Fear is a funny thing.
No one in my neighborhood would feel any fear if I walk past. I look like what I am – a middle-aged (well, maybe older) conservative white guy. But I’m afraid they might react to my houseguests.
Because my wife and I decided to take a couple from Syria and their 6-year-old special-needs son into our home while their host agency found them a place to live.
I was afraid of my neighbors’ reactions, so I walked the family to the park with trepidation. I didn’t mention the situation to many people at my workplace.
Yet five minutes with this family would eliminate any possibility of fear. The husband doesn’t speak much English, but even in his first night in our home, he proclaimed with a big smile and an expansive gesture, “I love America.”
His wife taught children English in Syria. But she adds, “I forgot it all during the three years of darkness.”
I’m not sure if she means the first three years of their son’s life as they discovered his diagnosis of autism, or the past three years, which they spent in Cairo after fleeing Syria. They lived in one room on the roof of a six-floor walk-up apartment building – one room without any windows.
When we would hit a communication roadblock, Google Translate was wonderful. There were limitations – the husband was trying to explain they wanted a dimmer lamp. Google Translate said “bulb monastery”!
Early on they offered me some of their coffee. I tried to explain I don’t drink coffee because of my Mormon father’s influence. At first, they thought “Mormon” was a coffee ingredient I was allergic to! Once clarified, they could tell me Mitt Romney was Mormon.
And their son? He speaks only a couple of words of Arabic, when he’s calm. If he gets overstimulated, he makes only noises. I was constantly on guard at the park, where he loves to swing, because I knew he would not understand if someone were to shout at him.
He loves to caress his father’s hair. He started doing the same to me, to show affection, so I went along like a good sport. We were able to arrange a couple of meetings with other immigrants from the area. I haven’t gotten comfortable with the male practice of giving each other a kiss on each cheek. But I could handle kisses from their son.
My Swedish ancestors were persecuted when they arrived because they followed a religion – Mormonism – that was poorly understood. Fortunately, enough people helped them along the way so that part of the family survived cholera and made it to Utah.
I pray there are enough people to welcome our guests so they can find the new life they’re longing to give their boy.
I guess love is a funny thing, too. What else would allow us to overcome fear?
David Warnick, a third-generation Idahoan, lives in Coeur d’Alene.
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