I stood outside the housing project’s endless doors searching for Ismael. It was my first day as a volunteer for Danish Refugee Assistance.
In spite of the address with its tasteless 50’s architecture, Ismael’s apartment was purely Islamic. A home not full of things but full of space. A room with bare, light-colored walls, a sofa with cushions large enough to sit crossed legged, a coffee table, three folding chairs for guests, a single lamp that hung down in the middle of the room, and a rolled up prayer rug. People, not furniture, would define this space. Life still personal.
Ismael, a tall young Syrian, spoke but little Danish but some English. The first few minutes of our conversation were pleasantries, just an excuse for our eyes to see what was to be seen.
And we both said- welcome.
He graciously served tea. Tea as I remember it from Palestine, in a glass with a stick of cinnamon bark, a sharp sugary moment that lifted the spirits and worked like magic in the space between Denmark and Syria. Right here, in the big room with the bare, soft-white walls, there are no strangers, no false speech- a hope that this could also become home. Joyfully close, achingly distant.
”In my homeland the best”, he said to almost everything, the weather, food, work, customs. At first, I thought this was a rejection of everything Danish, an observation in which Denmark and the Danes always came our rather badly. But as I tried to listen instead of just hear, I could see that it was an incantation, a calling down of everything he had lost, a blessing that resurrected the depth and breadth of all that gave his life meaning.
In the early days of our contact, we never talked about his daily life in Denmark. Instead, Ismael spoke in memories. He talked as though he were home, using his few Danish words, hoping I could see what he was seeing. Showing me sharp, but indistinct images of the people and places that carried his memories and dreams. The farm with its fruit and garden, the birds, the sheep and goats, the sowing and harvesting, heat on the skin. Hoping I could see the long horizon from mountain to sea flowing down through the valley of his own many generations. That is where I really live.
This loss and the distance home, longer than miles, lay like a shadow running through his ready, open humor. Seeing the pain he carried, made me feel humble, and questioned many assumptions I held about myself. Had I ever really seen anything of that which should be seen.
On our second meeting, Ismael served a Syrian meal. The week before he had asked me if I liked ‘arab’ food? What he was really asking was if I knew about something that could explain who he was. Was this one more part of the story we could share? And if I didn’t know his food, was I willing to try it anyway? Take the chance. Was I willing to know that this was not just food, but that in sharing from the same dish, we shared the mystery of the Strangers we both were. This a responsibility, not a choice. Did he need to borrow forks and knives for me from the nieghbors, or did I know that to feel the oily warmth of the crispy flatbread through your fingers was closer to life in Jannat Adni, Eden’s Garden as he had learned?
He rushed around the kitchen, mixing this, heating that. Movements flowing in pure anticipation. Before his flight from the conscription gangs of Syria, he had never made food or prepared a meal. That was the privilege of women, those blessed with bringing life from their wombs, would bless their families by bringing sustenance to their tables. He had learned his culinary skills on a mobile phone in long conversations to Syria with his mother. The meal was superb. The memory of his mother smiling over every joyful dish.
He always called me ‘Mr. David’ or Abu, father. Opened doors for me, carried my parcels. In his world, age was the same as wisdom. It conferred the right and responsibility of knowing life’s meaning and purpose. In our discussions, Ismael always ventured his opinions, never made claims. The young are blessed with opinions, but the elderly are restricted to the Truth, regardless of how little they know of it, or how imperfectly they present it. I speak, you listen, was something his father often said. Our culture, the complete reversal of this, was foreign to him and made him feel even more like a stranger. He was grateful to confer his respect onto a new Elder.
This was a new and humbling experience for me. To be an Elder was not just to have grown old; it is to have been attentive to the love and wisdom of God through the joys and grief of life. This respect came with the expectation that I really had learned from life’s great secrets and therefore am worthy of the title- Mr. David. This he believes about me. Believes for me.
One never knew where his conversations would start. Do you like olives he asked as we sat down with our cup of tea, Danish olives not good. I bought olives- these are not olives, I said to the man, I know olives. These are not olives- see, so small, thin, not green, no sun on olives. Sun is good, sun good for the skin, good for body. You don’t know olives. Taking a sip of tea he said, we have olive trees. My father, he knows olives. It sounds like he was just complaining as he did about many things over here. But then, came the magic words- in my homeland the best! Bringing the lost back from exile. Again.
Not same, he would say when he meant ‘different’. Danish people not same. Some Danish people work, some they not work. That’s not good. Why he asks, some work and some don’t work? Work is good, in my homeland, we all work. He throws out his arms as though embracing the multitude- if someone can’t work, we work more so he can have. I work ten, twelve, hours in sun. Work good. Sun good. Good for all. In Denmark not good, no sun, always cold. Not good. In my homeland the best. And I was glad for his sun, but wanted to show him the beautiful Danish landscape that thrives on the cold wet winds from the sea, the heavy clouds that color our skies, and the warm summer sun with its cold Nordic light.
I often took Ismael on long drives through the hamlets, rolling fields, and flint-strewn coasts of the South Funen. Their deeply imbedded history found only in countries where the earth shares long memories of living with Man. Our villages and fields have their roots back over five thousand years. Many of our buildings and churches from the Twelfth Centaury. Modern, says Ismael. But then again he’s from Syria, one of the great birth places of civilization. I often forget.
On these first tours into the Danish landscape, outside the refugee centers and civil authority offices, he spent most of his time, not looking. The time went by in long conversations in Kurdish or Arabic with home on his mobile phone. How can anybody be so bored with all this beauty? Maybe he doesn’t realize that he should at least pretend to be a little interested for my sake.
