We learned on Good Friday that the family of five refugees from Afghanistan would be arriving at my parents’ house the next day. The Catholic Charities liaison told us the basics: Use the traditional Muslim greeting, as-salamu alaykum. Serve tea. No hugs.
My mom and I excitedly prepared for their arrival. Do we need to get the bacon out of the fridge? Is it O.K. to give Easter baskets to the kids? Should we bring out the Legos or the Beanie Babies? No; yes; why not both?
I imagine staff people at the Vatican had their own weighty questions of protocol and decorum to work through when they learned of Pope Francis’ last-minute decision to bring 12 Syrian refugees back from Greece on April 16. The announcement came after an otherwise somber visit to a refugee camp on the isle of Lesbos, through which hundreds of thousands have passed fleeing poverty and persecution in their homelands.
“Today is a day to weep,” Francis told reporters on the plane back to Rome, holding up a picture he received from a child in which the sun is crying. “If the sun is able to cry, we should be able to shed at least one tear” (see Gerard O’Connell’s report in Signs of the Times, p. 8).
Many in the United States have indeed wept over the images of capsized boats and a lifeless child washed up on a Mediterranean beach. But even as the pope met with refugees who have seen and survived these horrors firsthand, he reminded them that “the heart of humanity continues to beat.” Helen Alvaré, discussing the new apostolic exhortation in this issue (p. 12), writes “Pope Francis is clearly no Pollyanna” when it comes to the serious challenges facing family today, among them poverty, war and forced migration. And yet that document, “The Joy of Love,” ultimately presents a vision of Christian marriage that, despite our human frailties and failures, strengthens couples and entire communities. Likewise, in the pope’s powerful gesture of welcome toward three Muslim families, we witness the potential for joy in the face of the great suffering of refugees: the joy of hospitality.
At the very end of his 256-page exhortation, Pope Francis writes, “The family circle is not only open to life by generating it within itself, but also by going forth and spreading life by caring for others and seeking their happiness. This openness finds particular expression in hospitality” (No. 324).
Whatever nerves my family had about making our guests feel at home across barriers of language, culture and religion were quickly put to rest. The parents, Raheem and Rayhana, graciously accepted our clumsy Arabic greetings and cobbled-together tea ceremony. Hasib and Laima, ages 7 and 3, skipped the Legos and made a beeline for the trampoline. We bounced for a good three hours—exchanging few words but laughing the entire time.
I could not help but think: What if these were the images that came to mind when Americans heard Muslim refugees? John Savant writes that “our failures to end war, injustice, poverty and violence” are fundamentally failures of the imagination (see “Back to Wonder,” p. 14). Too often migrants are depicted as desperate, undifferentiated masses, images that can invite either numbness, despair or fear. Instead, the pope tells us, we must see the “faces, names and individual stories”; only then can we imagine: aging towns revitalized by striving newcomers; empty nests filled with the happy chaos of children.
I do not know exactly what dangers our guests faced in Afghanistan. I do know there was great sorrow for them as they left behind their country, friends and family. But on this joyful Easter weekend, they seemed right at home.