What Mohammad Told Me About Their Next Child

Now that my friend Mohammad has moved to Michigan, we don’t see each other very often, but we still chat on the phone from time to time, and every so often I’ll get a text message from him.



Hi, Shawn, how are you?


My friend Shawn I want to tell you that Moradi is pregnant with child.

I received that last one in October, so we’re closing in on the arrival of their fifth child, another boy! How I wish they still lived here in Lancaster, where we could take them food and hold the little one and watch the other boys dote on their new brother.

Sometimes, our friendship almost seems impossible, like a long-ago dream. Could it have been that Mohammad and his family lived her, that he and I would sit on the front porch and look out over James Street at night? Could it be that I sat in his living room after his father died, sharing a meal with all of his friends?

But friendships can survive even long distances. The other day I received this text from Mohammad, and after I read it, I held it up for Maile to read while tears gathered in my eyes.

Hello my friend, Mohammad wrote, when he is born we will call him Mahmoud in Arabic and in English the name Shawn.

There is a friend waiting for you in the most unlikely of places. Perhaps in a group of people you currently can’t understand, or people you disagree with, or even in a group you hate. There are human beings there, on the other side of your convictions, on the other side of your opinions. There are friends waiting to be found, meals to be shared, and perhaps even a new generation of children who might one day affectionately bear your name.

I know, now, that this is why Jesus emphasized enemy-love and loving your neighbor. Not so that we can feel religious and righteous, but so that we could experience life to its fullest.

Who is your neighbor?

* * * * *

Even more exciting news! Mohammad and I were asked to share our story of friendship at the upcoming CWS annual Community Appreciation Breakfast on May 9th at 7:30am at Westminster Presbyterian Church. Mohammad is coming into town just for this event! There is no cost to attend, but if you could sign up so they have an idea on how many are coming, that would be helpful. The Facebook link is here.

If you haven’t had a chance, please check out the book that Mohammad and I worked on together, called Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor.

When Mohammad Moved Away

Mohammad moved to Michigan last spring, soon after we finished writing the first draft of Once We Were Strangers. I drove him around Lancaster, trying to find a moving truck. I felt like I was helping one of my kids prepare to relocate to a faraway college–I was proud, anxious, and scared. I hoped he would find new friends. I hoped that Michigan would be kind to him and his family.

He wanted to negotiate with the man who rented the trucks. He always wants to negotiate. We finalized the arrangements, and I took him home. I remember waving to him through the open window of my car, the warmth of spring following me home. It is never easy to say good-bye.

* * * * *

We talk on the phone about once a week. He called me a few weeks before Christmas.

“When are you coming for Christmas?” he asked me, laughing. He is nothing if not persistent.

“I’m sorry, Mohammad,” I said. “We won’t be able to come out this year. It’s a ten-hour drive! Why did you have to move so far?”

“I know, I know,” he said, regret in his voice. “It is very far.”

When I first volunteered with Church World Service, I did it because I thought I might be able to help someone. Give someone some money, or a ride to a job interview, or find them some furniture. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would find a friend.

* * * * *

Our lives go on, though. When we talk, Mohammad tells me about his job, how school is going for his children, how Moradi is adjusting. I tell him I’m no longer driving for Uber, that we haven’t yet had snow, that the city of Lancaster misses him. He laughs and talks in a wistful voice.

“Yes, yes. I miss Lancaster. Very much.”

He texts me a picture of him and his brothers from 1986, before he was married, when he still lived in Syria. He looks very happy. On December 20th, he sends me a Happy Birthday text with kissy faces. I laugh out loud and show Maile.

I wonder what new friendships might be in store for me in 2019. I wonder what new friendships might be in store for you? Are we open to these things? Are we willing to embrace someone who we don’t understand, a friendship we cannot possibly expect?

Keep your eyes open.

* * * * *

I would love to come speak at your church this year about my book Once We Were Strangers, friendship, the Good Samaritan, or what Jesus meant when he said to love your neighbor. If that’s something you would be interested in, please use the contact button above to get in touch. And have a wonderful 2019!

On Being Invited to Mohammad’s House After the Passing of His Father

The book I wrote with my friend Mohammad, about his family’s journey to the US from Syria as refugees and then the journey of our friendship, has released! It’s called Once We Were Strangers. You can check it out HERE.