After several of these trips, I suddenly realized that he was neither uninterested nor insensitive- he was just afraid. He was afraid of betraying a great trust. To never forget his homeland. It was the temptation to be unfaithful, a form of emotional adultery requiring him to share his heart in desert, mountain and river with heath, moor and sea.
I remember the very first time he looked out the window and said quietly- this is beautiful! He had finally arrived in Denmark. Had finally become here. I was no longer concerned for him.
Ismael and I shared something else. He missed his fields. He missed the sun. He missed things he could never describe. I wanted him to know, to tell him I knew a little of losing a piece of one’s self to long distances and memory. Denmark is my home but not my homeland. I’m also a stranger. I moved to Denmark from America after the dark years of our youth’s war in Vietnam. I had to learn the Dane’s impossible language, a language that didn’t speak the soft golden light of the prairies but hid in earth’s dark accents, and had all its words from the sea. I had to learn to see the delicate, almost invisible colors that played through the grey clouds and cold violet sunlight. Learning to trust the bounty of care and love in this far country. Ismael was learning the words of Denmark’s language, learning its intimate accents.
One afternoon Ismael’s reality came touchingly close. We sat drinking tea, talking about the upcoming festival for the Kurdish New Year. His cell phone rang, it was his father. It was strange to sit there and listen to a conversation between the Danish coastal city Svendborg and a small farm near Aleppo.
He spoke quietly and respectfully with his father, smiling and laughing, teasingly with his mother. Suddenly the connection went dead. He looked down at his phone, silent and resigned. Always they are bombing, he said quietly. Bombing.
What!! Are they bombing right now- right now where your family is?! I almost shouted- He nodded without feeling, as though this was no longer strange. A familiar part of his conversations. Another conversation that had no ending. Never even said goodby. Nothing to talk about. Nothing that anyone could ever grasp. Or understand.
We continued to talk about all things benign and innocent; cars, food prices, job opportunities. All code words for loneliness, hopelessness. The stress that follows the stranger in even the most banal daily tasks. An attempt to live the past’s refuge in a foreign present, and an unsure future.
Ismael had a prayer rug that obviously was used daily. Faith is not something you come to by agreeing or not agreeing to a set of precepts, regardless of how appealing they are. Faith is taken in like breath, an in-breathing of the Spirit, and when the breath is recognized for what it is, it is called Faith. If possible, I wanted to see if Ismael’s faith, when shared, would bring him solace. “Where two or more are gathered in my name…”
When I began asking, Ismael was surprised. Were there people of faith in Denmark? And if so, why didn’t they act like that. Why did they seem to be against us refugees, us Muslims? To this I had no answers, only the assurance that he was not only a friend, but also a brother. His eyes smiled.
He took me through the Old Testament, names I knew in Hebrew suddenly appearing in softer Arabic accents, creating a knowing and connection I hadn’t known before. We love the ‘Jesus People’ he said. You come from Ibrahim, like we do. You know the great Angels. Koran Karim, the ‘beloved’ Koran, tells us all about the great prophet Jesus and his mother Miriam.
We found that we both shared a common ancestry that had sadly divided on the outskirts of Abraham’s encampment, a misfortune that now relied on our good will, patience and love, to mend. And then with passionate anger- terrorists he says, they are not Islam! Islam means peace. We love all man, Jesus People, Jews, every one. You come to my home, and we will take you, give you home, protect you- I wonder if we Jesus People are doing as well?
Venligboer, a Danish word completely impossible to translate. It means ‘the friendly-people-who-live-here’. This new café came into being out of the refugee chaos with the good will and caring intentions of the ‘friendlies’. It was the café’s first day. Those who were to get everything set up were running late due to the many meetings that seem to be an unavoidable part of a volunteer’s life. Finally two from the group found their way up to what was now to be a café. And with the fearless optimism that characterize these good hearts, the kitchen yielded up its secrets, water was boiled, coffee measured out and the first visitors awaited.
The place had many more chairs then it could manage. A former apartment turned into a storage room. There were three old folding tables, a stand for over-clothes, two garret windows, each with its potted plant set into a slanting roof. The whole space looking out over the red tile roofs of Svendborg.
The miniature kitchenette out in the hall, so small it was difficult to turn around in, served streams of free hot tea and coffee. At the entrance, a small tea table offered napkins, glasses, mugs, and a plate of Danish pastry.
The room itself was murky and half-dark in spite of the two loft windows and impossibly vulgar lighting from the ceiling’s three florescent lights. As a café it was pathetic.
But for the next three hours, the young men came. One after the other. Refugees that had fled from the all too many lands that were fulfilling man’s contract with death.
But here, issues were addressed by re-arranging the tables, making space for each other. The place echoed with Kurdish, Arabic, English, Danish, and Somali. Tea and coffee was drunk, pastry was eaten- this was a real cafe’ one of the best. Everyone had a name, everyone a past, everyone a future. Here those who started out being people, became friends.
Together, one question at a time, one smile, one reply, laughter as we learned new words. Words of a new language. A language that would deliver us from the prejudice and suspicion that was spreading through our cultures. The foreign being overcome by the near and the close. And in the near and the close we knew that we could carry trust and compassion. Carry all that was needed. Learning that life wasn’t a problem that needed solving but a gift that should be celebrated- always, everywhere.
‘That’s best’, Ismael would say, ‘just like my homeland’.
David Russell OFS, Svendborg, Denmark