As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
In March 2020, our nieces flew from Florida to spend their spring break with us in New York City. We had carefully planned an itinerary full of shows and shopping and sightseeing. But just after they arrived, the strange virus we had been hearing about came roaring into town, and in the span of a few days, New York City transformed into a ghost town.
Brian and I knew we had to get the girls out of the city, and we decided to travel with them back to central Florida. Brian’s work had shifted to be totally remote, and my work as a New York City tour guide had come to a screeching halt. We thought we would hang out with family in Florida for a few weeks until this virus thing cleared up.
But a few days after we arrived in Florida, I started feeling achy, and my fever spiked. I tested positive for COVID-19 and battled it for weeks, landing in the hospital twice, where one doctor told me I had a “50/50” chance of surviving. I immediately asked friends and family to pray for me, and my social media blew up with messages telling me I had been added to several churches’ prayer lists. I spent weeks in a bed far from my NYC home, which was now in the throes of its own COVID battle.
After a slow recovery, Brian and I decided not to return right away to New York, which seemed to be emerging from the pandemic as slowly as I was. We were feeling called to stay in my hometown of Tallahassee, Fla., at least until the pandemic subsided. But after having lived happily in NYC for almost 30 years, I felt adrift in my familiar unfamiliar hometown. Brian and I tried to recreate our NYC life as much as we could, settling into a townhouse in the heart of the small business district so we could walk to restaurants and shops. But I missed New York. I focused on taking it one day at a time, certain that God would lead us to our next endeavor and make it obvious.
Welcoming the Stranger
In October 2021, I learned from the local news that Tallahassee would soon become home to some Afghan families who had been rescued from Kabul as U.S. forces left the country. I signed up to volunteer with the resettling agency, remembering how I had been surrounded by immigrants daily as I navigated the streets of New York City. I missed that diversity and the city’s international feel. I also thought of my time with my church’s hospitality team, helping to make newcomers feel welcome and answer any questions they’d have when they walked through the church doors on Sunday mornings. Maybe helping newcomers to our country feel more at home in Tallahassee would be similar to the role I had at church. And in turn, maybe it would make me feel more at home in Tallahassee, too.
The resettling agency gave me permission to furnish a family’s apartment before they arrived and told us they had two children under two years old. I contacted the Methodist church we’d begun attending for help, and in a week, we had gathered everything we needed.
On the designated day, several volunteers pulled into the church parking lot with their trucks, and we loaded up a houseful of donated goods and caravanned to the apartment complex. In a few hours of organized chaos, chairs and tables, beds, food, kitchen items, bathroom necessities, toys, and clothes were unloaded, assembled, and moved into place.
We hung a sign on the front door welcoming its new residents in English, Dari, and Pashto, and high-fived as we locked the door behind us, grateful for the chance to provide a warm welcome for a family who had been forced to make a harrowing departure from their country.
Word of our “Extreme Home Makeover” spread throughout the church, and those who hadn’t contributed to the first home donated items in the hope we would furnish a second one. When our church warehouse filled again, we outfitted another apartment within the same complex. The donations kept flowing, so we continued the makeovers, one after another. We would follow up with the families to see if we missed anything, or if they needed any specialized supplemental items. Our visits provided opportunities to get to know them.
One Family’s Story
One afternoon, I paid a call to a new family. “Salaam!” I said when the door opened, having researched the typical Afghan greeting.
“Salaam! I’m Jamir!”
Jamir opened the door wide, and I entered the living room. An older man who had been seated immediately rose up and came to the door to greet me with a smile. He was wearing what I guessed was a traditional Afghan outfit—a long white shirt that reached below his knees, with matching harem-style pants underneath. His chin sported a long gray beard and a round, brown piece of felt crowned his head while salt and pepper hair sprung out underneath. As I greeted this distinguished-looking gentleman, I looked past him and spied a beautiful girl in her early 20s who wore a scarf over her head. She smiled shyly, and I guessed her age was the same as Jamir’s, perhaps early 20s.
“This is my father and my sister, Meena,” said Jamir, gesturing for me to come inside.
Meena went to the kitchen and brought out a tray of pistachios and raisins as I got comfortable on their couch. They looked thrilled that I had come by for a visit. Jamir told me the family had come from a military base in Wisconsin, where they had been taken to be processed into America. I wondered what happened to the mother, but I didn’t have to wonder for long. “When we heard the Taliban was taking over Kabul, my family split into two cars so we wouldn’t attract attention. We headed to the airport and took two different routes—Meena, me, and my father in one car, my mother, my other brother, and sister in the other car. We made it to the airport and into an airplane, but they didn’t. They got detained, and now we fear we’ll never see each other again.” He ended his story looking down at the floor.
I was shocked and saddened to hear how this family had been torn apart as they tried in vain to make their way to safety. “Oh Lord, please, please let them see each other again,” I prayed, close to tears. Jamir told me more about him and his family, telling me that he’d worked in customer service at a bank back in Kabul. He hoped to get a similar job in Tallahassee. I vowed to help him as best as I could. Meena handed me a cup of tea, and I stayed another hour as we continued to share details of each other's lives.
Finding a Home
As I drove home, tears filled my eyes again when I recalled their story. I thought about how hard it had been for me to adjust to leaving a place I loved, and I knew that this family’s pain and loss was so much deeper than mine. My thoughts went to the parable of the Good Samaritan, who had gone out of his way to help someone of a different faith. I decided to do everything I could to help make their time in Tallahassee as good as it could be.
Several months later, Jamir now has a good job at a bank. Meena has learned much English, and their dad seems to be adjusting well. Now good friends whom I visit regularly, Jamir appreciates my involvement with his family. “You and the people of Tallahassee have helped us so much. You are such a nice soul. I can’t thank you all enough.” I thought of his “soul” reference afterward. Aren’t we all just a collection of souls, anyway, whether refugee, immigrant, or native-born? And God loves each one. I prayed the love of Christ showed through me as it did the Good Samaritan.
Tallahassee has received many refugee families, and there’s been an outpouring of generosity for our new neighbors. Because of this, I began to appreciate my hometown in a new way. A city that shows up in a big way for suffering people is a city I can proudly call “home.” Most importantly, I can practice Christian hospitality with these beautiful souls, remembering a verse in Leviticus that has taken on a new meaning, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:34).