Sister My Sister

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The Detroit area is a haven to Arabic-speaking people.  Ever since the first wave of Lebanese immigrants arrived in the city to work in the automotive industry, the enclave has grown steadily.  When I grew up in suburban Detroit, Lebanese food was ubiquitous and we picked up Arabic words like many New Yorkers pick up Spanish from their environs.  My friends and I regularly dined at La Shish and lamented heartily when the restaurant closed and left us without that amazing garlic sauce on freshly-baked pita.

My first professional job after earning my MSW allowed me to interact a great deal with the Arabic-speaking population of Detroit and surrounding areas.  I directed the shelter and human services portions of a shelter for political asylum seekers.  The shelter started as part of the Sanctuary Movement to provide safe passage for Central American refugees to Canada, but shifting immigration policies and international conflicts saw a change in the focus of the house from Canadian refugee status to U.S. asylum.  During the time I worked at the shelter (late 1990s and early 2000s), people from dozens of countries lived in the shelter and shared their cultures.  Everyone, whether from Sub-Saharan Africa or El Salvador, was influenced by the asylum-seekers from Arabic-speaking countries.  Muslims, Christians, and Jewish people associated with the shelter constantly used the words “insha’Allah” (“Allah willing”) to share hopes for quick resettlement and a return to some semblance of normality for the residents of the house.

Just as we all shared a hodgepodge of languages in the house, we involved a varied group of religious communities in our shelter.  Some asylum-seekers shied away from religion and the conflicts religious groups perpetuated in their home countries.  The majority, however, cleaved to their religion as the only stable thing in a volatile world that left them stateless, penniless, and anxious about rebuilding a life after displacement, trauma, and often torture.  I engaged religious communities as asylum seekers arrived to the house, ensuring that the residents of the house would have the maximum amount of support possible.  At the same time, I habitually de-emphasized my own religious affiliations.  Only during Christmas and Easter (when the Muslims and Jews on staff would cover the house and allow Christians to observe the holidays) was my religion on display.  (I have very happy memories of cooking a lamb donated by a Mosque during Ramadan and latkes for Christmas dinner one year.  It was quite a feast.)

On one Monday, I arrived to work to hear a Palestinian family had just arrived and awaited intake.  The family consisted of a man who I’ll call Mashkoor and his wife, both in their late 50 or early 60s.  During our intake, I learned that Mashkoor was a very young boy when his family was forced out of its home.  He grew up in a Lebanese refugee camp, and worked his whole life to help his family set down firm roots wherever possible.  He helped his parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews find their way to a handful of countries for resettlement, and he was the last to leave the camp.  At one point in the interview, he turned to me and asked my religion.  I deflected this question, but he persisted.  I tried several ways not to answer the question, but he only grew more persistent.  Eventually, I couldn’t find any way to continue the intake without disclosing my religion.  I told him that I’m Jewish and waited through silence that seemed to last for 20 minutes as he regarded me with an expression that I could not decipher.

He broke the long silence to say he’d never sat at a table with a “Jewshi” before.  I asked him how we were doing so far, and after a minute of consideration, he nodded and said, “I think it’s going well.”  I assured him that my only goal in this situation was to help him with safe passage to his final destination in Canada, and we went on with our paperwork.  When we concluded the intake process, I asked him why it was so important to know my religion.  He said I looked exactly like his little sister, and he was certain I was Palestinian too.  (My name is also very close to an Arabic name, so it was a logical assumption.)  I offered that, if we return to our sacred texts, we are like brother and sister.  He is the son of Abraham and Hagar, and I am the daughter of Abraham and Sarah.

From that moment forward, Mashkoor called me “sister, my sister”.  He used the food of the shelter to make me delicacies.  (I never had the heart to tell him that this was a bit problematic.  I had a food budget of $150/week to feed up to 50 people, so I had to supplement the budget when he cooked me food.)  He and his wife sat with me after work for mind-blowing conversations that illuminated a narrative one does not often hear in the U.S.A.  While he grew up amidst anger at Israelis (and all Jews, for that matter), Mashkoor was absolutely open to our discussions and hearing other viewpoints.  I grew up feeling like the “other” in my community and in my household (both long stories), and so it was easy for me to listen to his accounts of his experiences growing up in Lebanon and the frustration of constant conflict.

I came to the conclusion that Mashkoor was really quite a mensch.  He is a man full of love and empathy, whose first and only job in life had been to secure a safe place for his family.  He took me as an individual, and he was willing to entertain that Judaism has more than one face.  These exchanges with Mashkoor and his wife changed my life.  I no longer could consider one argument about Palestine/Israel as being “right” or “wrong”.  I started seeing that both sides make perfect sense in a vacuum, but cannot reconcile when put together.  It seems to me that the only way to build a solution in the Middle East is to let go of anger and resentment, and to recognize, honor, and revere the humanity in the individuals on each “side” of the conflict.

Mashkoor may not be representative of all Palestinians.  I certainly am not representative of all Jews.  Regardless, part of me remembers Mashkoor whenever Middle East conflict comes up in conversation.  If there is a possibility of building a world with more people like him, I am for listening and assuming best intentions before coming to a conclusion.

I recognize that it is impossible to recreate my experience with Mashkoor for the entire global population.  For people who might be ready to try on a different set of glasses and see the conflict in another light, I strongly suggest reading The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan (http://sandytolan.com/the-lemon-tree/).  The book, an elaboration on a 1998 radio documentary on NPR’S Fresh Air, offers a similar experience.   Image

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