The most succinct answer to this question is that God loved me first, which is why I can have love for anyone. As 1 John 4:19 says, we love because He first loved us. But in fleshing that out, the reason we love anyone is because we come to know that person, not merely as a refugee or a person with needs we can meet, but simply as a friend. And through that friendship, as all mutual friendships reveal, we realize that we have just as many needs and just as much to learn from one another.

When I tutored Maryam (name has been changed) as a beginner level English student, her beautiful smile made it easy to converse with her, in spite of our mutual language barrier. Her face invited friendship, and we laughed our way through many conversations as we fumbled to understand each other.

She took at least two buses to get to class, after getting her kids off to school and taking care of her husband, who was ill at the time. Still, she brought sambusas to share with everyone in class during our break, and delighted in doing so. After class, I dropped her off at home, where she’d cook, clean, and wait for her kids to return, before she’d go off to work as a PCA. She seemed to marvel at all of the opportunities she’d been given, even taking the dreary Minnesota weather in stride. Her gratefulness challenged me; I never heard her complain or feel sorry for herself.

When I visited with her in her home, we decided to write down her story. I learned that some of her family members were murdered and she’d fled to a refugee camp. While we sipped tea and ate together, she described life in the camp in simple terms: “Water, food, bad. But here, it’s good!” She’d come from a hardworking family and a pleasant home, now reduced to meager portions of food as she survived the crowded quarters of the camp. I couldn’t imagine that loss compounded by the deep grief of losing her family through violence. As we wrote down her history together, however, she seemed pleased to record it, even though she would have never chosen it.

Though our beliefs about who God is are vastly different, God used Maryam to remind me of His sovereignty and what my response to that could look like if I really believed that. We can learn so much from refugees if we move past a vague sense of pity and get to know them close up, just like we would any friend. In spite of all she had lost, Maryam maintained a resilient spirit, revealed in her beautiful smile. She taught me a lot, perhaps without even realizing it, just as all good friends do.

 

written by Tracy Nelson, Immigration Assistant