(The Story of Sara Patterson written by Mary Alysse Dodds)
Butterflies fill my stomach as I approach a home in the rough side of Lancaster City. How do I teach English and American life to a Syrian refugee family? It’s not just the language barrier; our cultures are alien.
“Welcome, welcome.” An Arab guest and the family’s father grin and gesture for me to come in. All the women and girls are in the back dining room. Did I offend this Muslim family by coming in the front room where the men are?
“Should I go back there?” I motion towards the room with the females. The mother smiles and gestures for me to come. Later I find they only segregate when guests are present.
Yesterday at a barn party I was asked to tutor the mother in English. But I don’t speak a word of Arabic and know only enough about their culture to know I could easily offend them.
I remind myself the refugees are much more out of their element than I am. Like when I was in China. My cousins left the country for three weeks to renew their visas, and I had to barter for groceries at the local market.
“30 kuài,” she said, if I remember right.
I shook my head, “10 kuài.”
She laughed, “No, no, no,” like it was hilarious I would insinuate she was charging too much. “20 kuài.” My cousins still laughed that I’d been duped like an ignorant foreigner. But at least they had taught me I had to barter for groceries.
This refugee family needs someone to teach them to grocery shop. I’ve heard the statistics of 500 refugees coming to Lancaster each year. But now that I’ve met them, this family is real. They’re a really nice family with seven sweet kids. They are my friends.
If I were in their shoes, if my husband, six kids and I were the only Americans in China, I would hope someone would care enough to teach me to grocery shop. I guess that’s why Deuteronomy 10:19 says, “Love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”
The couple holds a pile of mail, smiling but confused. They don’t understand their son’s report card. I try to explain that he’s failing gym because he doesn’t bring gym clothes.
Sometimes I type short phrases into Google Translate and hope it says the right thing. I explain simple things like the bills in the mail and what homework is. Sometimes I have no idea what we’re talking about, but their affectionate thankfulness makes it worth it.
“Hello, how are you?” I try to get the kids accustomed to American greetings. “What grade are you in?” I try to explain what a grade is.
The father walks in holding a library card.
“Me.” He exaggeratingly walks across the dining room pointing to a library card and pointing out the door. He keeps pointing to a dictionary and saying, “English , English…” He’s pointing to the phonetic pronunciation of Arabic words and saying, “Arabic, Arabic.”
Oh. Maybe he wants an Arabic/English dictionary with phonetic pronunciation for school. He goes to school five to six days a week and attends English classes four evenings a week. I write a note to the librarian and hand it to the father.
“Go here,” I point at the library card. “Give them this.” I gesture to the note.
Charades are common. English lessons consist of pointing and saying, “Table.” Sometimes we use baby’s first word books.
I ask the eldest son how his homework is going. He smiles, incredibly embarrassed and says it’s going fine. Was it improper in Muslim culture for me to address the boy? (Since then I’ve helped him with homework, so I guess not.)
But these people don’t expect me to understand their culture. They know they’re the ones in a new country. They thank me continuously, offering coffee and tea. They want to reimburse me if I buy them a book. They just need a friend.
Could we as a community step up and befriend our unknown neighbors? Could we take them grocery shopping with us or type their mail into Google Translate? Or even have them over for dinner?
My initial fear of the overwhelming culture gap dissolved after several interactions. Their warm thankfulness and hospitality made them my friends. They put me to shame by their willingness to drop anything and spend time with me.
Just say hello. Get involved. Start.
Sara Patterson is a wife and adoptive mother of six homeschooled children (and my sister). She invites unknown neighbors to share in her life and hopes to inspire her community and nation to do the same. Retired could drive refugees to doctor’s appointments and parent-teacher conferences, stay-at-home moms could grocery shop with refugees, and workers or students could spend an evening looking at picture books with them. If you’re interested in befriending a refugee, please contact Sara Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.