Widening our family circle

I was raised with a very expansive sense of what family means. No matter where my family was living, our door was always open to guests, and often when the time came for these guests to leave, they had become a part of our family. There was the young professional from Canada, the woman from Nigeria, the father from Trinidad and Tobago, just to name a few. Over the years my family has grown from just being four, to including so many people from around the world. As I have stepped out beyond the four walls of my own house, I continue to build this family and to witness what it means to belong to a “universal family.”

Since moving to Stuttgart, Germany in August 2016, I have experienced this more clearly and deeply than ever before. Although Germany as a whole was already a familiar place – I had lived and studied abroad in Munich, traveled a lot around the country, and established a network of very close friends – the city of Stuttgart was completely new.However, I have not lacked family. Instead the circle of my family has continued to expand and widen. Not only have I tried to embrace those around me, but people have embraced me as well, our family circles overlapping and growing wider together.I have seen this most clearly in my work with refugees living in Stuttgart. Since January I have begun to teach German to two groups of refugees – one class includes six young men from Eritrea, and the other is a husband and wife from Afghanistan. Each of them has a special place in my heart.However, the woman from Afghanistan, Fatimeh, stands out to me as an example of this expansive sense of family. After meeting with her for the first time and discussing the possibility of me becoming their language teacher, she invited me to come to her apartment for tea. I gladly accepted the offer.She and her family, which includes five children, ranging from a year and a half old to a daughter in her mid-teens, live in two rooms in the refugee home. Graciously welcoming me in, I immediately take in my surroundings. Carpets cover the floors. A dining table sits close to the window, with a small TV sitting on a side table right next to it. Through a door is another room with a bunk bed, and to the side, pushed against the wall are several mattresses, waiting to be taken down for the night. In two rooms, not much larger than my own personal room in my four bedroom apartment shared with three others, live seven people. Down the hallway is a bathroom and a kitchen, split in half to be shared between numerous families. The side of the kitchen that my new friends use is shared with fourteen other people.Back in the apartment, the mother motions for me to sit down, and she begins to pull out snacks – a plate of homemade cookies, walnuts, cashews, and pine nuts, which I learn are a popular nut in Afghanistan. Once the tea is ready, she pours me a cup and continues to offer more each time she sees my cup is empty. The father sits across the table from me. One can instantly see he is a gentle soul, patient, humble.The conversation flows naturally, albeit in imperfect German, as we are all still learning the language. Soon the oldest daughter comes in, overflowing with such light, love and grace. One more addition to the table. I don’t remember all the specifics of the conversation, but what stood out to me the most was the ease with which we talked. Coming from different cultures, different experiences and different beliefs didn’t hinder us, but instead it enriched our time together.As I sat around the table and shared a meal with them I felt as if I could’ve been with my own family. When I left their home five hours later, Fatimeh told me that her home is my home. Since then they have continued to wrap their arms around me. This is as simple as Fatimeh bringing tea and snacks to share with me each time she comes to our German lesson. A couple weeks ago they invited me to join them for a picnic at a park in Stuttgart. We played games, went rollerskating and ate kebab.

At the core of a family is love. There is a sense of belonging, of being welcomed in and embraced no matter what. Family uplifts us. Family is the gentleness, grace and quiet strength of motherhood. It is the courage and protection of fatherhood. It is brotherhood and sisterhood. I have been learning more deeply that these qualities are not limited to those we share blood with. They can in fact be felt with anyone and in any place – in school, at the workplace, in our neighborhood, etc.

I am reminded of Edwin Markham's poem, “Outwitted.” It reads:

“He drew a circle that shut me out —Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.But Love and I had the wit to win:We drew a circle that took him in!”

We have a choice – we can either draw a very small, narrow circle, or we can choose to draw a circle that is wide and embracing. We can limit our family only to those blood-related, or we can find our place in the “universal family.” What do you choose today?