Our first Monday back at the start of 2019 was a celebration of language and culture, as well as an offering of gratitude for diversity. Sarah brought with her a poem she had written called, “Thank you for coming.”
I had invited a woman I met at a gathering hosted by a refugee friend from Gaza the weekend before. She brought her mother, who was visiting from Venice.
The afternoon was a celebration of diversity: diversity of culture, language, and perspective.
We began by posting a copy of the poem Sarah had written.
Then, we posted our traditional large blank sheet of paper and proceeded to invite people to write “Thank you for coming” in their own languages.
We wound up with a list of language worthy of the United Nations: English, French, Nederlands, Arabic, Russian. Even a resident from the Gambia came and transcribed the line.
A young woman who was Palestinian and whose mother was from the Ukraine asked if she could sing for us, and she raised her voice in poignant and powerful song, all a capella before growing self-conscious and beginning to laugh.
I invited everyone to try creating a song from Sarah’s poem and began strumming my ukulele. Individual, tentative melodies were shared, and I did my best to support these melodies with the proper chord changes. I invited the group to repeat the first few phrases and beginning melody, and we sang through the first stanza of the poem (now song) several times.
As this was happening, I noticed there was a resident drawing an image at the bottom of the paper with all of the different translations of the phrase, “Thank you for coming.”
Residents of all ages will often draw images on these poetry and song sheets. Everyone expresses their emotions and experiences in different ways, and we invite this kind of expression.
I noticed first a Palestinian flag. Then came an Israeli flag. Then the resident drew a red X through the Israeli flag and wrote text in Arabic beneath it.
During a pause in our singing, I asked him what it meant.
Death to Israel, he responded.
Oh no! I exclaimed. We do not embrace this message for anyone. Everyone is welcome here.
No, he said. He pointed to the resident standing beside him, gesturing toward his legs. Israel did this, he said.
I understand, I said. But also, I have family in Israel. I am Jewish.
He seemed to reel at this. Oh, he responded. I am sorry.
It’s ok. I tried to explain in English and with thumbs up and thumbs down that there are people everywhere who do good things and people who do bad things. For instance, Trump does bad things and he is a US American, but I try to do good things and I am also from the United States.
It is the same for Israel. There are people who do good and people who do bad.
Later, he returned to the page and drew another Israeli flag and put a heart around it. My own heart filled as he showed me the new drawing.
I walked over and drew a heart around the Isreali and Palestinian flag, but he was not pleased.
Too soon? Maybe someday? I joked with Sarah.
He took his marker and drew another Palestinian flag beside the new Israeli flag. Beneath each flag he drew a person. Then he added extended arms and gestured to me to look and see that they were shaking hands.
Before we left, he again apologized. I made a heart shape with my hands, placed my hands over my own heart, and extended them toward him. We both smiled and laughed.
When I am at the refugee center, I often do not identify myself as coming from a Jewish heritage or having relatives in Israel, and I imagine it is out of fear; fear of rejection from the many Palestinian residents and also a fear that they will not trust me. This experience for me was scary and also rewarding. One small step toward empathy and understanding, as well as seeing each other as people en lieu of the tendency and ease of “othering.” If we can learn to see each for the beauty of the soul within rather than the color of our skin, our country, our religion, then there is hope.