What a Bus Ride in Chicago Taught Me About Myself and Refugees

Last August my church community welcomed seven of the 10,000 Syrian refugees that were resettled in the United States in 2016. Before our refugee friends arrived, our church started raising money, prepared their first night’s meal, and bought their first two weeks of groceries. On the day of their arrival, we headed to the airport to welcome them with welcome signs, flowers, and backpacks for the kids. We waited, excited and nervous, to welcome a Muslim Syrian refugee family as they took their first steps on American soil. Seeing and greeting the family for the first time was joyful and awkward. 

The father, Omar*, shook all of our hands saying “thank you, thank you,” looking to his oldest daughter for assurance that he was saying it correctly.  The mother, Naima*, also expressed gratitude. We could see thankfulness in her eyes shining through her burka. The 10-year-old daughter had a heart-melting smile and was excited and eager. We could tell instantly that she was a good helper for her mom, a necessity with so many kids. The three boys (ages 7, 5, and 3) were dressed in adorably oversized suits and ties, tired and tentative. It was not until we brought them to their apartment that the boys’ mischievousness began to reveal itself. The youngest daughter (age 1) was most content in her mother’s arms. Their first American citizen, another daughter, was born in November, and we are still getting to know her.  

Since our friends’ arrival in August, we have visited them weekly. In mentor training, the resettlement agency told us that our roles were to be teachers, advocates, and friends. Initially, we focused on getting to know the family and advocating for their needs. As we continue visiting, we try to be more intentional about helping them learn English. However, we have learned just as much or more from our relationships with our refugee friends as they have learned from us. Walking with this family has involved many lessons in joy and in sorrow.

In mid-September, I drove Naima to her first prenatal doctor’s appointment in the US. She was nervous about not knowing where a hospital was and about being in an unfamiliar city where few speak her language. Despite the language barrier, her first appointment went smoothly. The doctor and nurses were encouraging and helpful in getting Naima the blood work she needed. With one remaining test to take, Naima and I returned to the clinic the following afternoon. We intentionally took public transit so the family could return to the clinic for future visits. Because Naima was in her full burka and it was just the two of us on public transit, I felt myself acutely aware and defensive on her behalf of potential discrimination. After about an hour traveling by train and bus, we checked in with the nurse. After waiting 20 minutes, an unfamiliar Arabic-speaking doctor called Naima over and explained in Arabic that the clinic did not have enough time to complete the test. Naima would have to return another day. I panicked. I was upset with the clinic who had said previously that arriving at 4:30 would not be too late. I was upset mostly, however, with myself – if only we had gotten to the clinic a half hour earlier. Naima, calm and unfazed, waved me toward the exit.

On the bus ride home, I wept. I felt defeated. I tried to hide my tears from Naima because I was embarrassed. The sunglasses could not mask the failure I felt. When Naima realized I was crying, she began comforting me. She said she did not want me to be sad. She offered me a tissue. She assured me she could get back to the clinic on her own now, and that all would be fine. 

In that moment, Naima became one of my heroes. She is a 25-year old wife and mother of six. She is a refugee and has been through infinitely more than I will ever know. Much of her extended family is still in the Middle East. She is strong. She is resilient. She is kind. God humbled me that day. He reminded me through Naima that I am not in control. He reminded me that despite my imperfections and failures, there is grace and hope. In that pivotal moment, I gained a fuller understanding of the importance of relationships and human dignity.

In that pivotal moment, I gained a fuller understanding of the importance of relationships and human dignity.

In his book “Strong and Weak,” Andy Crouch suggests flourishing occurs when we experience vulnerability while exercising authority. In my context, I have authority because I speak English and I have lived here in Chicago for years. I have the luxury of having community, a comfortable apartment, a reliable job, a car, and expendable income. My life is and has always been comfortable. My church community and I decided to take a risk by committing to cosponsor and support a resettled Syrian family. The vulnerability I experienced with Naima on that bus ride home took me out of my comfort zone. It's in simple moments like these that one can see how God works through difficult times. We experience joy and growth through life’s challenges.

With time, we have heard more of our friends’ journey. They came from Homs, Syria. Naima’s mother and brother are still in Homs. Our friends fled in 2012 with their three kids at the time. They walked for over five hours across the border to Jordan at night. They did not make it on their first attempt. They had been in Amman, Jordan, since 2012 where they were urban refugees. When talking with Omar about my hope for peace for Syria, he expressed that he did not believe there would be peace unless the entire country was destroyed. As a white American who has lived in relative safety my entire life, I need reminders that I don’t really know true persecution and war. We are challenged to seek to understand. Naima has mentioned her desire for friends. The kids watch cartoons, enjoy Snapchat filters, play games, and use the apartment as their jungle gym. We share meals around their table. We help the oldest kids with their homework. They all have much hope and optimism for the future. Their resilience is truly an inspiration.

My passion for refugees grows daily and has led to a renewed sense of calling. My relationships with this refugee family sustain me. When this became personal, advocacy became the only option. My church community sustains me by sharing my passion, helping me organize, and by visiting and loving our friends. God sustains me because I can’t do all of this in my own strength.

Despite discouraging political rhetoric and widespread misinformation about refugees, Christians are called to love our God and love our neighbors. My Syrian refugee friends, my neighbors, have blessed me in countless ways. Andy Crouch suggests that “the most transformative acts of our lives are likely to be the moments when we radically empty ourselves, in the very settings where we would normally be expected to exercise authority.” I now have a renewed understanding of what it means to seek God’s kingdom. Flourishing happens when we take risks. God promises, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” As Christians, we can find peace in God’s sovereignty amidst uncertainty.  That truth does not preclude us from action but ought to inspire us toward action. May God empower you and me to know how we can help when we feel powerless over the war in Syria. May we follow Christ’s example in caring for the marginalized. May the Holy Spirit move us “to give generously to groups bringing aid, to speak boldly to those in power who can intervene, and to extend welcome to those who have escaped.” Lord, have mercy.

- Claire McWilliams is a civil servant and justice seeker living in Chicago. She is also a church elder, worship planner, chorister, Dordt College alumna, daughter, sister, advocate and friend.

*The names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.