Rebecca Kaplan shared her experience of Home-Hosting a refugee with Open Homes Hamilton, speaking at the No Room Storytelling Evening in Hamilton, May 14, 2022.
It's been amazing to hear this evening how some experts are literally changing the landscape of this city to be more accommodating. It also makes it a tough act to follow because I am not an expert on anything that would put me up here.
But in my life, I seem to reflect on the same question a lot: “How did I get myself here?”
I guess in this case it was because of an email I received.
On September 15th of this past year, in the middle of a busy day, in the busiest season for both my husband and myself, since we both work in schools, I received an email from Danielle at Open Homes that basically went like this.
"Hey Rebecca, we have a possible guest. He's a 24 year old African Muslim man who doesn't speak English, only Arabic and French. Are you interested?"
Are we interested? Cue reflective question: “How did I get myself here?”
To give you a bit of background, we were new Open Homes Hamilton Hosts.
We had been involved with Open Homes for the past few years as church point people. We weren't even Hosts yet. We hadn't finished filling out the paperwork when Danielle emailed us, so this was a very new ball game for us.
I grew up in a bigger family. I grew up in Burlington. Everything I learned about hospitality I learned from my mother. And we always had company. As teenagers we were allowed to pack our backyard so full of friends. I got to witness my parents set an example for taking people in under all sorts of circumstances, from friends who needed a place, family who needed an in-between, and more foster kids than I can name.
My husband was raised with a much quieter outlook on life. It was actually quite the opposite of how I grew up, so my husband is the best guy. And after 15 years with me and all my wild ideas, he wasn't fazed by the email that I forwarded him that day.
We both had lots of questions.
Do we even have room? We don't have a huge house. We have a 2 1/2 story. You know? East of downtown Hamilton- do we physically have room?
What would it look like having a Muslim man in our Christian home? Do I need to be making better dinners? Do I need to make more time to sit down and entertain? Do I even have time for that with work and kids?
We have 4 kids, all are under 12. They are loud and untidy. They occasionally use the upper floors of our house for a full contact basketball game. Can they make room?
Do our daughters have room in their lives? They're six and seven, and was this too weird or too uncomfortable for them? Some of our people thought so.
Would he approve of our lifestyle?
We have a dog and a cat. Would he approve of those?
Would he approve of our family roles when they looked so culturally different to what he was used to? Why would he want to enter into a house as crazy as ours? Why would anyone?
We held our questions close and responded to Danielle's email less than an hour later: “We're in.”
And I'll never forget what it felt like to answer the door that day. We tidied up our house. We read our kids the riot act about misbehaving when we have guests over.
And there stood Danielle at our door with a young man slightly shorter than me, coming with not much more than a backpack. A man who didn't seem to be old enough to leave everything familiar to him and end up in a country so full of unknowns. How on earth did he get himself here? A man who we later found out had never been away from his family and had not eaten a meal at a table with a woman or even used a fork.
Did we have room for this?
Over the next few weeks, all our questions slowly got answered.
We did have room. Not a lot, but enough. We opt for our kids to share a room instead of everyone having their own. So we had a spare room that we used on and off for an office. It was easily converted to a bedroom on short notice.
Moussa made such an effort to be helpful in our house. A Muslim man could be comfortable in a Christian home with a Christian family. We made the decision when Moussa was with us to only buy halal meat so we didn't have to cook twice. As we chatted, we learned more about how Moussa came to be in Canada.
Our kids had room. They quickly got used to another person thoughtfully asking how their day was, just in order to practice English. They shared all their kids' books, which were easier for Moussa to read while learning. Our youngest daughter Zoe had one more person at the table to draw unicorns with. (Once we explained the difference between a unicorn and a rhinoceros to somebody who had never even heard of a unicorn.) Our Julia had an expert teacher to help her learn her French numbers which were practiced for hours and hours over multiple board games.
Nick and I adjusted to having another adult in the house. Our friends, family and church community showed up almost every day to welcome our friend and help us to feel like we weren't carrying the weight of hosting on our own. It was all wonderful and glorious and nothing ever felt uncomfortable or wrong. Just kidding.
There were moments.
There are many moments, moments where we had to reset our expectations.
Moments, like when our oldest son trying to be polite, introduced his friends and their parents at the door by saying, "This is Moussa my refugee." They just know how to make it awkward.
We knew our kids were so proud of what we were doing and as a family we found so many ways to teach along the way. There were moments when I wondered how to explain our cultural norms without sounding rude myself. Situations like having friends over, or trying to politely indicate that we were trying to have a more private conversation.
There was one moment where I tried to be open-minded and make this African dish called Fufu, which Moussa talked about frequently. I searched for recipes, went out and bought cassava and went back to the kitchen having no idea really what I was doing and boy did I get that one wrong! We sat at the table that night looking at the bowl of oddly textured tasteless green goo. And despite my sheer embarrassment in my failure, we all had a wild laugh.
About seven weeks into Moussa's stay with us, I was half-unexpectedly scheduled for surgery. It would require three months of recovery. No stairs, walking, doing anything, no cooking, cleaning, working, entertaining, and no doing what we had been trying to do to make Moussa feel comfortable for the last two months. We wondered if we still had room. What would this mean for us and for Moussa and for our kids? For our own sanity.
And that's when the tables turned on us.
I remember coming home from my surgery that day, unable to even put a sentence together.
Moussa came out with my husband and had to carry me inside. This Muslim stranger turned family member who had very little physical interaction with women, other than his own family, was helping to carry me inside my own house. Between Moussa and my husband and also our family and friends, I had around the clock care, enough adult supervision for our kids, enough help with housework. And enough of everything we needed in that season.
I was no longer making room.
I was no longer hosting.
I was being hosted.
I was being hosted in my own home by this person who accepted a less than perfect situation devoid of any of his cultural norms, who had to set aside his own comforts to care for me.
And boy was I humbled by that.
Almost seven weeks after that Moussa announced that it was time to go. I could not believe that four months had come and gone. We had just gotten so comfortable with having Moussa around that we didn't feel ready. We didn't feel ready!
We needed to remind ourselves that we had committed to just a short-term home-stay. We forgot about the long-term implications of having someone stay with us. We never could have imagined saying, "Sure, we have room!" and allowing a stranger turned family member to have such a profound impact on our life and our family.
We questioned and worried as Moussa looked for housing, approaching the conversations as any overbearing mother would. We sat around the dinner table that night listening to him read us a heartfelt letter that he wrote, thanking us and letting us know he would visit lots. I felt in those moments that we should have been the ones saying thank you. And he does visit lots. Our kids said you're welcome and Nick and I both cried that night.
Nick returned the next day from moving his things into his apartment, and we sat in the quietness of our house that felt a little empty despite still being so full of children. Over the following days and weeks our kids reminded us that they missed their friend, too. We got to talk about what it meant to Host. What it meant to welcome people who are from different circumstances.
We got to reflect on the questions we had in the beginning.
What did it mean to have room?
Did we have room?
Did a busy, loud, sometimes messy, English-speaking Christian family of 6 plus a dog and a cat have room in our lives to welcome a 24 year old Arabic French speaking Muslim man into our home? Our lives and our chaos.
As we learned through four wild months, that went way too fast, our answer was a resounding yes.
Our vision is to help people survive and recover from forced displacement. We do this together with the church, both globally, and locally in Canada.