Oh, this book. Be still my heart. Shawn Smucker has created a work of beauty with this book, while setting out to tell the story of one Syrian family and their journey to America (Lancaster, Pennsylvania).
This memoir was written in such a way that it will draw you into the lives of Mohammad and Moradi and their children as Smucker tells the story he’s been told of what it took to get them safely to the United States. But it will also challenge you to think about how you do life with the people around you as well. The tagline of the book is What friendship with a Syrian Refugee taught me about loving my neighbor.
Several times throughout the book, Smucker encourages, sometimes overtly and sometimes just by nature of the story he’s telling, that we think about the way we live our very private Western lives. There were a number of times throughout the book that either Mohammad or Shawn would remark that there are all of these people living around us and we don’t even know them. Mohammad’s story highlighted in a few places that this was not his experience in Syria, that they would spend hours drinking coffee with their neighbours.
I’ve had that very experience myself with a Syrian family who had newly arrived to Canada. Once we’d gotten acquainted, it became very clear to me that my busy, packed to the brim life was not what they were used to. They are hospitable, loving, and welcoming people who want to be friends with those around them. Real friends. Not a quickly passing “hey how are you?” “good, thanks” kind of friends.
What I loved most about this memoir is how real it felt. It helps, I suppose, that I have experience discovering how beautiful my Syrian friends are, but that was truly brought to light in this book. I learned things I didn’t know, as well. I’m not sure who’s to blame, whether it’s our own fear, the media, or a combination of both — but I’ve always thought of the Middle East as this place that is perpetually torn apart by war. It sure feels like they’re always at war with someone over there, and our media outlets don’t lend us anything to make us believe otherwise. But Mohammad describes a time of peace. He says “I was born in 1971. In 1973, there was a war between Syria and Israel, but I do not remember it, and I never saw it. No one in my village ever saw that war. This is the first I have ever seen, the first war my village has ever seen. And now it is a war not against my enemy but against my friend. Fellow Syrians. Why is this happening? I don’t know.” (p. 140)
I can’t imagine what I would do if all of a sudden one part of Canada was at war with another, and you couldn’t trust the government anymore. I can’t imagine the fear, the terror — especially if you have a family to take care of. Mohammad tells of coming home one day to find a chunk missing out of his house that was taken out by a mortar blast. Shortly after, he knew he and his family had to leave, and this book was borne out of their story.
I’m glad I got to read this book. It made me thankful for the peace that I do have, and it opened my eyes once again to the idea that if I were in a place where I was running for my literal life, I would hope that some country somewhere would take me in and treat me kindly. That was not this family’s experience everywhere they went, but I’m sure glad they were able to find friends in Shawn Smucker and his family.
If you’re looking for a way to humanize the Syrian Refugee Crisis, this book will do that for you. It will give you fresh perspective and clearer eyes. Especially as the crisis fades into the background and becomes “old news” despite the fact that it continues to be a problem, books like this will become so fundamental in helping us remember the human side of the crisis.
One part really stuck out to me. There’s a part near the end where Smucker starts to address the feelings of fear he could see evident in those around his new friends. I’ll leave you with this quote, so that the power of it can hang around long after my writing does. He says:
“A few of my relatives and friends have no problem with a refugee ban. They believe danger lurks in the hearts of these landless, homeless people. I realize, perhaps for the first time, that they might be correct. It is possible that in the midst of 60,000 refugees entering the United States, there could be one bad apple. There could be someone who has been so bent by the pain in their life that they want to seek some kind of revenge.
It is possible.
But should our fear of that one keep us from providing refuge to thousands like Mohammad and his family? Are there enough restrictions or safeguards in the world for us to put in place that will guarantee, 100 percent, that nothing bad will happen to us? Even then, evil already lurks among us, as we have seen so many times before. In the face of real evil, should we not provide refuge for families like Mohammad’s?
Should our fear overpower our love?”p. 174
Book was provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.