Welcoming Strangers

Members of Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul co-sponsored a refugee family from Afghanistan early this spring. Knowing that the Afghan refugee community in Minnesota is very small, we invited them and the family they co-sponsored to help welcome another Afghan refugee family that arrived this summer. One of their members, Jessica Jones, shared this beautiful reflection on the experience of going to the airport a second time and we wanted to share it with you.

I pulled up to the skyway connecting the gold ramp to the airport ticketing area. “Okay, Amir, can you take the kids into the bathroom and I’ll go park the car?” I said, watching the cars queue up behind me as I blocked a lane of traffic. “And, Haley, hold Amir’s hand and stay together!”

As I jumped back into the car and watched them make their way down the skyway – my daughter, my new friend from Afghanistan, and two of his children – I felt the moment expand as I realized how much had happened in four short months. I had parked in the same ramp on the cold March night when Amir and his family arrived, exhausted but gracious toward the large and energetic welcoming committee assembled in the baggage claim. We had exchanged formal greetings, handshakes, and words of welcome. We had been strangers.  But now, here I was entrusting him with the safety of my own child without a second thought.

It was another family of refugees, also from Afghanistan, also arriving with help from Minnesota Council of Churches that brought us back to the airport. But this time Amir’s role was different. As we waited, he swapped job leads with another Afghani in the welcome party. I broke out snacks for his kids and mine and kept them from riding the baggage carousel.

“I arrived at a different terminal, right?” Amir asked. “No,” I said. “We waited for you in this very same spot. You don’t recognize it?”  He looked at me with eyebrows raised and laughed the way he often does when aspects of American culture or the price of things in the U.S. astound him.

“I was so tired that night,” he remembered. “Wasim was too tired to walk, so I was carrying him, holding Saba’s hand, and carrying some bags. It was like all that training I had to do in the U.S. military, wearing body armor and carrying heavy packs, prepared me for that moment.”  He laughed again.

When the new family arrived, we repeated the ritual of welcome for them. We shook hands, offered water, carried exhausted children and heavy luggage.  Eventually, we walked them out to a waiting car of strangers and watched them drive away.

“Just think,” I said to Amir, once all our own kids were buckled into my van. “Think of all the stuff that they will have to do in the next few weeks, all the appointments, introductions, and new information.”  He just laughed and shook his head. “A lot has happened in just four months.”

On the long drive back to the apartment, we talked about job opportunities, how to pass the driving test, and the cost of parking in the city.  And after Amir had had some tea and said prayers, he left for his job at Target.  Rafia and I talked about our kids, looked at pictures from my recent vacation, and swapped birth stories.  And when English words failed us, we just smiled at each other.

That day felt like a testament to the idea of “welcoming the stranger” and the beauty that if you do it right, they don’t stay strangers for long.

Written by Jessica Jones, member of Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN. Names have been changed.

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