Turning Strangers into Family

Bangladeshi BBQ MealToday is Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice. Muslims around the world gather in memory of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

I remember being a young exhausted mother of a wall-climbing toddler, with a second child on the way. We had just moved into a new apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh and barely had our boxes unpacked. The morning of Eid, our toddler had us up bright and early, as usual. It wasn’t long before we heard a knock on the door. Much to our surprise, seven gentlemen from seven other homes in our apartment building, were standing there, eager to invite us to each of their homes to celebrate the holiday with them.

We were humbled and honored to be their guests. And we did, indeed, visit every one of their seven homes that day. Each family shared their finest feast food with us. We were welcomed to their table, even though we were different. Foreigners of a different faith. Speakers of a different language. Welcomed as family.

I’m sitting here today with a lump in my throat that will not go away. I get goosebumps on my arms as I remember their kindness, their generosity, their welcome. I cannot help but contrast it to how my country is treating those who are foreign, those who are different.

When we lived in a Muslim country, we never spent a holiday by ourselves. We were always treated as family. Here in our “Christian” country, many immigrants never see the inside of an American home. Here we too often treat them as the “less than” and automatically assume they have broken laws to be here. Our “Christian” nation is in a frenzy, trying to rid ourself of those we believe do not belong here, stooping to unspeakable violence and indecency.  Last week in Mississippi alone, nearly 700 people were rounded up by ICE, leaving many children without parents to come home to on their first day of school.

Most of us agree that the system is broken. But any system, broken or not, can only go so far to make or break a country because a country is made up of individuals. As individuals, we can open our doors wide.  We can practice hospitality and turn strangers into family.  My Muslim friends taught me that family is any human being who is near you. So let’s keep an eye out for our family. Let’s make sure they are safe and that they know we see and value their humanity. We don’t have to wait for the system to change to become the change that our country desperately needs right now.

Eid Mubarak. Happy Festival!

 

Parallel Threads

It was a journey into the sacred. Each step of our pilgrimage of stories led us deeper into the heart and soul of this amazing country.

The constant tension of of beauty and ugliness called something to life within us as we heard story after story with parallel threads of utter pain and glorious triumph. As we walked past piles of raw and putrid garbage, we were also aware of artistically painted, brightly colored rickshaws passing us on a road filled with beautiful people wrapped in colors that brought the city to life on a breezy evening.

We walked in paradox. Endless honking and exhaust from four-lane roads somehow transformed into ten-lane roads contrasted with palm trees, bougainvilleas and dahlias taller than I. A weather-worn 15th Century palace with crumbling buildings surrounded by teenagers taking selfies on smart phones.

A patriarchal society where women are rising up in the best of ways, stitching together a future of hope for the next generation, while young girls learn CPR and basic rescue skills. Discarded women who became leaders and work together to change entire communities. Worn and torn saris stitched into quilts of love by hands that were once held immovable by forces too strong to resist.

A national forest given up to become a refugee camp, swelling at the seams to hold a million of the world’s most unwanted people. Hungry hands reach out to me while vibrant green rice fields stretch from the road, as far as the eye can see. Endless crowds of people and obvious poverty overshadowed by unbelievable generosity. As outsiders, foreigners, we were welcomed and treated as family. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, all treating us as equals with enthusiastic hospitality. Muslims called out to us wishing peace upon us and sharing their food with us. A Hindu friend wrapped me in her arms and asked about my family. Buddhist hands served us tea. Beautiful diversity, woven together with the warmth of Bengal.

How is it that one of the most impoverished nations on earth can be so generous and welcoming of those who are different, while one of the wealthiest nations on earth is building walls and has collectively forgotten simple kindnesses? A famous prophet once said that if you want to be great, you have to become the least and serve others. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which nation displays this type of greatness.

I took my friends to Bangladesh to learn and collect stories. Perhaps one day people from Bangladesh will be able to come here to learn and collect stories of greatness. Perhaps someone will write a story of how the nation that grew powerful on the backs of slaves finally became great by serving others. Perhaps there will be a story about the descendants of immigrants who welcomed other immigrants and together transformed the struggling economy into something vibrant and thriving. I dream that someday a stranger will come, be welcomed and write a story about the land that built hope instead of walls and finally figured out that love is the strongest force of all. I hope that someday my nation will display some of the greatness that I discovered in Bangladesh.

 

Unexpected Kindness

Misery violently took over my night, pushed sleep aside and sent me rushing to the bathroom. The initial relief was short lived and I soon found myself fumbling in the darkness, desperate for the antibiotics the Traveler’s Clinic had sent with me. I gulped down the first giant tablet, determined to be ready for travel by morning. We had a full day planned, including a visit to a hostel for young girls, shopping and then dinner at a friend’s house before returning to our guest house in Dhaka. Yet, morning still found me pasted to my bed, stomach swirling in unreasonable circles. Relief that no one else had caught the same bug and the reality of our next day’s flight out of Dhaka propelled me out of bed, grateful for friends to help me pack up. This was not the way I wanted to say goodbye to Mymensingh, one of my favorite cities on earth, eyes squinted tightly shut to block out the light and hands grasping a plastic bag just in case. As we left the city behind and headed towards Dhaka, we canceled all other plans for the day and I laid back in my seat and willed myself to survive the journey.

