‘I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me’ Reflections From Tom Langebartels in the Sponsorship of a Refugee Family from Syria

14671“Welcome!  Welcome!  Please come in.  Tom, how are you doing?  Good?”  Muhamed asks this question with a warm smile and two thumbs up.  

“Wendy, you are good?”  This inquiry is made with a slight nod of his head and a hand gently held over his heart, a man’s respectful greeting of a woman in the Syrian culture.  

Each Monday evening Muhamed, Nisreen and their five children graciously greet us at their door with hugs, cheek kisses for Wendy, fist bumps and handshakes when we arrive to teach English and hang out with their family.  Having only been in the country since May of 2017 and with no prior knowledge of the language, our conversations are slow, broken and include a lot of sign language and laughter.   The children, who are learning English in the Indianapolis Public School system and from cartoons on TV, often serve as interpreters.  What began as an hour long English lesson in early November, has morphed into a two and a half to three-hour session of symbiotic friendship where we teach a little bit of English, learn a little bit of Arabic and relish in the growing relationship.  

But, this night was going to be different.  In addition to an English lesson, we were invited for dinner and were eagerly anticipating an authentic Syrian meal.  We would not be disappointed.  The aroma filling the apartment drew us to the dining room like bees to clovers.  The table was dazzling with a center piece of flowers whose petals were lemon slices draped over the lips of Turkish tea cups and whose stamens were quartered carrots popping out of the middle.  This bouquet set in a bed of lettuce, scallions and celery stalks creating the image of a garden in the middle of the table was masterfully presented as art but fully meant to be consumed.  It was flanked by a large colorful salad of mixed, chopped greens and a substantial bowl of dolma, grape leaves stuffed with rice, peppers and a tasty blend of Mediterranean spices.  

As we sat with the family to eat, we noticed they were one chair short.  Ali, the oldest son stood during the meal and helped with his two-year-old sister, Nour.  Wendy leaned over, smiled, and asked if I had noticed the table cloth.  I hadn’t.  I was so enamored with the spread before us I had completely missed the underlying Twister game board table cloth.  Wendy and I were then each served a generous filet of white fish while some members of the family got a small portion of fish and others didn’t get any.  We don’t really know why but they assured us there was plenty more in the kitchen.  Once we had eaten our fill, a second main dish of eggplant stuffed with lamb, peppers and other delicious things was served.  Similarly, it was served to us, little was taken by the rest of the family and we were assured that there was plenty more in the kitchen.  

We were, and still are, confused over why we were served large portions of the main dishes while the family only took small helpings.  We have resigned that to an unknown cultural difference that will likely surface someday.  But the hospitality shown to us that evening was overwhelming and entirely humbling.  Our friends are refugees living on a very limited income yet they open-handedly gave us their best and had spent many hours to do it.  Ali even sacrificed his seat at the table so we could have ours.  We left that table with full bellies and overflowing hearts.  

In Matthew 25 Jesus said, “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…for I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”  Wendy and I have attempted to emulate Jesus’ love for the stranger as we have worked with this family, welcoming them and helping them to assimilate into a strange culture.  It’s been overwhelming to experience love in return.  We went particular evening as a part of our practice, seeking to welcome the stranger, but we soon realized that we had become the welcomed strangers.  

Jesus went on to say, “…when you’ve done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you’ve done it to me.”  I don’t believe Jesus, in referring to the “least of these”, was in any way speaking of a hierarchy of position, but rather, I believe He was addressing our perceptions of those different from us.  Aliens and refugees, especially in our current political climate, are often considered a blight on our society and a drain on our coffers. But for us, walls of pride, fear and selfishness have crumbled as we’ve embraced this family.  At our first meeting, they were strangers.  Today they are our friends and equals.

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*Tom and Wendy Langebartels are active volunteers in sponsoring a refugee family and providing mentorship, friendship, and language assistance.   If you are interested in participating in our Sponsorship/Adoption initiative, please contact us today!

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