A HOSPITALITY STORY

As the world faces it's worst refugee crisis...

Just about every time I go somewhere out of the country, I get a bunch of questions from family members asking me about where I’m going is safe. That becomes especially true whenever I visit a Middle Eastern or African country that is predominantly Muslim. I totally appreciate the concerns. If my impression of what places were like came entirely from news reports, I’d be concerned too. They tend to give you a good reason to never leave the house. But when the world starts looking it’s worst, I usually find that it’s a good time to take a trip. Traveling has always helped me to see that the world has some horrors, but it’s also full of some really awesome people.

The last time I was in a predominantly Muslim country was two years ago. I was visiting my cousin on assignment with the Peace Corps in Fez. It was in the middle of an extremely hot summer, right in the middle of Ramadan, and for whatever reason, we decided that would be a wonderful time to go hiking.

We got into a taxi, along with a friend of hers, and made it to a town with a really fun name to say: Ahermoumou.

From there we began our hike.

The landscape was brown and gray and mountainous, with the occasional green shrubbery spotting the ground. The three of us found a hiking trail and began walking along the edge of a canyon. The view was spectacular. Colorful yet hazy. It felt good to get away from a major city and see some of Morocco’s fascinating landscape. The best part was that there was a breeze out here, which was most needed on a day that could get as hot as 120º F.

We hiked for several miles and passed some Berber homes, simple in structure and warm. Most of them would have rams or goats or donkeys tied up in front of them. My cousin’s friend assured us that we were hiking towards an amazing lookout spot, but I wasn’t entirely convinced he knew where he was going.

My hunch ended up to be correct. When he finally admitted we were lost, he and my cousin went to go speak to a man who was feeding his donkey. I didn’t speak Arabic so I didn’t know for sure what was going on. The conversation went back and forth, and eventually he had his donkey roll over on its back to perform tricks for us. He started laughing.

My cousin informed me that he was trying to invite us over to his house. They tried to get out of it by saying it would be dark by the time they’d get done, that they really needed to get back to Ahermoumou by night. She said she thought they reached a compromise, he would take them to a village with a straight path to the viewpoint.

He walked us into a village, and pointed out the important parts. A small food stand. The mosque. Suddenly it became clear to us that he wasn’t taking us to the path, and he wasn’t keeping to his end of the deal the way my cousin explained it. He was taking us to his house.

He had us take a seat on his roof, and told us story after story.

“Do you want something to eat?” he asked us.

We looked at each other and agreed to decline his offer. It was Ramadan, and he and his family wouldn’t be eating until the sun went down. We knew his belly was probably at it’s emptiest right now, and we didn’t want to be eating in front of him after fasting all day.

We declined and again he didn’t listen. He went downstairs and reemerged with some avocado juice and pastries.

He somehow really hit it off with my cousin’s friend. As the time went on he told us about all his kids and family.

Eventually the sun went down. He brought us downstairs and had us sit with him as honored guests at the family table. His wife and sons were there, as were his sons’ wives and grandchildren. It was quite a crowd. Everybody was fascinated by our presence, talking to us and asking us questions. The kids made themselves available to play with us. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying but somehow, we managed to communicate.

We were in a middle-income country, out in a rural area, yet they served us a full on feast. Harisa, Moroccan corned beef, and shaksouka. Baguettes and cheese and fruit were passed around. More of that milky avocado juice went around too, and that was my favorite.

As I sat and ate and laughed along with everybody else, I kept thinking of what an incredible experience of hospitality I’d just been given. We weren’t just strangers, we were full on foreigners. We could’ve been dangerous, for all they knew. I couldn’t speak Arabic at all, and yet they spared nothing giving us an extravagant and intimate evening around a table.

This was far from my only experience with radical hospitality, but it definitely was one of the more memorable encounters. It was this sort of experience that instilled in me a resolve to offer that same sort of hospitality to others whenever given the chance.

When I say that I’m resolved to extend hospitality towards others whenever given the chance, that’s led me towards caring for certain groups in particular… this includes refugees.

I’ve had the opportunity to befriend several refugees, and let me tell you, they are some of the most amazing people you could meet.

