Widian Nicola concludes her thoughts about welcoming the stranger. This is the third and final of three parts. (ed.)
Connection, Care and “Friends””
Grammatically, the word “friend” is a noun. I’d like to suggest, however, that friend is in fact a verb.
Like love, there is action and movement in friendship: it includes hospitality, generosity, and, care.
But what does it really mean to care? More importantly, what does it mean to give care? For the Good Samaritan, care is to feel concern and to give help. Care is to take heed to an important need and to provide what’s needed. Care is to be attentive to what’s being said and to minister accordingly. It is not a passive experience, but an active exchange.
I’ve come to know care very personally through my own undocumented immigrant experience, which began long before I was born.
My father was raised in a small village in Galilee. He, his parents, and four siblings lived in a tiny one-bedroom house. My grandparents made a meager living as farmers. My mom, on the other hand, lost both her parents at a young age and was raised in Jerusalem at an orphanage by a religious community called the Daughters of Charity. They married when my mom was seventeen and my dad in his early 20’s.
Throughout my childhood, my dad worked as a mechanic and mom as a teacher. Not long after my youngest brother was born, my parents realized the challenges our family faced as Catholic-Palestinians living in northern Israel. As with most parents, they wanted my brothers and me to have access to education and a brighter future than they each had. Moving would mean a stronger assurance that we wouldn’t experience the same type of poverty and struggle they’d experienced throughout their lives.
As you can image, the decision was not an easy one. It meant leaving everything and everyone we knew behind. It meant risking one form of safety for another. It also meant embarking on a new identity as “stranger,” because, after all, to leave home is to become the stranger. Yet despite the hard decision, on July 4, 1990, our family landed in America.
I was eight years old at the time.
When we arrived, my dad found a job as a mechanic and my mom stayed home to navigate our new unfamiliar home. The only English words I knew when we came to the States were “yes,” “no,” and the numbers one through ten. In fact, I remember well just nodding and smiling when any of my new classmates asked me any questions. And 26 years later, my parents still remind me that our family came to the US with only one hundred dollars.
Having arrived with only temporary visitors’ VISAs, which we overstayed after six months, my parents made great attempts to become “legal.” They spent countless dollars on attorneys who offered false hope and stole their money only to leave our family wondering if we would have the chance to stop living under the shadows and fear of deportation. Beginning at the age of eight, I didn’t understand what our legal status meant. The only thing I knew was that our status was a secret and we were never to mention that fact to anyone, ever.
While we were met with many challenges, mainly financial and legal, assimilation was the most difficult.
Maintaining cultural norms in our home made it hard for my brothers and me to live the typical American lives as teenagers. Understandably so, my parents feared the unknown.
America was a big country and everything in it was new. I made a lot of attempts over the years to reconcile my Palestinian identity to that of my new American identity. Likewise, many times along the way, our family was confronted with other clashes, mainly the clash between the dream of a more hopeful future and the reality of an uncertain one. Like so many other immigrants, our experience was more challenging than magical.
Working hard to learn English, make enough money to pay the bills, and reconcile our “illegal” status, for my family, one form of prosperity meant another form of poverty.
Over the years, I lived with a pervasive fear of deportation and equated “immigration” with a “monster” that might be coming to get our family, and worse yet, hurt us. As the years passed, “immigration” became a noun instead of a verb.
It was a looming, powerful, frightening presence.
It intimidated me, filled me with doom, and made me anxious. The terror I felt for many years were realized when my father was detained and deported by the “monster.” I was twelve years old. Scarier than the deportation was the fact that I never saw the monster; I only felt its devastating effects. After six months’ time, my father returned to the United States, but we continued our lives in much the same way. Yet despite our status, we pressed on. I finished elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate school, and graduate school as undocumented. At the end of my first graduate school experience, my little brother, who came to the US when he was three years old, was arrested and deported shortly thereafter. It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve seen him. And just last month, my father’s second deportation proceedings ended.
