Today I’d like to tell you a story of hope. It didn’t make the headline of an international press campaign. It’s a simple story from ordinary people living in my neighborhood. Nonetheless, it’s a poignant story of human connection. A story where expatriates help other expatriates who seem to have nothing in common. A modern Christmas tale.
Sally arrived in Australia 50 years ago. She left the UK in search of better job opportunities. She was not alone and she could speak the language but apart from that, she faced many of the challenges expats are confronted with: raising 4 children without support of extended family, severe health issues, unemployment and now living far away from her grandchildren.
Six months ago, she decided to attend a potluck meal organized for asylum seekers.
The room was crowded with an assortment of people, a few of whom seem to know each other.
As the motley group of young and old milled around, she noticed a young man sitting alone, seemingly blind to what was going on around him. He stared ahead and his face was blank. She sat down next to him and introduced herself. He barely glanced at her and did not offer his name.
She pointed to the whiteboard where local people and asylum seekers were expected to write what they wished to exchange with each other for mutual benefit. The whiteboard declared “a cycle ride on the mountain, a bushwalk, your cooking in my home, a fishing trip, will clean car, will do anything, I need job”. “What would you like to do?” she asked. He said one word, “Garden”. Had he written on the board? She mimed, realising he had little English. He shook his head. Instead of waiting for the official pairing up later in the evening, Sally offered him to do some gardening for her. She would help him with English. He brightened a little. They exchanged names, addresses and phone numbers.
So began Sally’s friendship with an asylum seeker.
Hers is not a large garden, a cottage garden really but crammed with plants gleaned from friends and cuttings purloined from many places. There is a small area of native plants and a fairly large vegetable garden. The young man looked the garden over and visibly relaxed. He started to work, turning over soil, adding manure and eventually putting in rows of seeds. Words, phrases and sentences used as they gardened became the basis for more structured English lessons over a cup of tea in the kitchen. He was tentative, shy and even embarrassed but slowly as time went on, he gained confidence and began to trust her. She discovered that he had a wife and two little boys. It was for them he had escaped the terrors of the dictatorship in his own country.
He tried to tell Sally of his family and talked of “the first woman”. She went to her copy of the Koran and there she is, the first woman, only referred to as Adam’s wife. But she is known to Moslem’s as Hawwa and his mother bears her name.
Then Sally took her bible and there she is, Eve as we know her. And so the English lessons continued. The words and phrases became sentences. Now he uses her name and asks perceptive questions. He wanted to be a teacher but he could not continue his schooling past year five due to the disturbed situation in his land.
Now he looks her in the eye and there is even laughter as they build language together. To her big surprise, for he is a Moslem, he loves her dog. The animal welcomes him enthusiastically when he arrives and stays by his side whatever his mood. She is part of the English lessons as she nudges him to stroke her.
The more English Sally’s friend learns, the more he is able to tell her, ask her, describe to her and the more she shares in his deep sadness and yearning to be with his family. His children don’t want to talk to him any longer. They’re rejecting him, saying he doesn’t love them any more because he isn’t coming back.
One day, Sally took him sightseeing and they went to a Catholic church. There they stood, lighting a candle, praying for his family. He was grateful.
An other day, he asked to come to Sally’s church. On their way home, he got a phone call. One of his friends was asking where he was. When he told the whole story, there was some grumbling on the line. Sally was a bit worried. “He didn’t want you to go to church?”
“No”, her friend answered, “he wanted to come with us!”
This is how respect, patience and goodwill make people closer to each other.
As expatriates we’re vulnerable, cut off from landmarks and support network. We’re more prone to rely on stranger’s help. Even a gentle smile can go a long way. One day you might give it and the other day you may need it.
Let’s not wait for Christmas to extend and receive some compassion because ultimately there is no foreigner on this planet…