There is a little pocket in Portland, Oregon where there are more hijabs than hipster glasses and more taco trucks than coffee shops. The air continually smells of cardamom, caraway and roasted meat. Residents use public transportation more out of necessity than environmental concern. The schools are underfunded, but staffed with passionate teachers. The Mexican grocery store is chaotic, yet vibrant. The local librarians speak Russian and Spanish, and the library’s shelves reflect the diverse makeup of the neighborhood.
Because of the low-income housing, resettlement agencies place newly-arrived refugees here. And, because of the refugees, I decided to move in. I had just returned from Greece, where I worked in refugee relief, and I wanted my home to allow me to be a physical neighbor and a hospitable presence.
Somalis, Cubans and Afghans, Burmese, Nepalis and Syrians fill my apartment complex. While only half of the refugees entering the U.S. are Muslim, most of my neighbors practice Islam. Anxious to begin meeting them, I whipped up a batch of banana nut muffins and knocked on doors. One by one, the doors would swing open, its occupant always offering open arms and bright smiles. Before they even asked what my name was, they would invite me into their homes.
As I talked with a few family members, others would be in the kitchen preparing tea and elaborate dishes. Bowls of specialty Afghan nuts or plates of Syrian-style pizza and cups full of saffron tea would find their way onto the coffee table. Another family member would push the large tray of goodies toward me, indicating I was to eat. As the conversation progressed, every few minutes, they would push the plates closer and closer. I could never eat enough for them to be satisfied.
As our visits continued, friendships developed that transcended culture and language. I felt so much love from their hospitality and care that I wanted to return the gift. My mom was coming for a visit, and I thought it would be the perfect time to throw my Muslim friends a dinner. I invited a few Afghan families and began cooking chicken rich with spices and oil, boiled potatoes with lemon and a fresh cabbage salad. I even got Arabic bread from the Egyptian store tucked in back of a local gas station. Laying out a tablecloth on the floor—like I had seen them do for me so many times—I couldn’t wait to show them my love. I heaped their plates full of food and poured their glasses full of Coke. Their kids ate quickly, with oily hands and cheerful grins, but I could tell their mothers were not as comfortable. My well-intentioned gift of hospitality was not being received in the way I had hoped. My heart was full from having them in my home—however, theirs were not.
The next week I was in one of their apartments, trying to figure out a complicated health insurance application. Fatima looked at me and said so sweetly, “It was so nice to meet your mama, but please do not cook for us again. You spent too much time cooking and cleaning. Next time, I only want water.” I was so grateful for her honesty, the freedom she felt to tell me what she wanted. My intentions were to show her love and, if cooking a large meal did not accomplish that purpose, I was glad to know. I felt a little at a lost, though. The scales seemed to be off. How could I possibly begin to balance them, to show gratitude and love for all that I had received from my Muslim neighbors?
My answer came a few days later. I was with Fatima at an English class held at the local elementary school. Struggling to fit myself at the kid-sized cafeteria table, she exclaimed, “My teacher is here!” “Not teacher,” I responded “Friend.” She took my hand into hers and looked into my eyes, “Not friend. Sister.”
This woman had left her entire extended family behind in Afghanistan. She moved to a new country, not knowing a single soul, when I and a few other Americans knocked on her door. We practiced English with her, drove her to medical appointments, tutored her children and explained how kindergarten screening worked. In a world where the media is full of anti-Muslim rhetoric, where people fear her because she wears the hijab, where politicians vow to ban people like her from entering our country, we were the physical presence of love and acceptance.
This is why she didn’t want a large meal or any of the traditional forms of hospitality. By me simply showing up and assisting her, she was beginning to feel at home. Isn’t that what hospitality is? Making one feel welcomed and cared for? I did not need to cook a big meal to show her my love. I just needed to keep showing up.
The scales are not tipped, as I had thought earlier, but rather, they are constantly moving, dipping from one side to the other as we both care for each other in equal but different ways.
Now, I’m learning to receive hospitality and love. When Fatima comes to my house, I only set out a bottle of water, just like she asked. And when I go to hers, I don’t eat beforehand.
My definition of hospitality has shifted. I used to think it was purely a warm and inviting home with cups of tea for my guests. But hospitality is also something we embody. We carry it with our presence and actions, as we create space for one more person to feel at home.
Lindsey Boulais lives and works in a low-income community in Portland, Oregon. Find more of her writing at lindseywithlove.wordpress.com.
D.L. Mayfield lives and writes on the edges of Portland, Oregon with her husband and two small children. Mayfield likes to write about refugees, theology and downward mobility, among other topics. Her book of essays Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith was recently released by HarperOne. She blogs at dlmayfield.com and is on Twitter @d_l_mayfield.