The chance of a lifetime

What began as an invitation to play football (as in, soccer) after our scheduled rehearsal at the Syrian refugee camp on Friday became so much more for Howard Lee and Evan Shaw.

The kids who invited them to play (and who matched Evan’s Messi jersey) brought them some pita and juice for lunch, which they sat aside while playing. After scrambling after surprisingly skilled 8-year-old footballers, Howard noticed the food was gone: “Evan—the food!”

Instead of going hungry until our concert that night, Mohammed, Mahmoud, and their mother saved the day by offering to share their lunch with the two strangers. The spread this invitation referred to included tabouli, pita, fried chicken, and french fries. Howard and Evan learned to pinch tabouli into torn pieces of pita to avoid using utensils.

The two boys, Mahmoud Sawan, 16, and Mohammed Sawan, 15, told Howard and Evan about their family. