Comfortable in his Silver Spring home, the Rev. Eric So could not stop thinking about the plight of refugees — people forced to uproot their families, to leave their homes, to start anew in a strange and perhaps hostile place.
The pastor felt so moved that he made an unusual decision: He would uproot his own family. He would leave his own home. And he would start anew, right alongside the refugees moving into their first apartments in the United States.
So would not just be a pastor to these refugee families. He would be a neighbor.
Families from Syria live in the Parkview Gardens Apartments in Prince George’s County. As do families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, Burma and Congo. And for the past two years, so do Eric So, Lisa So, 2-year-old Xavier and 10-month-old Felix.
“I think probably the most compelling reason we chose to move into the neighborhood was really the story of Jesus,” Eric So said. “From the Scriptures, I see God sending his son, Jesus, into the world, so that he would dwell among the people.”
Dwelling among the people, for the Sos, has meant bedbugs and roach scares, concerns about leaking pipes and higher crime rates and about whether they are doing the right thing in putting their children in an inferior school district. As the country has turned away from refugees — electing a president who talked about stopping accepting any refugees from Syria — the Sos have turned toward them with a radical act of self-sacrifice.
At home in a new land
When his two rambunctious toddlers finally settle down for their naps, So, 32, slips outside his family’s two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of one of the farthest buildings in the massive Riverdale, Md., apartment complex.
In the parking lots between the green-accented apartment buildings, children zoom in every direction on all sorts of wheeled toys — scooters, strollers, tricycles. A little girl with training wheels on her bike zips toward one ground-floor apartment, and So follows on foot.
Inside, Najah Ahmer can’t speak English, but she has just baked a heap of flat Syrian bread, and her gestures are enough to lead So to the couch, where he is soon drinking sweet tea from a clear glass cup and nibbling the still-warm bread.
“Made in home,” Ahmer’s son Haetham, 20, says about the bread.
“Homemade,” So teaches. “Homemade,” Haetham mimics. They repeat the word a few times each, Haetham testing the unfamiliar sound on his tongue.
So asks Haetham about his upcoming job interview, and his 17-year-old brother Adham about his first weeks of school. The Syrian family has been in the United States for three months.
Repeating each question as many times as necessary, So turns to Google Translate on his cellphone when English fails. He jokes around with Ahmer and her husband, Salah Alobeid, about how Syrian weddings compare with American ones. When Alobeid mentions how healthy he is despite his smoking habit, So listens appreciatively for the punchline of his story before chiming in: “Still, try to smoke less, Salah. I told you, try to save money and your health.”
His tone is gentle and laid-back. Less of a schoolmaster, more of a neighbor. A neighbor who also happens to be a tutor, a social worker, a résumé coach, an event planner, a therapist and any number of other roles that might be called for on any given day at Parkview Gardens.
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