Lessons from the Kurds

Nashville, where I recently lived, has the largest Kurdish population in the United States. Some ten thousand of them. The church I went to reaches out to these immigrants a lot to help them get settled as well as connect them so they’ll have some American acquaintances, too. A couple of my friends had gotten involved with that group and told me about a precious family they had met only a few weeks before. They said I should go with them the next time they went, to which I agreed. Turns out, though, by the time that evening found its way onto calendars this family was moving the following morning to Minnesota. So, for me, it was a simultaneous hello/goodbye party.

I went straight from work and asked if I should bring anything. At the time I worked in an ice cream shop, so I brought a big ice cream cake with me because somehow my two friends had found out this family’s kids just adore chilled lactose treats. I thought this was pleasantly fortuitous.

I met up with my friends and helped them carry several massive bags to the car; they’d bought going-away gifts for the kids because my friends are kind-hearted like that. My memory’s a bit fuzzy, but I believe this family had five children. This was a while ago now, but I think they had three boys and two girls—ages ranging from four to sixteen or something close to that. We stopped by Target on the way to this family’s house because they still needed to get the sixteen-year-old boy a gift. My friends asked me what we should get a boy that age, as if I knew, and I said, “Well, at that age I liked sports.” So we got him a football. Not a fútbol; they already had those. We thought an American gift would be good. Not a pro-Western statement, you understand. Just sort of a, “Welcome to America,” present. And we decided it was a better gift than a six-pack of beer, which we jokingly thought about throwing in with the bag (purely jokingly . . . I think).

We arrived at their house, a tall, yet narrow, two-story construction made up of a living room and kitchen on the first floor and bedrooms upstairs. Once we got there, it was hugs for everyone. My two friends had only been there once, but were treated as family; I was tagging along with them, so I was immediately given that same type of affection. Of the names I remember, there was Eman, a girl around eleven years old perhaps; Muhammed, a bright-eyed, sweet-hearted boy of maybe around eight; and Shareen, a girl of about four with kinetic curly hair to match her active smile and feet. There was another boy of about age six, and the eldest son for whom we’d bought the football. The latter sat quietly most of the time we were there, and didn’t really say too much when we gave him his present, but his eyes did smile nonetheless. The other kids loved their gifts, but I think the biggest hit was the gum. In a mere hour, Muhammed had seemingly chewed almost an entire pack, much to the chagrin of Shareen, who felt like she lost her fair share of the gum, even though her tiny little mouth could barely handle the two pieces already crammed in there.

The exact coordinated details of this evening had been sketchy up until the actual day, so I had eaten before going not sure if there would be dinner. This was a mistake, for even though the clock showed past eight they fed us. And fed us. I learned to eat much more slowly so as to ward off thirds and fourths, for an empty plate communicated a desire for more, which was the furthest from what I wanted (which is in no way a reflection of the quality of the food; everything was excellent). As I sat there like a beached and bloated whale, they brought out hot tea shimmering a dark carmine shade, and it was absolutely delicious (that is, once it had cooled off enough to where you would no longer risk scalding your vocal orifice to near irreparable conditions).

Then we just partied. People kept coming in to their house—friends of the parents, friends of the children, neighbors. I think throughout the course of the evening some ten different people just came and went as they pleased. In this home was an open-door policy of which American churches can only dream. Some of the kids brought out sports balls, some began to have a dance party upstairs, and some just sat there and made conversation.

Then these kids began to rock the internet. They hit up the YouTube machine and kept searching for Arabic videos. Now, I can’t speak for all Arabs, but if this family was any microcosmic indication, those people absolutely love slapstick humor. Literal slapstick, I mean. They had bookmarked and kept bringing up video after video of people slapping each other back and forth, back and forth, and that’s all the videos were. But it was enough to send these kids dying into fits of giggles and chuckles. I was afraid little Muhammed was going to need some air soon. Then they hit up some American videos and brought up the Chubby Cupcake Boy. This was the first time I’d seen the video at that point, but I think what drove me to tears was watching these little Kurdish kids rolling on the floor with fits of hysteria over how hilarious they thought this video was. I don’t know if they watch that video and make an instant association with all of America, but you could tell quite easily it was like nothing they’d seen before, and they never tired of it. I think we watched it three times. To see them deriving such joy from that video together with one another was hilarious. You soon found yourself laughing along with them just as uncontrollably.

