By 1944, Stalin’s fear of a Soviet Union divided into different nationalities led to a policy of deportations of entire peoples he considered to be even potentially disloyal. … Between November 15 and 17, 1944, Soviet troops forcibly removed approximately 100,000 Muslims from the Meskhetian region, confiscating their belongings and placing them in cattle cars destined for the Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Locked inside freight cars for one month, many did not survive the journey….
“At 4 a.m., four soldiers came into our house and said we had one hour to pack. We were not told where we would be sent. About 120 families were loaded into one freight car…. At each stop they would unload the dead.” — The Meskhetian Turks: An Introduction to their History, Culture and Resettlement Experiences, Center for Applied Linguistics
Since 2004, the American government has engaged in a compassionate resettlement of about 12,000 Meskhetian Turks to selected parts of the US, including about 500 who have made their home in Tucson. On Sunday afternoon, with the help of a local aid group, our church put on a carnival for some of these refugees. We gave out popcorn, cotton candy, sandwiches, pizza, and gifts: disposable diapers, framed family photographs and children’s toys. There were games of skill for the kids and backgammon tables for the adults.
As families cautiously explored the festivities, I noticed a group of men huddled together near the apartment’s swimming pool. Moving closer I saw that they were playing chess, so I found a chair, moved in among them and watched. I think the carnival hoopla might have been a bit too much for them. They seemed happy to let the women and children sample the cotton candy.
After a few minutes I started introducing myself one by one, asking their names and gently testing their English. Over the next three hours I got to know Raman, Ahmad, Muhammed, Ismael, Gregori, and others whose names I had trouble pronouncing. Most claimed their “English no very good,” but with the help of hand signs and coaching from the rest of the group, I discovered that we could communicate pretty well.
Their chess play was far better than mine, so I was content to watch and chat. Most of them had come from Krasnodar on the Black Sea. Others had been scattered farther west, doing their best to fit in as strangers in strange places. They spoke Russian and Turkish and tried to teach me a few Russian words in exchange for some English lessons. They had been engineers and truck drivers, farmers and pharmacists. Now, they were starting all over, once again.
They chain-smoked Russian cigarettes and laughed easily, as good friends will, sometimes making jokes about me in Russian, sometimes about each other. One of them asked if I knew the famous American chess champion Bobby Fischer. I deadpanned that I had taught him everything he knows about chess. That got them laughing. Then I informed them that Bobby Fischer had fled to Iceland to escape US tax evasion charges. As good, future Americans, they all agreed that US taxes were too high, especially on cigarettes!
Our sermon that morning came from Matthew 2:13. Mary and Joseph are warned of Herod’s plot to murder Jesus. They flee to Egypt, where they lived as refugees until Herod’s death.
Like the Meskhetian Turks, Jesus’ parents had to learn the strange Egyptian language and customs, all while finding work, housing and preserving their Jewish faith and traditions. From the stories he learned as a child, Jesus became acquainted with the grief of being unwelcome and the uncertainties of being a refugee.
We weren’t there to preach or to convert these Muslims to Christianity. We were there as friends, trying in our own way to show them the love of Christ through kindness and a warm welcome.
When it was clear the men were not going to budge from their game, I brought one of the pizzas to them — a cheese pizza, I assured them, out of respect for their religion. They had claimed they weren’t hungry, but once I opened the pizza box and offered them hot slices no one refused, and several went back for seconds. Ahmad was eating with one hand while playing his ninth or tenth game, only shifting his concentration long enough to tell me something else about his former home on the Black Sea.
As we broke up, several of the men asked if I would come back for a meal. They all told me they were happy to be in America, that Turks love America, and I told them we were happy they had come to my city.
You could brush this experiment off as feel-goodism, more to soothe our evangelical guilt than make any difference in the lives of these refugees. If we never make contact with them again, that might be a fair judgment.
We need to follow up. We need to see if it’s possible to build strong friendships cross-culturally, in spite of the vast differences in our religious beliefs and cultural history.
I have some hope that as these refugees look back on Sunday and remember us descending like locusts on their safe little enclave, as they see their smiling faces in the framed photographs we gave them, they might begin to imagine themselves welcome here in this strange land with its expensive cigarettes and cheese pizzas.
In every city in America there are a thousand ways for churches to step out of their comfort zones and be the incarnated Christ to the prisoners, the poor, the disposed and the strangers who live among us.
Whosoever gives a slice of pizza to the least of these, gives it to Him.
Photo credit: The Joshua Project