“Without you all, we wouldn’t feel the true feeling of home that we were wishing for.”
~Some new friends
I absolutely love Bosnia, as I love Rwanda, as I love England, and as I expect I would love Afghanistan if given the opportunity, and yet being back in Omaha, Nebraska, with my wife and children after three weeks away was something truly special. A lesser-known track on Billy Joel’s Piano Man album—the cassette for which I wore out thrice in my Sony Walkman before reaching junior high school at which point I got a Discman and, of course, the CD version—articulates this point pretty well in the simple phrase “You’re my home.” My family is my home, and however rooted I may be in the great state of Nebraska, the geographical location of my home is more or less inconsequential. The people are all that matters.
Sonja, Titus, and Zooey picked me up at the airport Monday evening. I’d woken up in Sarajevo twenty-some hours before to hop the short flight to Vienna (a city Billy Joel also wrote a song about), then the long one from Austria to O’Hare before being delayed, predictably, in Chicago. By the time I arrived in Omaha, I was exhausted and sleepy, but the enthusiasm of my children for my presence was enough to inspire me to stay awake. We got home and I doled out the presents I’d picked up for them along the way. Pieces of tin beautifully smithed in Sarajevo, stuffed animals made by local artisans, books, polished crystals, and more. Monday was the first day in the month of July in which I did not get a run in, opting instead to get some much-needed shuteye soon after the children went to bed.
As running goes, it was a productive week, just as it was a productive month, and while that’s not to be the focus of this post I’ll mention briefly that with the forty-four miles I got in this past week, culminating with fifteen on Saturday morning, my total for July comes to 231.4, my second highest mileage tally of the year to date, and another $351.73 to help Afghan refugees resettle in Omaha thanks to the generous support of many.
The most remarkable thing to occur this week, however, had nothing at all to do with running. On Wednesday night, the family for whom my students, their families, my new friend Cindy, and I had helped set up a home invited us over for dinner. I was honored, and took Sonja and my children, of course. While I am intentionally ambiguous in referring to the family—it is not my place to identify refugees in any setting, as by definition a refugee has fled from violence—I will say that the family is as large as it is beautiful, and as beautiful as it is large. They were incredibly warm and welcoming, and explained casually that the Afghan tradition involves feeding people into a near-comatose state. I had three or four helpings of the best Kabuli Pulao I’ve ever had, while my five and nearly-seven-year-olds found themselves presented with so much cake and ice cream that the next day Zooey informed me she would not be needing any dessert for a while. Several of my students and their families who had helped so much with the set up also arrived, and it was fantastic to share this sacred time with them.
Our hosts were gracious, the conversations were warm, the food rich and delicious, and I couldn’t help but notice that they truly had turned the house into a home. I know they’d give us all credit for that simply because we provided some furniture and household items, but for me it was the smell of Afghan cooking, the personal trinkets, and the children underfoot that had turned the house into a home. It was, as I had observed upon my return to my own family, a matter of people more so than place, and the fact that so many months later the “Welcome Home” banner that we had made for their arrival still hung in the dining room caused my eyes to water—or perhaps it was just a bit of spicy food. I was proud of my students, their families, my friends, and yes, even of myself. We had done something good, and I was reminded yet again that it is strikingly easy to do something good, provided that is what you are seeking to do.
After a while we had to leave; I had a meet-and-greet of sorts with my doctoral students scheduled for later in the evening, though as excited as I was to meet them it was difficult for me to bring myself to leave the home of this wonderful family. As we walked out, one of the men, a doctor from Afghanistan who we are hoping can somehow find a way to get his medical credentials honored here in America, handed me a card. I thanked him, shook his hand again, and looked down at his beautiful little girl who was the same age as my daughter. Today, America thrives while Afghanistan writhes in pain, though anyone who has bothered much with history knows that it is only a matter of time before those tables will be turned. For now, however, America is a safe place, safer than Afghanistan at least, and I am so pleased to be able to play a small part in helping wonderful people like this family and so many more make their home here in the same place that I make mine. If you are one of those supporting my efforts in the Kandahar Marathon, you are doing this as well, and I thank you.
The card the family gave me was personal, rather lengthy, and I would never share it in its entirety as it would feel like betraying a trust, though I will say that it contained the quote with which this post began and ended with what I have thought to be one of the most beautiful words I know in any language: Tashakur. I first encountered this word in the novels of Khaled Hosseini, and I enjoy the sound of it so much that sometimes I use it myself, inserting it into my own sentences as if doing so might somehow, someday, transform this word into a cognate. It means simply “Thanks” and yet, in every setting in which I have seen it used, it carries a sort of inherent sincerity that the English version does not. Tashakur, wrote the families. Tashakur, they said as we departed. Welcome home, I replied.