Sheikh Ghassan Manasra and Rev. Cherag Anna Less Phd travel to London and the UK for a late-autumn speaking tour which also includes National Interfaith Week in the UK. They are joined by Sheikh Ghassan’s daughter and AR young adult leader Zeynab Manasra, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (trustee to AR UK and Rabbi in residence at Cambridge University), and Michael & Amanda Kenton, co-founders of AR UK.
Dinner with Syrian Refugees in London
A number of you may have read my blogs from May about our visit with Alaa and his family, who are refugees from Syria living in London. I have recopied those blogs from May here to provide you with a back ground for today’s story (Click here to read those accounts).
Ghassan and I have stayed in touch with Alaa since May and we have learned that his brother Bahaa finally gained permission in June to move to England and join them. After two years separation, he has been reunited with his wife and children and has been living here and adapting to life in England. We are anxious to meet him and also to learn how Alaa is doing.
Of the many people we met on our last journey Alaa was perhaps the most enthusiastic person we had encountered. He expressed a great desire to learn to become an Abrahamic Reunion facilitator for interfaith text study groups. He saw it as a great method for helping the mostly Muslim Syrian Refugee community in which he is clearly a leader, to practice their English, and learn about the culture and beliefs of the English community they had now become members of.
A few months ago these dreams crumbled when we were heartbroken to learn that in August, just as Alaa had finally gained permission to work in England, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and since then he has had his entire colon removed, and is currently in his third round of chemotherapy. It seemed that things had suddenly taken such a dire and unexpected turn for this young family, who a few months ago seemed on the verge of beginning a hopeful new life.
We have invited Alaa and his wife Taghrid and their daughter Yara as well as Alaa’s brother Bahaa and his wife and their two children to a nearby Syrian restaurant for dinner. They have told us that since leaving Syria over three years ago they have not been able to afford to go out to eat in a restaurant so we hoped this will be a special occasion for them.
The neighborhood where we stay in London is mostly inhabited by people from the Middle East. The grocery stores and restaurants advertise halal meat and feature foods common to that region of the world. The signs and menus are written in Arabic, and the staff is able to communicate with shoppers and diners in their native language. Women are typically dressed in full niqabs or hijabs. At times it is hard to remember we are in England, because it feels more like we are in a Middle Eastern country. We hope they will feel at home.
We are surprised when Alaa walks into the restaurant. He has a long beard and a full head of hair. He looks well, except for a sadness in his eyes. He explains that due to his low immune system doctors do not allow him to shave. We sit down to eat and they seem delighted to discuss the menu with the wait-staff in Arabic. The staff, who know us, and why we are here, are anxious to serve this family with love and kindness and treat them with special care.
It feels like a holiday and Alaa shyly shares, that tomorrow it is their one-year anniversary since arriving in England. As the evening continues he again expresses his desire to begin text study group for his community, but it is evident that his health is fragile and soon he appears very tired.
We take a short walk and they all express that they look forward to revisiting this neighborhood again soon as it is so comforting to be in a place that feels like home.
We stop on the sidewalk, to call an Uber and look up and see a big sign that says: “No one ever really dies.” Alaa walks over and takes a picture. It is a poignant moment as this young family considers their uncertain future.