Author: Shawn Smucker
Genre: Christian Living/Memoirs
In 2012, Mohammad fled his Syrian village along with his wife and four sons, escaping to Jordan through the wilderness. Four years later he sat across from Shawn Smucker in a small conference room in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Though neither of them knew it, Mohammad had arrived in Shawn's life just in time.
This is the story of a friendship. It is the story of a middle-aged writer struggling to make a living and a Syrian refugee struggling to create a life for his family in a strange and sometimes hostile land. It's the story of two fathers hoping for the best, two hearts seeking compassion, two lives changed forever. It's the story of our moment in history and the opportunities it gives us to show love and hospitality to the sojourner in our midst.
Anyone who has felt torn between the desire for security and the desire to offer sanctuary to those fleeing war and violence will find Shawn Smucker a careful and loving guide on the road to mercy and unity.
Reviewer: Laura J. Davis
In Once We Were Strangers by Shawn Smucker, the author asks the question - should our fear overpower our love? In this memoir of his relationship with a Syrian Refugee named Mohammad, he learns that if he had let them, his fears would have kept him away from a newfound friendship that changed not only his perception of refugees in general but how he approaches life.
The book begins with the author meeting Mohammad at a place called Church World Services. He does not explain what this organization is if it is a church or something more. It seems like something more because of the help they give to refugees. Shawn meets Mohammad and explains through an interpreter that nothing may come of his idea to write about Mohammad. Mohammad's response floors him when he says that no matter what happens they are friends now. This comment throws the author off a bit as he questions how good a friend he is and wondering if he even knows what the word friend really means. This innocent gesture of friendship from Mohammad begins a journey for the author of self-introspection that ultimately becomes the theme of this book.
The ordeal of escaping Syria that Mohammad and his wife and children went through, only to end up in an America with a racist, Islamophobic President had me wondering how Shawn would explain the hate to Mohammad. But Mohammad is a rare individual who, we come to see throughout the book, is just grateful that they are in a place that is better than where they were. In Syria, his house was bombed. In America, this is not something he needs to fear. His dedication to his new country is admirable, and you can't help but like him. His trials (new teeth), his wife Moradi's attempts to learn to drive and his desire to be a good friend to Shawn make you want to have Mohammad as your neighbour.
The author, through Mohammad, sees for the first time how isolated we have allowed ourselves to become. Mohammad often remarks on how surprised he is that no one is outside. When he asks Shawn where they are and finds they are in their homes, he cannot fathom it because in his village everyone came together as a family and met regularly. This was my experience in the '60s. Neighbours talked to neighbours. They had coffee together, ate together and generally looked out for each other. This is not something that happens too much today.
While the book did not flow very well and at times left out important details (what is Tellus360 and Church World Service?) the heart of the book is clear - fear should not keep us from providing refuge to thousands like Mohammad and his family. As the author states:
"We have to pull out all the stops in welcoming the refugee and the immigrant, in getting to know those who live around us, in showing love to our neighbours. We can't afford to isolate people anymore. We can't afford to push folks to the fringes of our society. This world we've created is a product of isolationism and fear, distrust and anger."
I quite agree. If anything this book is a call to go out and meet your neighbour and more importantly treat the strangers in our midst as friends. I highly recommend it.
Book provided courtesy of Baker Publishing and Graf Martin Communications, Inc.