I came to the neighborhood in Nazareth with barely enough Arabic to form a sentence. The children were my constant teachers as they filled my head with useful Arabic phrases and helped me understand my two year old daughter who was becoming more fluent in the language than I was.
Community—do we know what that means anymore? You know--a place where neighbors know one another and look out for one another; a place where you can always find an open door, listening ear, and shoulder to cry on.
That was my life as an American in Nazareth. Yes, the city where Jesus grew up--the least endearing thing to me about the city to be honest--because when you say Nazareth—I think “home”. It was the place I knew as home for twelve years. It was the only home my kids had known till we moved back to the States. It was the place where neighbors shared everything from a cup of sugar to life’s tragedies. And though I was a foreigner, they made a place for me at their tables and in their hearts.
It was the first night in our house if I recall correctly. I didn’t yet really know the neighbors. The front door had two locks and two keys. I latched them both twice and went off to bed. In the morning, I heard a knock at the door. It was one of the neighborhood women coming to see if we had all that we needed. I unlatched the top lock twice and the bottom one twice as she stood at the door and waited for me to open it. When I finally did she said “Were you afraid from us?” From that day to my last in that house, I would go to bed locking one lock one time. There was nothing to fear. They would not let anything happen to us on their watch. We belonged to them and them to us.
In essence, they taught me how to be a good neighbor. They looked after me in times of war, during holidays, and each time I had a new baby. They were my mother, my sisters, and my aunties. I was far from home and they were my family.
As the years passed, and my Arabic became more fluent, my coffee complimented and my house full of neighbors, I knew there would always be a place for me there. No matter how many years passed, I could always go home. And they have welcomed me back as I have been blessed and filled by their hospitality.
“Ask about the neighbor, before you ask about the house”—so the Arabic saying goes. “Better is a close neighbor than a far away brother,” says the Proverb. “How will we ever find neighbors like you?” they asked as we prepared to leave. "How will we ever find neighbors like you," I ask back—you who loved me, looked after me, taught me how to live in your culture and speak your language?
For your kindness toward me and my family, for your attempt to understand my country and its government, for your endless cups of coffee and conversation—I will ever be grateful.
Because of you I returned to America a foreigner--no more acclimated to my own country than an immigrant. Crossing back over was harder than ever leaving in the first place. And all these years later, though it may be somewhat easier than when we first left, I am ruined for this country as I long for “my family back home” in Nazareth.
How grateful I am that I will always have a place at their tables and more importantly, in their hearts—they will surely always have a place in mine.