By: Riley Wall

A disheartened Iraqi refugee sat across from me in my office looking for help to find a job. Any job. 

As a single mom new to America, Nadia was desperate to support her family. In very broken English, she told me how she could cook and clean and style hair. After 2 hours of fumbling a CV into existence, she left beaming with hope for a new beginning in a world entirely different from what she once knew. 

I left the office wishing there was more I could do for her. Who were her friends? Who else could speak her Arabic heart language? Who would take the time to listen to her painful story of leaving Iraq, when everything fell apart and later abandoned by her husband? 

I moved to Jordan in part as an attempt to understand something of what refugees like Nadia experience when forced to leave their homes and start completely over. The disorientation of new sounds and smells. The stress of trying to fit in, how to belong and still be myself somehow. The waves of grief from missing close family and friends. These resisting factors threatened to bring me down until encountering the utter relief of a welcoming embrace by Arab friends all around me. This culture of hospitality is the missing element most refugees long for when they move to the states. A simple friendship. A nurturing community. 

The beauty of Shababeek as both a language and cultural center is its profoundly wholistic ability to nurture complete strangers into a place of comfortable belonging. The journey isn’t easy, but there will always be local friends right by my side, eager to help and loyal to a fault. The most satisfying and life-shaping ingredients of this venture have included the humbling grace of support in community and the discipline of engaged listening for the sake of understanding. 

Behind the many strange sounds of the Arabic language are familiar expressions of a shared humanity. This is where we discover connection, which doesn’t require perfect fluency, mostly an engaged heart. The Growing Participation Approach at Shababeek helps to facilitate that connection. From the Silent Phase through the 5th phase of native to native discourse, it will remain to be true that so much can be communicated with body language and eye contact. Yet if the eyes are windows to the soul, then speaking the same language is what helps open those windows. Every phase of GPA cracks open the windows a little more. You see more, hear more, experience/understand more, and ultimately love more. 

These days, the horrors and threats of ISIS make more news headlines than any peace-making, bridge-building accomplishments between the East and the West. What if a part of the solution came from tuning out the noise of fear and opening our ears to the stories, dreams, and perspectives of single mothers like Nadia? She wants a meaningful life, just like you and me. The shift from frantic surviving to meaningful thriving cannot be accomplished alone. What if learning a second language in the company of new-found friends could take us a giant step towards thriving like never before? Perhaps we would find something more familiar than foreign, a heart that beats for the kind of life we all desire. It can simply start with Marhaba.