Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me about Loving My Neighbor, by Shawn Smucker (Revell, 2018)
Do I have it in me? Not only to be a good friend, but to allow Mohammed to be a friend to me? What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority? [page 54]
This is a daunting question for a man with a wife and six kids, a writer who also drives long hours for a couple of rideshare companies.
When American writer Shawn Smucker decides to interview a Syrian refugee for a book, he doesn’t expect to make a friend—or to challenge the way he looks at life. What emerges, instead of an account of Mohammed’s family’s harrowing journey to the US, is the story of two different men and their families—and the similarities they discover between them.
We do learn the basics of the escape from Syria and the difficult years in Jordan. The story’s focus, though, is on their experiences as newcomers trying to build a life in a new culture with minimal resources—as relayed through Shawn’s reactions. As he learns, we can learn too: maybe North American independence and self-reliance have robbed us of the benefits of interdependence and interconnectedness.
Mohammed’s backstory is told in past tense, while Shawn’s is present-tense. I’m not sure why, unless it’s to give a sense of immediacy so we readers will share his reactions. There are some very pleasing word choices.
They are small offices, like closets that somehow managed to swallow a desk and a filing cabinet and maybe a folding chair or two. [page 32]
I would have appreciated a bit more orientation early-on in the book. I think the idea to write about a Syrian Muslim’s immigration experience came to Shawn, an American Christian, as a way to help raise awareness. That wasn’t clear to me in the beginning, and I spent time wondering if it was an assignment from the organization that connected him with Mohammed. That group is Church World Service, which I spent part of the book trying to figure out when I should have just looked it up online. They’re a faith-based as the name suggests, not simply named after someone called Church.
Even with being a little confused in the beginning, I found this heartwarming and thought provoking book an easy and engaging read. Highly recommended in these times when fear and hostility are raising barriers.
As the author concludes,
Not long ago, Mohammed and I were strangers. Now we are friends. This, it seems to me, is no small deal in a world and a system that would prefer we fear one another. This, it seems to me, is the first step in bringing a lasting peace. [page 187]
Shawn Smucker is an author, co-writer, and award-winning novelist based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once We Were Strangers is nonfiction. For more about the author and his work, visit shawnsmucker.com.