I remember well a day in 2012 that changed my life. I arrived at a local parish to meet with the Director of Immigration Services at the Diocese of Metuchen. Nervous about the meeting, I headed toward the parish hall, a basement space used as the chapel that houses an altar and several chairs hidden behind a cubicle-style wall. To the right of the wall was the open space where chairs faced a projector ready for a presentation. As I headed down the stairs I was met by three smiling faces, the same faces I had seen weeks previous. There stood three young Hispanic high school girls wearing their “faith without worx” t-shirts, greeting and checking in all the arrivals. This was August 17, a couple months after President Barack Obama announced his most ambitious immigration initiative.
Exercising his executive authority after Congress failed to pass the Dream Act, legislation that would have given legal status to young immigrants, the President opened wide the doors to as many as 1.7 million individuals who will now be allowed to work legally and live openly in the United States without fear of deportation. The Catholic Charities Immigration Office had set up shop in the parish rectory to serve all the undocumented immigrants of the neighborhood applying for this new executive order.
I was one of them.
Three months shy of my 31st birthday, no criminal record, at least five consecutive years in the US, arrival before the age of 16, and a Graduate Degree, I completed my application. After a seven-hour wait in line, I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that the love and care of God could not be greater.
And that care was made fully alive by the three young evangelists who smiled and greeted me excitedly as I walked down those parish hall steps.
To them, there was no need to substantiate my worthiness or meet criteria for welcome. It also didn’t matter how old I was or whether or not I spoke English, if I had graduated from high school or paid my taxes. And just like the story of the Good Samaritan, all that mattered was that I was there.
Today, after 26 years in the US, I still can’t vote or leave the country.
Although I have worker’s permit, there is still no pathway to my citizenship or to my parents’. What I can do, however, is maintain remarkable relationships with those whom I love. Those relationships, based on care and compassion, are what give me hope. Care in these relationships has come in many forms, especially from my church family, which has been paramount in my journey. Although I’ve struggled with the need to appeal and substantiate my worthiness, like a criminal pleads for mercy at the hands of her executioner, I’ve never had to do that in the church. I’ve received unconditional love and support.
Like the Good Samaritan who offered a tangible means of support to the wounded man, we are all called to do the same for the strangers among us. As agents of welcome for refugees and immigrants, you are invited to continue to be the Good Samaritans in this community, which means offering care that heals, as well as inviting others to do the same. This care comes in the form of medical care, English language classes, elderly care, low-cost immigration legal services, multicultural resources, emotional support, mental health support, political advocacy, and most importantly, welcome.
As service and social justice volunteers, parish staff, and campus ministry leaders, you are already living this theology of encounter.
From October 2014 to September 2015, 91 refugee newcomers were resettled by Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden’s Refugee Resettlement Program. The program served over 350 refugee clients in all through a range of programs and services offered to all refugees in South Jersey. That means men, women, and children from countries like: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cuba, Iraq, and Ukraine have received contact, connection, and great care.
Like Naomi, Caitlin, and the Good Samaritan, we must be instruments of welcome in the movement from stranger to friend.
In closing, I’d like to suggest that Jesus’ life is the perfect illustration of this theology of encounter.
Time and time again he embodied this “C3” movement of contact, connection, and care in the scriptures: from his turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, to his encounter with the woman at the well, and to every other healing encounter seen in the gospels. I’d like to suggest, though, that this movement that Jesus exemplified is not merely a movement between people, but also a movement within us.
In other words, to contact, connect, and care is to tap into and awaken to the divine Spirit within us. It is to contact and recognize the fear, shame, and guilt that exists.
Then to connect to that which seems too much to bear.
And finally, to care for those hidden parts, to give them the love they so deserve.
It is this process of internal transformation that we also transform the relationships we have with each other. So, not only do we deepen our own spirituality, but we can also connect more deeply to those whom we serve.
As a qualitative researcher, Dr. Widian Nicola is interested in individual narratives of the lived human experience. As such, she created, produced, and published the Lived Experience Project, a narrative social work podcast show that explores unique and evocative stories rarely heard in mainstream media. As a social justice educator, Dr. Nicola offers numerous professional and academic presentations on issues surrounding poverty and immigration. She supervises, advises, and provides oversight to students and organizations on a wide range of social justice programming. She maintains an interest in social policy, particularly immigration reform, and serves on the NASW-NJ Legislative Action and Social Advocacy committee, as well as maintains a small private practice.
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