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Strangers and Syrians – What Helping Looks Like (Issue 23)

I arrived back in Wellington airport the week before Christmas feeling a little like a stranger in my own land. Two months later, I was again at the airport, but this time I was holding up a welcome sign in Arabic, waiting for a Syrian refugee family to arrive.

While on NZCMS leave and home service I’ve been volunteering with Red Cross refugee services. Because of my understanding of Arabic and my familiarity with Middle Eastern culture, I’ve been able to offer support to a Syrian mother and her five children, helping them adjust to life in New Zealand. This has involved collecting donated goods and furnishing their house, accompanying the family to appointments for housing and benefits, enrolling them in schools and medical services, and teaching them about public transport and banking.

Since the family don’t speak English and my conversational Arabic is reasonably fluent, I’ve been doing a lot of translation. This is fantastic Arabic practice for me and makes it easier for them to communicate with the others supporting them. There’s also been a need for some cultural translation – we may be familiar with how life works in our country, but for a foreigner things can be quite strange and difficult to understand. And it’s not just the big stuff like learning the language and understanding our (mumbly) accent. For example, we’ve been discussing the difference between pyjamas and track-pants, and teaching them the rules of cricket (which, as it turns out, is important for living in New Zealand when we’re hosting a world cup!)

It doesn’t just go one way either. I may be welcoming them into my Kiwi world, but they are equally delighted to welcome me into theirs. It was a hilarious and great joy to join in a ‘henna night’ (an Arabic hen’s party) for one of the daughters who is about to get married. In the context of a women’s only environment, the veiled Muslim women wearing long loose fitting clothes were unrecognisable in their tight mini-dresses, full make-up and belly dancing moves! Which raises an important point: Many of us will love the idea of helping out with families like this, but we find a number of barriers in our way.

One barrier might be that you don’t feel you know enough about their culture to be any help. Another may be that, deep down – hidden somewhere in your heart – is prejudice, a distrust of their culture, fear of opening up to people you don’t really understand. Sometimes the most missional thing we can do is take on the role of humble learner, giving them the honour of being the cultural teachers. And in the process we may discover that some of our prejudices melt away. Those strange veiled women – something we don’t really understand – suddenly become people like us in the privacy of their own home!

In Cairo, I used to walk past Syrian refugees every day on my way to the gym and to buy vegetables. In fact, the United Nations refugee agency hired part of the All Saints Cathedral building in Cairo as a refugee centre. Although the Anglican Church in Cairo has a large refugee ministry, I wasn’t able to engage with it personally or offer much of a hand, except to pray as I walked past them each day. So the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of one Syrian family settling in New Zealand has brought great joy to me. With all the news of wars and violence in the Middle East, it was hard not to respond in this practical way when the opportunity presented itself. Plus a side benefit has been eating Middle Eastern food and drinking cardamom-infused sweet Arab coffee – something I miss from Egypt!

For families like this, our volunteer team plays a significant role in their first six months of New Zealand life, as it takes at least six months to really settle in a new place. The goal of the volunteers is to support the family to live independently in New Zealand after this time.

There’s lot of ways Kiwis can help support and journey with the ’strangers among us.’ And it’s not just people like me who happen to speak another language that can make a difference. What’s needed is regular Kiwis willing to give some of their time to people that are feeling lost, alone and vulnerable in an unfamiliar land. As Scripture says, “Treat the stranger among you as if they were one of you, loving them as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:34).

Volunteering with Red Cross is definitely an option I’d recommend. For more information, see their website.


For Discussion

What barriers keep you from taking opportunities – big or small – to welcome foreigners to our land?

What ways can your community, small group or family reach out to ‘strangers’ like the family above?


Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of Intermission will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. Why not take up the challenge and start using Intermission in your community? For more information or to order copies click here.