At first, I knew only that a family of refugees were coming to our Atlanta neighborhood. I had seen a community Facebook post asking for help cleaning the apartment they would use, and I volunteered my family for the effort.
Secretly, irrationally, I already loved them. I loved them the way you love a future spouse you imagine for yourself, or how you love your children before they take root in your body and heart. These were people searching for safety, much as my Hungarian ancestors had tried to do in the 1930s before they were taken to concentration camps.
At the mere mention of this family’s existence, a kernel of worry and hope began to spin inside of me. And what is that if not the stirrings of love?
I cleaned the refrigerator with bleach and picked crumbs out of a seal with a toothpick. My son and daughter, 10 and 5, brushed away cobwebs and wiped baseboards, while my husband tackled the bathroom. With the volunteers from the co-sponsoring church, my pagan family stripped the apartment of its errant Polaroids and refrigerator magnets until it became neutral, spare, a place of refuge.
Later, we learned from the sponsoring organization, New American Pathways, that they were from Syria, a family of four with two school-age children. They would arrive in two weeks.
As the date neared, I thought of the empty refrigerator, reeking of bleach, and the cabinets, lined but bare, and took to Facebook with a plea for basics.
The packages that began arriving on my porch daily were a salve protecting me from the increasing ugliness of the presidential campaign. “I can’t hear you,” I whispered as my PayPal account grew with money earmarked for food, diversions and educational materials.
One donation labeled “For our Syrian friends” was blocked as suspicious, and my heart raged. Then the donor tried “For our friends,” and the donation sailed through. “We’re stepping over you,” I whispered to the electronic gatekeepers.
My neighbor and I went to the international market with a downloaded grocery list. She has a Southern accent, blond children and a husband who throws baseballs in the street at dusk. Here we were buying Turkish coffee, dried beans, orange blossom water and Persian cucumbers.
I posted photos of our grocery cart, and in came more donations.
I went to Walmart with my children, where they helped me pick out a toy electric keyboard, art supplies, chalk and potted plants.
On our porch, our neighbors left stuffed animals, bedsheets, pans and cutlery. We filled the apartment with all the things we hoped would telegraph our collective message: You are welcome here.
While we cleaned and shopped, the family was being interviewed and inoculated in preparation for travel as refugees to the United States. We learned their names and ages. The father and mother, 36 and 28, were parents to a daughter and son, 11 and 9. Years earlier, they had left Syria on foot, with nothing, for Jordan. They had no idea anyone would be here to welcome them.
On the day they arrived, we greeted them with a phrase we had memorized, “Ahlan wa sahlan”: “Welcome.” They greeted us with a word they had memorized: “Hello.”
I showed them how to work the stovetop, oven and dishwasher. They smiled, bowing their heads. The mother, Ruwaida, looked like a woman who, after spending four years in limbo, had flown through the night from one country to another only to find herself in an apartment in yet another foreign city with strangers.
“How long can we stay?” she asked the translator.
“One year in the apartment, for free,” he said.
She slumped with joy and relief. On the floor, two black suitcases contained all they owned.
Every few days, I showed up with more donated items. At night, I read about Islam until I fell asleep.
They learned “thank you” and taught me its Arabic counterpart, “shukran.” We were all like toddlers when it came to language, with maybe 20 words between us.
I brought them over-the-counter medicines, Band-Aids, a thermometer and lunchboxes. My phone was filled with notes: rain coats, flashlight, toilet paper. I scoured my Facebook feed to find others who were helping refugees, kind people who answered my every question. Nawara, an Arabic speaker from Denver, offered me her cellphone number and, despite our time difference, told me to text whenever I needed a translation.
Eventually the family received a cellphone, and I started getting messages in Arabic that said “welcome,” and I began to recognize these as invitations to visit. So I did. As Ruwaida and her husband, Khaled, and I spoke into our phones to say the simplest things, their son, Mohammad, and daughter, Zainab, slapped each other with pool noodles in the yard.
We often shook our heads vigorously, trying to stop the robotic translator voice from communicating some errant interpretation: “I can’t think of the word” becoming “I can’t think of the George.” We learned to be patient.
I started dropping by regularly, always arriving with something in my hands, my American fears of showing up unannounced now allayed. I took them to the pool and offered Zainab a long-sleeve pink leotard and tights with the feet cut off that I had bought in a panic when I realized our swimwear would not be culturally appropriate.
She held the outfit, uncertain. The spandex material looked so small. But when she emerged from the bathroom (looking like a stretched piece of pink gum), she smiled broadly. I hadn’t realized how malnourished she was, her ribs and hips protruding. I wondered if her parents would allow her to go off like that, not fully covered. But Khaled, in my husband’s swim trunks, gave a big thumbs up, and off we went.
When Zainab developed a persistent cough, I consulted the church co-sponsorship coordinator about how she was looking, what she was eating, and we debated taking her to urgent care. He and I functioned like amicable former spouses, working out the details of the lives we jointly cared about.
When the church coordinator called to tell me that Khaled had received an urgent message from a doctor saying he might have internal bleeding, my husband took him to the hospital, where they befriended a family who spoke Arabic and found a lead on a restaurant job.
After five hours in the waiting room, with Khaled insisting he felt fine, a doctor finally drew his blood. It wasn’t until weeks later that we learned the call was a clerical error. Khaled asked if this happened a lot here, and I said: “No. You’re special.” He laughed.
It was the first time humor had translated, the first time our communication had been elevated from the transactional.
One night, my husband’s cellphone began collecting urgent texts from his mother and sisters as we slept: His father, an Indian immigrant, had become gravely ill during a visit to his home country. We discussed the pros and cons of my husband’s going, and then his phone rang: Things were getting worse. So he went.
The next night, I was alone and terrified, giving my daughter a bath, when Khaled texted me. He was wondering why I had not come to visit them in the past two days.
I told him everything, filtering my message through Google Translate and then copying the result into a text. I told him I was sad and scared. My mother was dead. My father hadn’t been in my life for years. My father-in-law meant everything to me, and now I might lose him, too. My husband was across the ocean following an ambulance from one hospital to another, thinking, “Go fast,” “Be well” and “Please.”
I knew the poor translation would be hard for him to understand, but I needed to say all of that, even if in the curlicue of Arabic. And somehow he did understand. He sent me prayers, kind words.
I said, “Thank you,” when I really meant, “I am so grateful to have your family on the other end of this phone.” He said, “Thank you too much,” which I took to mean, “We are so grateful to be here for you.”
One day, I stopped by their house when one of the Arabic-speaking church parishioners was visiting. While my Denver friend, Nawara, had been wonderful in clearing up our miscommunications after the fact, we hadn’t had the luxury of an in-person translator.
Ruwaida served cookies as Khaled prepared coffee. The air smelled of cardamom. The parishioner translated information about medical cards and appointments, school lunches and English classes. And then Khaled asked her to translate a message to me.
She listened until he had finished. Then she turned my way and said: “When we left Syria, we left everyone we loved. We came here with no family. Even if you come to our home with nothing in your hands, we are happy to see you. You are our family now.”