It was awful, I’m not gonna lie. Many roads in this densely populated nation feel like a loop in Mario Cart, only there are a million other drivers racing down the same road and the precipices are real. Our driver, Ramjan, who had been nothing but a gentleman since we left Dhaka, was now doing his best to maneuver his way home. It wasn’t long before I found myself squatting on the side of the road, upheaving the remains of my stomach. Ramjan hovered beside me, full of concern, telling my friend to hold my hand and pull my hair back. He even took a long look at my vomit to try to figure out what I had eaten that was causing my insides to have such a mutiny. When I was finished, he motioned for me to hold out my hands so he could pour water into them. He showed me how to rinse out my mouth and wash my face. As I squatted in the dirt by the side of the road and cupped my hands to accept his gift of water, I felt the Divine tapping me on the shoulder and I knew I was taking in a holy sacrament. I saw my Creator mirrored so beautifully in the face of our Muslim driver who shared his water with this tired and sick American woman. Something inside came unglued and it’s a wonder I made it back into the van instead of catapulting down the embankment.

Here is the painful truth – if Ramjan were in my country, he would most likely be arrested or put on a watch list simply based on his appearance and yet he welcomed me,  the stranger. He played the role of protector and host. He was the one who gently taught the first time visitors in our group how to eat with their fingers. In a country where clean drinking water is a commodity, he shared his with me. Dang, he didn’t even avert his eyes from my vomit! It’s the Ramjans that make the world a better, kinder place. In my home country, we tend to judge people like him because of the way they look or the religion they follow. Instead of sharing our water, we build higher walls so those still desperate to come must cross in the desert south of the border, some dying of thirst on the way. We deny place to those who have lost everything because we are afraid they will take something from us. Yet, no matter how high or long we build our walls, how many refugees and asylum seekers we turn away under the pretext of our own safety, we are the ones who lose the most. By diminishing the created, we push away the Creator and Christ is turned away once again.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography and Liga Mullins.

9 Words That Define Bangladesh

Tea Time on the RooftopOur hearts have been grieving the tragic hostage situation that occurred over the weekend in Bangladesh. While we are relieved that our family, friends, and all who work for Pebble are fine, we are deeply saddened by the loss of lives, both foreigners and Bangladeshis.

This is not the Bangladesh we know. Memories of years spent in this warm and hospitable nation come flooding back: Complete strangers inviting us over for tea. Beggars asking how our boys were doing. Shopkeepers calling out their greetings as we passed by. Standing on the rooftop with the neighbors at night to see if the moon would signal another day of Ramadan or if the month of fasting would be over and the Eid celebration would be the next day. Neighbors inviting us to celebrate with them. One year we had seven men from seven different households in our apartment building drop by to invite us to a meal or tea later that day. Our hearts were fuller than our bellies that night because we, strangers of a different race and religion, were given a place at their table and loved.

The actions of a few do not define the essence of the many. Six terrorists do not get to define what this beautiful nation of nearly 163 million people stand for.

Like a rose bush that comes back stronger every time it is cut back, Bangladesh for me will always stand for—

Hope.

Beauty.

Tolerance.

Love.

Kindness.

Strength.

Innovation.

Creativity.

Respect.

It was a bittersweet July 4th for me as I celebrated our Independence Day with family and friends. I wonder what our nation would be like if we were as welcoming and tolerant. If even half of us would start living out of love instead of fear. Perhaps we would have less hostage situations, less racism and less police brutality.

Fear is a powerful thing. BUT. LOVE. IS. STRONGER!

9/11 – Moving Beyond Fear

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I’ll never forget 9/11 for reasons of my own. Halfway around the world, in a Muslim country, Austin and I watched the towers fall. We sat in the living room of our neighbors, who had become dear friends of ours, and together we watched the events unfold, each of us wrapped in a cloak of horror and disbelief. I will never forget how they turned to us with genuine sorrow and apologized for the events that were unfolding, assuring us that this was not real Islam. As the night rolled on, knowing we had lived in New York, they made sure that our families and those we knew were okay. They cautioned us that this could stir up local extremists but, if it did, we would be safe with them. I had no doubt that they would have given their lives to protect us, if need be. That need never arose but their love and concern for our family was mirrored by many others in our circle of friends. Everywhere we went, they would ask us if our family was okay. Sorrow and compassion were everywhere.
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For nearly a decade, I was not “Marita”. I was “Bhabi” (sister-in-law) or “Sister” to pretty much everyone I met. “Auntie” to the little ones. My boys had hundreds of aunties and uncles. My husband had thousands of brothers. We were family within a much larger family.

We shared countless meals in Muslim homes, and I became chagrined to realize how paltry the best American hospitality is when held up to Muslim hospitality. The food. The love. The laughter. The respect in spite of our differences. And the food – did I already say that?!

Muslim hands held my babies when they were little and washed their dirty diapers without complaining. Muslim hands washed the filth off my son when he fell in the sewer even going so far as to recover his shoes with  bare hands. They pinched my boys’ cheeks and doted on them. They served us tea and showed us where to go. In countless ways, Muslims in Bangladesh loved us, served us and bent over backwards to ensure that we felt at home in their country. If Americans would show half of the hospitality and respect that the Muslims we met showed to us, our land would be a much better place.

And now, “Inshallah” (If God wills it) we may have the privilege to show love and hospitality to 10,000 of them or more. If that happens and you are given the opportunity to cross paths with one of them, don’t be afraid to love them, show hospitality, to serve them, to help them settle into this land, to become family. Don’t be afraid to wield the most powerful force on earth. Love.