Our driver greeted us at the Queen Alia International Airport after a 20+ hour journey from California. We stopped at a shawarma fast food place for dinner and he introduced himself saying, “My name is Salam, it means peace in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.”
No one I had ever known introduced himself in quite that way. After his introduction, the world seemed to slow in this busy part of town, coming into sharper focus.
It was around 10PM. Situated in a circle, or roundabout, in a heavily policed area of the city eleven of us from my local church sat at a few outdoor tables taking in the view. When we wondered why the police presence was so strong, Salam mentioned the many embassies located in this part of Amman. Numbered circles are the way people in Amman shorthand locales. I quickly learned that knowing my hotel was near the 4th circle would be important for navigating the city.
Salam had to come to my aid almost immediately at dinner, because I was involved in an odd Pepperoncini incident. A friend bit into her shawarma and Pepperocini juice streamed from it directly into my left eye. Salam brought over a bunch of napkins. I couldn’t stop laughing, even though it burned my eyeball pretty bad. I laughed harder when the lady who did the squirting said my eye looked awful. Salam and I agreed this must be a good sign for my work here.
“How do you say thank you in Arabic?” I asked.
“Shu-kraan,” he said.
“Shu-kraan, Salam,” I said, using another napkin to dab at my teary eye.
After dinner, we walked to an ATM to get our first Jordanian Dinar (JD). As we took turns withdrawing our currency––colorful, exotic bills featuring kings, scenes from the Great Arab Revolt, famous palaces, Islamic shrines and beautiful Arabic script––a small group of us waited outside for our group to complete their transactions. An Iraqi refugee, Salam shared with us that he and his family had arrived in Amman a year and a half ago. The day before had been his three-year-old daughter’s birthday. When I asked how his family celebrated, he smiled, quickly taking his phone out of his back pocket. They ate cake and his daughter wore a sweet pink plastic tiara. He had the photo of the birthday girl for us to see in a matter of seconds, tiara and all.
He believed that it is good his daughters are so young because they won’t remember a lot of what they are going through. He hopes to give them an education so they can have a better life. The timeline of his story spoke to the general fate of the refugees we aided here––fleeing Baghdad for the North in 2003, his family had to leave Northern Iraq when ISIS took control of his village in 2014. Cell phones are a lifeline of sorts for the refugees, housing their most important photos––of the homes they lost, the horrors they suffered, places and people they would never see again. The photos on their cell phones were the only history they had left.
“Christians can’t return to Iraq. Not if they want to live,” he said.
His father is still in Iraq, too tired and too old to leave his home. Most older people felt that way. Salam will never see his father again. Being born into a Christian family proved to be a death sentence for him and his family. With a brother in Germany and one in California, his dreams include leaving the Arab World because of the people that are close to the book.
He turned to me and asked me, “Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes,” I said thinking I knew. But he continued, knowing I really didn’t.
He said, “They want to kill people like us. The ones that are close to the book. They want to turn me Muslim so I will go to heaven.”
This was my introduction to our work here. We hoped to be instruments of encouragement and hope to people who had and are suffering unimaginable trauma. Who faced death rather than deny their faith. Most of the time listening and praying were all we could do. But these things that I once thought were too simple to be effective, would prove incredibly powerful. Whatever measure of encouragement and inspiration I gave came back in much greater measure from the refugees I had the honor of meeting and the stories of their courage and faith that I had the privilege of hearing.
Why did I go? I was definitely called to attend the interest meeting at church when the time came. I didn’t know why. But in that meeting I came face-to-face with a truth I’d known my entire life but never really understood until that day. My dad was a refugee. So many strangers helped him. It was my honor to do what I could to help people who had lost everything, like my dad, and needed to begin again.
Arabic is a visually stunning language and pleasant to the ear. I had a bit of a love affair with its rhythm and visual beauty. It is said that Arabic is the language of the angels. The language of the divine. I wouldn’t fully understand the meaning of this until I helped to bring aid to an Iraqi refugee family who had a young son. The boy had a deeply spiritual nature. We did not meet him as he was in school, but his parents told us stories about their son, an only child. How when all seemed lost the boy would hit his knees, pray to Jesus and quote scripture to them about hope and joy. He has memorized half of the Bible.
Soon his parents shared that their son is writing a book about love. The mother, who possesses a smile that could light up the darkest night, brought out the manuscript of her son’s book. Our translator, a wonderful young woman in her early twenties also an Iraqi refugee, took the note pad and began to translate. The words were beautiful and after reading a few paragraphs aloud, she got choked up and could no longer read. She apologized, saying that the Arabic the boy used was so profound there really was no translation in English. It was then that we learned the young boy is afflicted with an illness that has stunted his growth, so he his much smaller than the other children his age. The mother prays for a cure and tries to keep a brave face.
When the time came for them to share their experience in Iraq with us, a practice that is usually therapeutic to those who have gone through trauma, the husband would only say that he worked in a market. Total silence. A fire burned in his far-away eyes. They wouldn’t speak of their journey, the only ones in my experience who chose to stay silent.
In this season of giving thanks and giving gifts I am humbled by the tender mercies we receive every day that open our eyes to the beauty in the world, faith in the unseen and the gift of hope in the darkness.
What beauty and wisdom lie in the languages we don’t yet understand. Here are just a few examples of the beauty of Arabic.
Ya ‘Aburnee “I hope I die before (you bury me)”
Ya Amar “My moon” or “my most beautiful”
Kef “Something that gives you pleasure”
Taarradhin “A compromise where no one is a loser”
Shu-kraan for your time and support.