“Mohammad,” I said. “I’m sorry I missed your call.” It was Sunday afternoon, and we were driving home from church. The kids were chattering or arguing or quoting Jumanji 2 for the millionth time. The radio was too loud. I turned it off.

“Shawn!” he said, in that voice he always uses to answer his phone, that voice that makes it sound like he has been waiting a million years for me to call him. “I tried to call you. How are you?”

“We’re good,” I said. “We’re good. Is everything okay?” I had noticed he had tried to call me twice in a row, something he has not done before. He grew silent for a moment, and he didn’t seem to know how to proceed.

“My mother called from Syria. My father died.”

“Oh, Mohammad. I’m so sorry.” I knew his father had been ill for a long time, but when we last spoke of him, he had been doing better.

“Yes,” he said, his voice suddenly hoarse. “Yes. Can you come to my house today? I am having friends over, since my father died.”

“Of course. What time?”

“1:00. 1:30?”

“I’ll be there.”

* * * * *

I pulled onto his street where he lives in the southwest section of our city. Normally, the sidewalk in front of his house is not lined with cars, but on Sunday at 1:30 I had to drive further along to find a parking space. I got out, walked towards his house, and saw a group of seven or eight Middle Eastern men standing in his small front yard, smoking. I walked up, and they introduced themselves in broken English, then went on chatting to each other in Arabic. As more men arrived, they made their way around the circle, greeting each person. Some of the men kissed each other on each cheek.

“Where are these men from?” I asked Mohammad as they chatted.

“Dara’a, Dara’a, Damascus, Aleppo,” he said, pointing, making his way around the circle. They smiled kindly at me. They laughed to each other, joking quietly. Soon there were fifteen or twenty men there. Mohammad’s brother-in-law, a young man around 20 years old, came outside with a pot of coffee and a tiny cup, smaller than a shot glass. He moved around the circle, one man at a time, pouring a mouthful of strong, black coffee, and offering that tiny glass. Each man drank the scalding coffee like a shot. He came to me, smiling. We had met before. I took the tiny mug and drank it down.

* * * * *

Soon the men filed in, still chatting somberly in Arabic. We came to the doorway, and everyone took their shoes off on the stoop. Muslim men are particularly talented at this–it may not sound like much, but taking off your shoes so that they do not touch the inside of the house and so that your feet do not touch the outside sidewalk takes some forethought. You have to arrange your shoes so they will slip off, step inside with your stockinged foot, shake off the second shoe outside, and go in. I remembered doing this in Istanbul, when we went into a mosque.

There, we sat quietly on the sofas and chairs, waiting. Mohammad’s boys, who had been strangely absent, appeared with two purple plastic covers, spread one in the living room and one in the dining room, on the floor. These were the tables. They came in again making many trips, bringing all the food, the drinks, and the plates for everyone. When everything was ready, we moved cross-legged to the floor.

I waited, watched, tried to avoid making any foolish missteps. The man to my left gestured for me to fill my plate, so I took a scoop of rice and a few round things that looked like potatoes but were actually fried meal filled with meat. I didn’t want to take too much food. The man to my left smiled at me, abruptly took my plate and added two more huge scoops of rice, a few more of the potato thingies, and a massive piece of meat still on the bone. The plastic plate now bent to nearly breaking. He handed it back to me with an Arabic sentence that seemed to be something along the lines of, “There. That’s better.”

The men began eating, and I followed hesitantly behind, watching them. Someone said something in Arabic, and a few of the men chuckled. But an older man, sitting at the opposite side of our table, smiled kindly at me and said, “No, no, he’s just watching us. He doesn’t know how to eat like we do, so he is watching. This is good.”

* * * * *

After the meal, we washed our hands and got back up into our chairs. They spoke quietly in Arabic. I could not understand a single word, but it struck me that there is something of the lament in the sound of Arabic, the way it strikes the ear, the way it curls through the air. It is a language that sounds sad to me. Maybe it’s just because of that particular setting, but it seemed to serve them well, and I could have gone on listening to the sound of it for a long time.

I started talking to the man beside me. He has been in the US for 20 years. When he took his citizen’s test, it was just after 9/11.

