Maryam threw open the door, waving my five-year-old daughter and me into a colorful, loud room, covered women and laughing children everywhere, with tables piled high with all kinds of Iraqi specialty dishes. “You are my special guests! Come meet all my friends. Here is little Kashka, who is your Savannah’s age.”
Maryam grasped Savannah’s cheeks with both hands, kissed her forehead with a happy smack, and waved to a table filled with cake and sweets. She touched my left cheek with her right cheek, and then the other side, and back for a third time, to show she considered me a close friend. “And you must eat and get fatter. You are too thin. Are you ill?”
“Assalam alay cum, peace to you, my friend!,” I replied. “I am honored to be included. You are 50 years old! Look at this beautiful home for your family here in America. Mashallah, God has blessed you so much.” I remembered this family’s tragedy–fleeing their country after the opposition kidnapped and then released Maryam’s husband, how they had lost all the hotels he owned, how, along with their two young daughters, they had escaped with only the clothes on their back.
I steered Savannah to the food table, held her hand tight, and bent down with my face close to hers. “Look! This green salad is taboola. Can you say that? Tah-boo-lah. It’s my favorite. And this is biryani. Do you remember when Maryam brought it to our house? It has chicken, rice, and remember you liked the raisins? You can just taste a little bit of everything, and we’ll ask how Maryam made it. If you don’t like it, I’ll eat it, okay? It’ll be our secret.”
In the backyard, twinkly lights criss crossed above a circle of folding chairs filled with women in colorful long dresses and scarves. They laughed and puffed on ornate hookahs, smoking machines that looked like a cross between a bagpipe and a clarinet. I squished into an empty chair and pulled Savannah onto my lap.
Waving the hookah smoke away, I leaned in close, “I know it’s kind of crowded, and different for you, with everyone wanting to touch your hair, and lots of loud music, and people speaking a language you don’t know. But I’m so proud of you for coming with me. It means a lot to Maryam for us to celebrate her 50th birthday. And look, we’re the only followers of Jesus invited to her party. Everybody else is Muslim. Isn’t that special? So it’s worth it, to be a little uncomfortable. Besides, you’re going to make a lot of new friends.”
A beautiful woman with bangles, a high ponytail, and a bare tummy interrupted us, pulling Savannah to her feet with both hands. “Ah, habibti, sweet little girl! I look like Jasmine in Aladdin, don’t I? Have you ever belly-danced? I’ll teach you!” The music grew louder. The woman swayed to the rhythmic beat, her bangles and outstretched hands hypnotizing. The other women set down their hookahs to clap and sing, some of them jumping up to join in.
Savannah warmed up to her favorite Disney character and started shaking her hips to the delight of all the women, who then plied her with candies, cake, and little presents they brought for the children. My daughter danced the night away.
A few hours later, she stumbled back into my arms, her eyes heavy with sleep and a sugar hangover. I pulled out her night-time blankie that I’d tucked into my purse and sang a little lullaby, rocking her to sleep under the night stars so I could keep talking with Maryam and a few new friends. We ended the evening with Maryam blowing out candles on a lavish cake while everyone clapped and yelled “la-la-y’all-lal” at the top of their lungs.
Savannah breathed heavy in my arms, unaware that she had spent a whole evening practicing important traits present in most people who can adjust easily to someone else’s culture–a sense of wonder and curiosity, openness to other people’s ideas, a truth center, willingness to surrender our own desires for a bigger cause, a sense of urgency for those who don’t yet know Jesus Christ, the ability to be uncomfortable, experience with delayed gratification, and dogged perseverance.
As parents, we can encourage, develop—I would even call it bake—these traits into the growing up years of our children. It all starts with including our children in our cross-cultural experiences as we welcome the nations right across the street.
Learn More About Welcoming
Check out how another family modeled welcoming for their children.
Read Jeannie Marie’s book, Across the Street and Around the World.