BY JENNIFER SVETLIK | November 1, 2017
Exiting the 115-degree Iraqi heat, my toddler Ezra and I enter a local indoor pool crowded with splashing women and children. Some children sit calmly at small tables around the pool eating crackers and cookies. They stare at us, particularly at Ez.
At nearly every table we pass, a child, often not more than five years old, hands Ez a cookie. One boy, seeing his sister give a cookie and not wanting to be outdone, takes a break from swimming to climb out of the pool and give Ezra a cookie from his package.
Our first days in the Middle East beginning our assignment with Mennonite Central Committee in June were spent in a family-owned hotel in Amman, Jordan. Here, too, the family’s children were eager to play with Ezra and relished in offering their toys to him. Even after refusing several times, they insisted he take a couple with him when we left.
Each day we go into the park we find that children are eager to initiate play by sharing their snacks, or sometimes even by bringing a stick or a handful of leaves to Ezra to play with. I believe it’s also impacting Ezra–an assertive kid right in the midst of his two-year-old “mine stage”.
I’m still not sure why this type of sharing seems to be a cultural norm, but I suspect it’s connected to the broader culture of generosity and hospitality that is so prevalent here. We’ve been told that the unsurpassable hospitality of this region was borne out of the days when Arab Bedouins depended on each other’s generosity during travels through the harsh desert. Even today extending hospitality is understood to bring honor to one’s family and it is considered a privilege to host others.
We are only beginning to have opportunities to host others in our own home, but so far, Ezra loves serving tea to guests and has taken to the idea of offering food to everyone around him. He has even picked up on the cultural tendency to insist someone takes it even if they refuse!
Our first months here have not been without challenge, as we are certainly being stretched in ways we’ve never experienced before. Yet we are grounded in a call to come and see; to get to know Iraqi people and disrupt the biases we’ve subconsciously created and the narratives we’ve formed about this region due to what we’ve heard in the media; and to meet people where they are, which is more easily facilitated because the people we meet are so interested in our toddler.
Though we often feel like “strangers” here in Iraq, many of the people with whom we interact here in our neighborhood have been internally displaced by ISIS or by other wars and violent conflicts from the 1980s until now. Some of them, too, are strangers in their own land, and yet they (adults and children alike) are eager to share what they have and provide hospitality at any given opportunity. We are humbled and privileged to have these encounters – opportunities for learning about sharing, opportunities for transformation.
I find myself wondering: What’s keeping more of us as parents from practicing this type of hospitality culture with our children, our loved ones, our neighbors, the strangers among us? What habits and assumptions do we need to unlearn?
Our Jesuit Pope offers us encouragement in these questions. In his apostolic exhortation on love in the family, Pope Francis suggests that being open to life can look like “going forth and spreading life by caring for others and seeking their happiness. This openness finds particular expression in hospitality” (AL 324). Whether I’m in the U.S. or abroad, Pope Francis’ words help to nudge me out of my unconscious biases and my mindset of scarcity – not enough time, enough energy, enough language ability – to one of mission and encounter.
Jennifer Svetlik currently serves as the Education and Peacebuilding Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee in Iraq. Jenn, her husband Sheldon, and son Ezra (age 2) moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in June 2017. Previously, Jenn worked as a Program Coordinator with Jesuit Volunteer Corps. She is a graduate of Washington Theological Union and the University of Texas at Austin.