It was a baking hot summer day when I travelled to the western suburbs of Sydney to meet Sally. She’s recently returned after spending three years in Jordan with her husband and her three children, working with people displaced by conflict. She just authored a book with her friend, Katrina Flett Gulbrandsen, and I was interested in hearing her story.
She greets me with a kiss and ushers me into her cool kitchen. Safe from the biting sunlight outside.
We sit and start chatting about her time in the Middle East. She remembers her first day in Amman vividly. In contrast to the Australian summer heat, Jordan was freezing.
“It was winter at the time. And it was cold! The landscape was barren and there were these huge rocks across the landscape. I was struck by how rocky it was as we drove to our place.”
It was 2014. ISIS will soon take Mosul and Sally and her family will be thrust into caring for a wave of refugees from both Iraq and Syria. The rockiness of the land would soon become a metaphor for the difficulties faced by so many people forced to leave their homelands and settle somewhere else.
Amidst the grief and trauma, what struck Sally was the hospitality these people, particularly the women she worked with, displayed. In the introduction to her book, she writes:
It was this heart of hospitality — and from some of the poorest people I’ve met — that was a great personal challenge to me living in the Middle East … these women have inspired to open my home, make sacrifices of my time and money, and pursue a new kind of love — using the abundance of my home comforts for others.
Sally tells me there is a saying in the Middle East: that a visit confers honour on the host.
“Hospitality is viewed very differently from us in the west. It seems to go to the heart of their character, their humanity,” she explains.
The book Sally has co-authored is called Tea & Thread. It is a collection of recipes, traditional handicraft projects and stories of 17 women who were all forced to flee their homes.
There is Rinda’s story. A woman who weeps in her living room as she recalls the night her family escaped from Syria into Jordan, on foot.
Maruwa, a sixteen year old Arabic tutor, covered from head to toe in a niqab, and far from home since 2013. She said no to being resettled in France when she heard that children there could not attend school with a headscarf. Even though living as a refugee in Jordan was untenable, she could not compromise her faith.
And Shahinez, a Christian who had to flee her home when ISIS swept through Mosul. She says:
We grieve for our country, homes, places of birth. We have such beautiful memories of our country. We did not want to leave. We wanted to live in brotherhood, but we were force to leave Iraq. I pray daily for Iraq and the Middle East. I pray for ISIS. We forgive them and pray for them to know Jesus, the living God, who is the way and life.
All people are God’s creatures; we are all bothers. We are not allowed to hate. I do not hate because Jesus loves.
“When people think of women in the Middle East, many think in a generalised way. It’s easy to view them in stereotypes, but through these stories, we wanted to show they weren’t a homogenous group, but individuals with their own identity,” Sally explains.
“We wanted to show there were more to refugee women in the Middle East than a mass of huddled people portrayed by the media. I hope by reading their stories, people will come to understand they are human beings and have compassion for their plight. I hope they will be moved to support them, in one way or another.”
The book holds the authors’ deepest thanks to each of the women for their hospitality and their willingness to share their lives.
We grieve for your losses and for the difficult circumstances that lead to our meeting. Thank you for making us welcome. We wish for you to be as warmly welcomed wherever you may go. We wish you peace in your lives and peace for your homelands. You will remain in our thoughts and prayers always.
Tea & Thread is available for purchase here. All profits from the sales of the book will support refugee relief programs in the Middle East.
The featured image is from page 56 of Tea & Thread.