pick up my husband from work. I knew enough about Middle Eastern culture to know that staying for dinner would not be a quick affair. I smiled and said, “Okay,” thinking that I could exchange numbers with the son before I dropped them off at home.

They finished the appointment, and the son asked if I could walk with them to another place nearby so his mother could fill a prescription. I agreed, and we stayed together. The son told me how hard it was to be the only person in his family who spoke English. He had to work and go to all of the medical appointments for his family: his wife, children, mother, and sister-in-law. He had been in the United States for a few months longer than the rest of his family, so he had a head start acclimating to American culture.

When that appointment was finished, we walked back to the van. The son informed me that he would not be riding back with us because he needed to pick up some things for his family. He would walk home when he was done. He bid his mother goodbye, and I helped her back into the van.

A few minutes later, we had returned to her house. I parked the car and walked her to the door. Her family stood in the doorway, beckoning me to come in. I had no way to tell them that I wanted to join them but had to go. I said the words and hoped my face expressed my desire to be with them but the need to leave. I pointed to the van. I smiled. I waved goodbye.

They smiled in return and seemed to understand that I could not stay.

I drove away. And I haven’t seen them again.

But I will never forget this act of kindness. It was not what I did for them, but what they wanted to do for me.

This pattern of kindness would be repeated in future encounters with newly arrived refugees. More than once, a Congolese family of ten has fed us a meal from their homeland when we only offered friendship in return. The oldest son even gave my husband a bottle of African hot sauce from his personal stash. I have been invited to homes of people I’ve known for an hour. They call me “friend” after one meeting.

I have not committed any great acts of kindness. I’ve simply tried to put myself in their place. What kindness would I want to be shown if I was new in a community? New in a country?

My refugee friends have showed me that kindness is not limited to language or culture. The country that welcomes them is a place where they, too, can show welcome.

~Lisa M. Bartelt

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