what i would say if i could come in for tea

I pull up to your house in the late afternoon. As you and your oldest daughter climb out of the car in your work uniforms, you smile and gesture toward your house like you do every time, “Alissa, shay?”

I wish I could say yes, but unfortunately I have to go back to the office and work for a couple more hours, which I try to explain in five basic English words. Me. Work. Sorry. Thank you,. And I just have to hope you’ll understand I’m not rejecting you. Really, I always wish I could come inside and drink tea with you, even though the last time I stopped by your house to explain the details of your first U.S. job–first ever job–and you served me tea, you laughed at me for only putting in one “Wahid?!” spoonful of sugar.

I wish I could come in and really talk with you. I have so many things I wish I could let you know but can’t because we don’t speak the same language (yet):

I want to tell you that your family is too beautiful, sweet, kind, and humble for words. All of you have some of the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. You work hard, you never complain, you always say thank you.

I loved on your first day of work, when we stood at the bus stop and I shyly tried to show off by pointing to different things and saying the color in Arabic, how delighted you and your daughter were. You tried to teach me the colors in Tigrinya as well and didn’t even give up on me when I obviously wasn’t a natural at that particular language. You listened carefully and repeated after me when I said the colors in English too. You are such quick learners. I love how we’ve been slowly teaching each other new vocabulary in our own tongues. Alyawn. Al’iithnin. Shwkulata. 

I want to reminisce and laugh with you about that same day, when we waited at the second bus stop to transfer. That day when, of course, the bus broke down before it got to us. We waited for so long, but you never got crabby or sassy even though you probably were totally confused and cold. The translator who was meeting us at the hotel to help with your training had to come find us to drive us at the last minute. What an adventure that morning was! I actually don’t know if the translator even explained what happened or if to this day you tell the story of that crazy girl who made you take a bus to another bus stop to be picked up by a sayara an hour later.

I want to tell you I wish I never met you. Because I wish you never had to leave home. I wish the rest of your family and friends were a few minutes away. I wish you didn’t have to leave behind the comfort of your home and culture, all your belongings, or the places where so many of your important memories were made. I wish your country was safe and your human rights hadn’t been violated the way they were. I wish your husband were still alive.

I want to tell you that whenever your kids pop out the front door to grin and wave at me as I drop you off, I sometimes drive away sick to my stomach. Because I start thinking about how truly good your family is, and about all the people who hate you, who repeat venomous untruths about you, who might threaten or act violently toward you,without even knowing you, without even thinking twice. It’s not fair. 

I don’t know: Is it better for me to try to explain that while there are indeed some almost entirely evil people, a lot of them are just…well, they have never been taught how to think critically so they just keep building their opinions on lies and  propagation; they’re afraid so they close up and lash out; they’ve never been exposed to anyone who wasn’t just like them, who wasn’t white and identified as Christian, so their hearts have gotten so hard they can’t even see their hypocrisy. Or is it better for me to tell you how angry it makes me?  Sometimes it keeps me awake at night. Sometimes it causes me question my own beliefs. Sometimes it makes me shake and cry and feel like throwing up. It’s not right.

I know that if they only knew you–if they only saw your smile, if they only heard your sweet voice as you try to pronounce a word in English for the first time, if they only got to drink tea with you, if they only got stranded at a bus stop with you, if they only were the ones your children waved at, if they only knew your story–they would feel heavy with shame. They wouldn’t treat you badly or think of you poorly anymore. They wouldn’t stiffen whenever they see your hijab. They wouldn’t be impatient that you’re not fluent in English yet. They wouldn’t call you a terrorist or a dirty refugee  They wouldn’t threaten you. Knowing you would change them. They would love you like I love you, I know it.

I realize that’s not enough, but someday I’m going to tell you anyway. And I hope when I get to we’ll have the option of having this conversation in either of our languages (although let’s be honest, it will probably be English; you heard me trying to say “peanut” in Arabic. It was rough.)

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5 thoughts on “what i would say if i could come in for tea

  1. This is such a gorgeous piece, thank you for sharing it! You handle the linguistic barriers in a thoughtful manner, it reminds me so much of when I was first starting to learn Arabic and practice with native speakers.

  2. I enjoyed reading this piece. Something I love within the (majority) of the refugee community is that you can simply go visit. You do not have to call and plan a date, check everyone’s schedule, plan a special meal, or any of that which is often the course in the American society. With a refugee, you can simply walk up to their house and the next thing you know, you are sipping on chai as a meal is quickly brought to the dining location. I love that welcoming spirit!

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