“The woman asked me if I wanted to change my name,” he said with a smile. He shrugged. “I didn’t mind. I thought it might be a good idea. There was so much anti-Muslim sentiment in those days. My given name is Abdul-Haran. I went by Haran. She asked me what I wanted my name to be. I didn’t know. She asked me if I liked Bob, or Johnny, or Jim. I said, ‘How about John?’ So, that’s my name.”

I marveled at the easy way he talked about exchanging his name for a new one. I looked around the circle at these men, all of them refugees. None of them grew up wanting to leave their homes. Most of them left friends and family behind. Yet there they were in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, working hard, making a living, raising families.

“I think I’ll call you Haran,” I said, smiling. He laughed.

* * * * *

We sat for an hour after the meal, and besides my conversation with Haran and a few tidbits from Mohammad, not an English word was spoken. It was one of the most poignant cultural experiences of my life. I looked over at Mohammad’s boys–they can speak Arabic, but they cannot write it. They never learned it. I imagine that their own children, one more generation removed, might not see the value in learning Arabic.

* * * * *

One of the men got up to leave. He stood at the door and held out his hands, palms up, and chanted out a prayer in Arabic. The men stopped in the middle of their conversations, some closing their eyes, some also holding out their hands. Then he smiled and walked out. This happened a few more times. I asked Mohammad what the men said.

“They are saying prayers for my father,” he said, staring at the carpet in front of him, his dark eyes seeing things from long ago, far away.

In the corner, two of the men work prayer beads through their fingers, one bead after the other, one after the other, for the entire hour.

* * * * *

Finally, it was time to leave. Everyone decided to do this at once, without discussing it. I stood and put on my coat. One of the men came over to where Mohammad and I stood. He said a long prayer with Mohammad, and Mohammad seemed close to tears. The man had a very kind voice, deep brown eyes, and was the only man there with a beard. Then, the man turned to me. Mohammad introduced us.

“This is our imam from the local Islamic center,” he said. The man looked at me and shook my hand with both of his. He had a gentleness about him that was disarming.

“I’m Shawn,” I said.

“Thank you very much for being here,” he said, and there was such a depth to his thanks. “Thank you very much for coming.”

He turned and walked out. I followed the men into the cool day. The sun was shining.

The book I wrote about my friendship with Mohammad is now available, Once We Were Strangers. You can check it out HERE.

Finding Mohammad

Three or four months ago, I drove around with my friend Mohammad again. But this time we weren’t going to Philadelphia for one of his dentist appointments or dropping off a job application or going to a coffee shop to hang out or looking for a house out in the country. We were looking for a place where he could rent a moving truck. He was moving to Dearborn, Michigan.

He moved to the Detroit area, and seeing him off felt, I imagine, much like it will feel when I send one of my own children off to college or a new life on their own. Hope and excitement for him was all tangled up with sadness. I didn’t want him to go. I wanted him to be happy.

We talk on the phone once or sometimes twice a week now, and I get the update on how the kids are doing, how Maradi’s adjusting to her new job, how Mohammad is finding his way.

“How are you, my friend?” I ask him.

“Good, good,” he always says, and I think about the fighting in Syria that has moved south. I read the news differently now, always looking for mentions of his hometown.

“How are things in Dearborn?”

“Oh, things are okay,” he says, and I can tell things are not going as well as he had hoped. “We miss Lancaster!” he says, and he laughs, clearly surprised.

“Lancaster misses you,” I say, smiling.

I think of my friend Mohammad, a kind middle-aged man with four boys and a gentle wife. I wish I could introduce him to all of my friends who are afraid of Muslims, afraid of Middle Eastern people, afraid of the Koran, afraid of the call to prayer. This is your Muslim extremist, I would tell them. See? This is your terrorist.

He is, of course, anything but. He loves his family, enough to have made a harrowing journey with them when he could have tried to wait out the war. He wants a good job, something where he can make a living. He wants a good education for his children, hope for his boys.

In other words, he is us, the great history of us. He is American.

“Will you move back?” I ask him, trying to calculate how much that would cost him in rental truck fees and another security deposit on a home and all of the things that keep people in one place.

“We will see,” he says. “We will see.”

Mohammad and I have written a book together about his journey here and the growth of our friendship, and it releases on October 16th. Find out more about the book HERE. If you would like to be part of the book launch team, including involvement in a Facebook group, please let me know. All members will receive an advanced copy of the book in exchange for supporting the launch and reviewing the book online.