Yesterday I met a woman from Iraq at an area playground. A teacher, she was there with a number of young girls and two other teachers. She has lived in the US for 6 years, coming here with her two young daughters after her husband was killed in the war. She was much more talkative than any other Muslim woman I’ve ever encountered, and I probably see Muslim women every other day in the Greater Lansing Area. It may be because she had been living in the US for so long and spoke such good English that there was no language barrier. We talked for perhaps twenty minutes, and in that short time frame she shared a number of interesting things with me.
First, she was compelled by one of her charges to go down a slide. Afterward, she came back to our bench and said, “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I may hurt my baby.” She shared that she was two months pregnant and that in Iraq, when a woman is pregnant, she basically does nothing but sit around all day. “We are afraid that the glue that holds the baby in will come loose. But American women do everything–they work, they run.” I told her that it was my understanding that as long as you had a normal healthy pregnancy, nothing much was forbidden by American doctors except flying in the last month of your term. She said her husband, who has lived in America for 18 years, told her the same thing. “He says, ‘Get out of the house. American women do not just sit around when they are pregnant.'”
Second, she said that her daughters, now both in high school, live with their grandmother rather than her and her new husband. He had proposed to her not long after she arrived in the US and she refused him because her daughters were “still missing their father.” But a few years later, when he proposed again, she accepted and the girls from her first marriage moved in with their grandmother. “I can tell my girls are sad without me, but it is hard for a new husband and wife to live with older children from another marriage.” I found this very interesting. At first, her focus was on her daughters who were grieving, but then they are sent out of her house, as high schoolers, so that she and her new husband can focus on their new relationship. I’m still not sure what I think of this method of not blending families. But apparently, that’s how it’s done back in Iraq.
Lastly, when I asked her if she liked living here she said yes. She mentioned that her neighborhood was very safe, but that she used to live in the area where two men were shot back in May (you may remember me blogging on that incident). Coming from a war-torn country, she was very concerned that she be somewhere safe. But even in her East Lansing neighborhood, she said, there had been a recent break-in and robbery. I told her that there really is nowhere that is safe from all crime and she seemed surprised by this. This seemed so odd to me since she has come out of a situation in which the worst of human nature is on display.
Soon my son retrieved me and I had to leave. I was reluctant to stop talking with this woman and we never even exchanged names. I don’t know that I will ever run into her again. But I wanted to share our conversation with you. She and I are of different origins and different faiths, but we came together on a bench, connecting first through the common subject of children. We chatted, told each other “it was nice talking to you,” and went our separate ways.
I see those “Coexist” bumper stickers all over town. I’m not a particularly big fan of them because they seem to imply to me that we should ignore all of our difference and leave each other alone. But I don’t want to ignore our differences. I want to discuss them, learn from them, and struggle with them–in a civil manner. And I don’t want to leave other people alone. I want to have conversations and strike up friendships.
My short time with this kind, thoughtful, and sweet-spirited Iraqi woman on a bench in an East Lansing park is what coexisting really looks like, and I’m so grateful that she struck up this conversation with me. I will (hopefully) never know the horrors she had to live through, but regardless of that, we had a lot in common. We both love our families. We worry a little about safety. And frankly, we think that perhaps the new equipment at this playground is a little on the dangerous side for small children.
Thinking of how often Muslims in the US probably encounter hostility from others, I hope that my friendly demeanor reinforced a positive view of this woman’s adopted country. After all, one of the foundational principles upon which this country was built was religious toleration (brought to you by the Baptists via Roger Williams…You’re welcome, America). Toleration doesn’t mean that you accept that the religious beliefs of others are correct or that you never debate about them. It means that you don’t let those differences cause you to persecute those not of your own faith. You live side by side in peace.
So who have you encountered lately that broadened your horizons?