I sat down to read this book because I was looking for something I could hand a potential volunteer to help them learn, grow, and shift expectations. I expected a neatly packaged story of helping a refugee to success, and I (in my pride) was prepared to look down my nose at him for his simplistic vision.
Shawn Smucker even admits that the book he thought he was going to write was a “tale of how a middle-aged man in search of meaning helped a Syrian family find the American dream.”
But that’s not the book he wrote. Sure, some of the stories were what I expected. I laughed with him and remembered my own similar experiences as he learned words in Arabic, discovered how difficult it is to leave a Middle Easterner’s home quickly, and encountered the unseen obstacles to the American dream.
But Smucker went much deeper than that. Right after being introduced, this Syrian refugee named Mohammad, tells the Smucker that they are friends now. He sets the tone of the whole story by saying, “To be honest, I know I’m not a great friend. If I have a choice between hanging out and staying home, you know I choose home almost every time. I don’t like it when other people depend on me, because that requires something.”
And I knew I could say the same. This is a struggle for me as well. I continually have to make the choice to engage with people, and all people require something of us. It’s never the most comfortable choice. I would much rather head home with eyes averted than take the time to see the beaten and broken on the side of the road. And yet, I am a follower of Jesus, and he tells us to love our neighbor.
And it was delightful to see him come to the same conclusions I have: that the church is often missing out on beautifully good things by avoiding the foreigner, the refugee, the Muslim. That people are, like the author, “dying from selfishness and hypervigilance and fear.”
It is not only the good we can do for our neighbors that made Jesus tell us to love them. It’s also the good it does for us. Shawn Smucker grew in grace, humility, and saw God afresh. And his book convicted and challenged me to go deeper in my walk with God and my walk with my refugee friends.
Do I recommend this book? Yes. But read at your own risk.
Smucker says this is a story in which nothing happens. In a way, this is true. The refugee experience is a slow one full of challenges and obstacles, not all of which are able to be resolved in any sort of efficient timeline. The real changes are in the worldview of the author and he might just drag you along with him.
“Once We Were Strangers” by Shawn Smucker
Published by Revell