There are days when I wonder if this world can continue to exist under the current load of hate and misunderstanding and evil, when I wonder if the hearts of all people can somehow find an antidote to racism and virulent nationalism and a concern only for ourselves. We are born to these things as sparks fly upward, I suppose. I know I am. My friendship with Mohammad has been both the diagnosis and the beginning of a cure within me.
In 2012, Mohammad fled his Syrian village along with his wife and four sons, escaping to Jordan through the wilderness. Four years later he sat across from Shawn Smucker in a small conference room in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Though neither of them knew it, Mohammad had arrived in Shawn’s life just in time.
This is the story of a friendship. It is the story of a middle-aged writer struggling to make a living and a Syrian refugee struggling to create a life for his family in a strange and sometimes hostile land. It’s the story of two fathers hoping for the best, two hearts seeking compassion, two lives changed forever. It’s the story of our moment in history and the opportunities it gives us to show love and hospitality to the sojourner in our midst.
Anyone who has felt torn between the desire for security and the desire to offer sanctuary to those fleeing war and violence will find Shawn Smucker a careful and loving guide on the road to mercy and unity.
Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor by Shawn Smucker
Published by Revell Publishing Company (October 16, 2018)
Format: Paperback, 208 pages
Disclosure: My thanks to Revell Publishing Company for providing a copy of
Once We Were Strangers for my review. Opinions expressed here are mine.
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Note: This review first appeared on
Review of Once We Were Strangers
I cannot remember a time when reading a book had the transformative effect upon my life that Shawn Smucker’s Once We Were Strangers has had. The first few pages unfold into a story that provides a perspective of two lives–cultivated by different cultures and traditions–coming together in a way I’ve never experienced.
Imagine yourself traveling from Syria to Lancaster, PA. That’s a distance of 5,792 miles by air. But parts of that mileage you have either walked or relied on buses or cabs, usually in the night. You have not traveled alone. Your wife and four sons, the youngest of whom is only a toddler. You are leaving behind everything you have known for most of your life. You are taking a risk in a war-torn hostile country. Yet, what other options do you have to protect your family?
In four years time, after this agonizing journey, Mohammad, his wife Moradi, and their four sons arrive in Lancaster, PA. Their journey has been difficult, risky, and long. They are supported by a local organization, and one day a local resident of Lancaster, Shawn Smucker, arrives to meet Mohammad for the first of many visits and gatherings. They are hopeful that this book I’m reviewing will reach a point of going out into the world to tell Mohammad’s story and what is inevitably a similar story to that of most refugees in a new land.
After Shawn’s cautionary statement that Mohammad shouldn’t get his hopes as nothing might come of this effort, Mohammad’s translator shares the following:
Mohammad says it is impossible for nothing to come of this. He is glad you are willing to hear his story, and no matter what happens you are friends now. That is all that matters. (Emphasis mine.)
Friends. Something we take for granted because most of us have a long history in our country. We may have moved from one city to another or perhaps one state to another. But we’ve not likely moved as many miles as Mohammad’s family did. Yet, Mohammad knows that friends are the foundation for his family’s success in a new land.
If friendships weren’t so important to all of us, where would all the social media outlets be? How clever of Facebook to use the phrase “Add Friend.” Friends bring us a sense of security, loving compassion, support, encouragement. As a refugee from another country, it seems refreshing that Mohammad was eager to find and make friends. This was something to which he was already accustomed.
A glimpse into the bridge-building, fear-silencing, life-affirming gift of cross-cultural friendship. This is an important and timely message.
–PETER GREER, president and CEO, HOPE International;
coauthor of Rooting for Rivals
There is so much I want to tell you about Mohammad and Shawn’s friendship building and about their families coming together as friends. To tell you too much robs you of the experience I had when I completed my reading of this short book. It takes away the element of transforming your existence in a country where many want to come to our country, and many have already done so. They too are people in search of friends, simple friendships, communities of support.
This need of something so simple touched me deeply when I realized how many friends I have–not on social media but in real life. It is incumbent on us to pass along those good gifts we’ve received. So, if I’m blessed with multiple friendships, it doesn’t hurt if I reach out and befriend another, and another, and another. In so doing, perhaps some of my friends will become friends too.
This story needs to be told–and then? It needs to be replicated in some way throughout all our communities.
— TSH OXENREIDER, author of At Home in the World:
Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe
The last two quotes contained in this review are from advance praise for Once We Were Strangers. I have included them because they are relevant to what I believe is the importance of Mohammad and Shawn’s story.
Lastly, a few words from Shawn about this book:
I feel like I should have a disclaimer on the cover: ‘No one was harmed in the creation of this book.” But something was harmed. Something happened.’
My belief that refugees have little to offer was crushed. My belief that they need my help more than they need my friendship was brought low. My deep-seated, hidden concern that every Muslim person might be inherently violent or dedicated to the destruction of the West was exposed and found to be false.
* * *
The help I was prepared to offer was help given at arm’s length, aid that would cost me perhaps a tiny bit of time and maybe a few dollars but not much than that.
But I, not Mohammad, needed more than that. Actually, it turns out we both needed the same thing. We both needed a friend.
My Recommendation: I can’t emphasize enough the life-changing impact of this story. Nothing appears in these pages that is from someone’s imagination nor that has been fictionalized. It is a true story recounted by Shawn Smucker’s indelible excellence in his writing style. His descriptive powers given to Mohammad’s story of leaving Syria are filled with reality. This is a book that leaders in all religions need to read, men and women in power in our governments (county, state, and country) should read. We need to read it and step out in faith and hope to make a difference and make a friend. I highly recommend Once We Were Strangers.
Meet Shawn Smucker
Shawn Smucker is the author of the young adult novels The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There, as well as the memoir Once We Were Strangers. He lives with his wife and six children in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can find him online at http://www.shawnsmucker.com.
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