They’ve also overcome some pretty horrific things. These are some of their stories in their own words:

“Every month we had to go to Baghdad to get my son’s eyes treated. When we went for his last appointment, the hospital was very crowded so we decided to go back to the hotel and wait. We walked out into the street and waited for a taxi. A car pulled up and stopped. We thought it was the police. Two men with guns jumped out and asked for our ID cards, then they pushed us into the car. After a few hundred meters, my wife and I were tossed into the street. But they kept my son.”

“I’m sixty-two years old. I was a government clerk in Baghdad. I heard from a neighbor that one of the militias was planning to kill me. The militia thought I was passing along information to the government. It wasn’t true, but these are not educated people. They don’t have rules. They don’t listen to reason. I had to leave or they would kill me. I couldn’t afford to bring my family with me. I didn’t even say goodbye. I snuck away in the middle of the night because I couldn’t stand to see my children cry. I’m all alone here. I look around, and I see everyone else with their families. I only have one cot.”

“My father loved children. But I was his favorite because I was the small one. Whenever we did something wrong, everyone else got punished except for me. When I was fifteen, he took us on a shopping trip to Baghdad, and he told us to wait in the car while he ran into a market. We heard a loud explosion. We got out of the car and ran toward the sound. Body parts were everywhere. My father’s body was lying on the ground with his head split open. Part of his brain was on the street. I was young and naïve. I remember thinking: ‘It will be OK. He just needs an operation.’”

I’ve had an especially pronounced interest in the Syrian refugee crisis for the past couple of years, and while I’ve always hoped it would get more attention, the attention it’s gotten in the past couple of weeks hasn’t been the kind I was hoping for exactly. I’m only slightly concerned about the governors and presidential candidates who have been making some pretty terrible comments… my expectations from politics are pretty low to begin with. I’m a bit more bothered by the sentiments coming from friends.

I totally get the fear that’s risen since the attack on Paris. There are concerns that our national defense just isn’t strong enough to catch terrorists who sneak in as refugees. I’d like to give our homeland security and the people who protect us a little bit more credit than that, but I understand why it could be a scary prospect.

When something like Paris happens, on streets we’ve romanticized and walked on, we become very afraid of what could happen to us next. Our sense of security was violated and we want to find some sort of immediate action that could guarantee us that something like that won’t happen again. For some of us, this means declaring war on someone. You know the impulse you have to honk at somebody viciously who just cut you off? It works on the grand level too. For others, it means closing the borders for good.

Here’s the thing, though. Life comes with no guaranteed safety. Last year, I realized how true that was after almost getting into a car accident and losing friends in one a month later. I realized that even though my life didn’t end that night, it would eventually. It could be a bomb or a bacteria, but any effort to forever preserve myself will ultimately be a losing battle.

Of course I believe in caution, because life is fragile and valuable. That’s why I’m glad we have strong national security. But I believe that one thing that’s even more important than staying alive is having a good reason to stay alive.

You will live and then you’ll die. In between you get the choice of what story you wish to tell yourself about the world.

I think of a moment like that evening in Morocco, and I think of how I was able to connect and share a moment in some strange way in a family so far away. It was one of those moments you’ll treasure forever because of what it means to you. To me, it meant acceptance and connection and Love. That’s stuff that makes life worth living.

Jesus, himself a refugee, gets it. It’s why he said that when we reject showing others compassion, we are basically rejecting him. Perfect Love casts out fear. Perfect Love drives fear away, because fear has to do with punishment. Someone who fears has not been perfected by Love.

Eugene isn’t a very big refugee resettlement hub, which I’m a bit sad about, because I sense an incredible opportunity to serve others in ways that demonstrate that sort of Love. I kind of wish I were back in San Diego, where so many of them are ending up, or at least Portland.

I don’t have any solutions to the refugee crisis. I doubt my stories or my thoughts here will do much to convince somebody who is adamantly convinced that giving shelter to refugees would put us in mortal danger. What I do propose is one thing, though– meet some refugees. I would love to host dinners and gatherings where refugees could meet other people in the community and share their stories. It’s hard to not have your perspective changed when you know a few refugees by a first name basis.

You will live and then you’ll die. In between you get the choice of what story you wish to tell yourself about the world. The story I’ve been living for a while is one of second chances. It’s one where the world has a lot of good and where hospitality is proof. Sometimes, there’s even avocado juice.

Philippe Lazaro2015