A little later their father came home from work. I don’t know where he worked or if such late hours were the norm, but he looked tired when he came in. His eyes lit up considerably, though, upon seeing his family. My friends didn’t quite know all the employment details, either, but they had received the impression the father earned about as much as we did at our slightly-better-than-minimum-wage jobs. Perhaps that’s why he was coming home so late. To support a family of this size on such earnings would be impossible if you worked only forty hours a week. But he did not look bitter. Rather than exhibiting the typical American wish to come home after a long day and find peace and quiet, he expressed gratitude at the sight of my friends and me occupying his house.

Later, the father and a couple of other guys left to go to the store. We had the unpleasant suspicion they were going to get more food with which to honor their guests. And they did, returning shortly with four paper bags full of bananas, apples, and oranges. Once again, I made the mistake of finishing my plate of fruit too soon and having to eat another load. I made a mental note of which room in their house held the toilet should I surpass the levels of gastrointestinal overload.

Several things stood out from this evening. The first is obviously the generosity, but I have to remind myself it’s not abnormal. The anti-norm is the way American culture is, while most of the world expresses overwhelming hospitality. I’ve encountered that in other countries, but to experience it in America was a wonderfully stark experience. It almost meant more than, say, going over to the Middle East and being fed by this family in their more familiar environs. Because to experience it here meant they’re not letting American culture shape them. They’re sticking true to what they know, and what they know is treating people with love and goodness.

Second, these kids were some of the most psychologically healthy children I’ve ever been around. They provided a polar opposite to the “norm” of the environment I worked in at the time. The ice cream shop where I was employed was located in one of the wealthiest counties in America. I lost count of how many times kids as old as eight, ten, or twelve would come in, not be able to look me in the eye, and have to whisper their order to their mom so she could relay it on to me. I think that’s ridiculous. (Some will disagree and say, “Ease up. Some kids are just really shy.” I’ll return to that in a moment.)

These Kurdish kids, however, were incredibly well-adjusted. Every time they talked to me they looked me in the eye. They sat next to me on the couch. They joked around with me. They smiled at me. They touched my beard. They talked to me. Consider, too, the surprising nature of that. Here I am male, white, and a rather tall individual who has never set foot in their house before. And these kids never flinched.

I can’t help but think this has to do, in large part, with the high amount of traffic going in and out of their house. These kids are used to people coming and going all the time. It’s how their culture is. The open-door policy is just second nature. A kid in the suburbs, however, is more often than not inculcated with the idea of home being a fortress where you go to get away from everything. I would argue that’s not healthy at all, but that’s not the point here. The point is these Kurdish kids knew how to interact with anyone who came through their door, whether they’d met them before or not.

Now for that “shy” argument for the rich white kids and my counterargument to it. There’s a considerable difference between being shy and being flat-out socially maladjusted. For example, I consider myself more of a shy person. While I enjoy talking to some people, I don’t always want to talk to everyone because sometimes that can make me uncomfortable; that, or I just have nothing to say at all. But I don’t mind being around the crowds. The kids at the ice cream shop looked like they didn’t want to be outside period as they’d bury their faces into their mother’s armpit. The four year old, Shareen, on the other hand, was very shy and didn’t say much, but she didn’t leave the room. She stuck around, would still make eye contact with me, and would still smile at me.

Third, the evening offered a needed counterpoint to how I think a lot of Americans view Middle Eastern families. A lot of Westerners will proclaim our new neighbors’ religion imprisons women in the home to where they are made slaves by their husbands. We need to stop and consider how a lot (and I would argue most) Arabic families do this because they—both husband and wife—want it that way. Are there exceptions? Sure, there are always slave-driver husbands who don’t want their wives to step out of the house, but that’s a mark of the man’s personality and character, not his religion. You have slave-driver husbands who are Caucasian or African American. Let’s not start acting like only Arab men own the market on that.

This family we visited makes a choice to have the woman stay at home. They could obviously use the income of two people working, but they sacrifice that because family is the most important thing to them. He wants a strong parental presence while he’s gone at work because he loves his kids and wants to know they’re cared for. She wants to be there to raise them because she loves her children. They want to make sure they’re the ones bringing up their kids and not some foreign-to-them culture or education system. When it comes down to issues of character and integrity, they want to be the ones plugged into those areas of their kids’ lives, and it shows. These children were remarkable.

My friends kept telling me leading up to this evening, “This family has so much love to give,” and it was highly evident. We attributed this to how much love this family has for each other, and that is life-changing—for them and for others. For the kids, they will never have to doubt or question whether or not that mother and father truly loves them. You can see they have that assurance just from the way in which they respond to their parents, and that, in turn, affects how the children interact with and respond to one another. And for others—people like myself coming in from the outside—we’re reawakened from the modern stupor that belittles the importance of being involved in the lives of the children you bore or begat. For every person who has children, that is their responsibility. To those who would disagree and view child raising as imprisonment, that is your personal opinion, but remember that some women revel in the opportunity to get to stay home and raise their young ones. If that’s not your cup of tea, that’s perfectly fine, and we encourage you to go get your tubes tied so that when you do have kids you don’t neglect them. But in the meantime, don’t rain on other women’s personal sunshine.

The last thing that struck me was what a woman, Banaz, said. A Kurd herself, she was one of the many people who came through the house that evening, and she works with immigration in downtown Nashville to help relocating families and refugees get any issues sorted out so they can get settled into their lives over here. During the evening, the family put on a videotape of a wedding reception (I still have no idea why we were watching this), and my friends and I couldn’t help but notice there were a lot of people who would not smile when the camera came by. I asked Banaz about this, and she said, “Oh, we don’t smile when people take our pictures.” I asked why, and she said they just didn’t. But then I pointed to the video and said I was actually referring to what was on the television, and Banaz goes, “Oh, that! Well, you see the people who are smiling are happy about the man and woman marrying, but the people who are not smiling are the ones who do not approve of them marrying each other.” I asked why, then, they didn’t just skip going to the wedding, and she looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, we still love a party.”

As if identifying and reciprocating my interest in different cultures, Banaz looked at me and said, “Tell me this, Nelson. Here is something I do not understand. You see, the Kurdish, if they do not like somebody, they will tell them, ‘We do not like you,’ or, ‘We do not love you.’ They will not lie. They will tell someone how they really feel. But here in America, if someone asks you if you can help them with something and if it’s any trouble you all respond, ‘Ah, no, no! It is no trouble at all!’ when really you are thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is the last thing I want to do.’” Banaz then looked at me quizzically—not sarcastically, but with a truly earnest desire to understand this somewhat humorous, yet confounding, reality of American thinking—and asked, “Why do you lie to people?” I had no answer for her, other than to smile and murmur how I’d been trying to figure that one out for a long time.

I’m sorry to say I was the reason the party ended prematurely. Though it was a Friday night, my weekend had not started, and I had to work in the morning, so at eleven o’clock we bid them adieu. The children shed tears, and the departure crept upon us with a high level of sobering emotions. I haven’t seen or heard of the family since, but I hope they are doing well. I think of them often.

It’s not that this family was perfect, that they never do anything wrong, or that I sampled utopia in their living room (though you could label that red tea as such). They have their squabbles, their sorrows, their difficulties. Financially, they’re not doing so well. Discipline-wise, the mom had to call out the kids several times while we were there and yell at them to tone it down, for kids will be kids. In terms of the future, this family faces many unknowns, and I can only hope life in Minnesota has gone well for them so far.

But it is always encouraging to receive lessons in hospitality and kindness from people you’ve never met before. It’s jarring and brings a paradigm shift of colossal magnitude the likes of which post-encounter you realize you couldn’t live without, yet had been lacking for so very long. I always feel tremendous gratitude when that realization hits me. It’s a mighty fine medicine.

Oh, and the ice cream cake was a hit.

Much love.

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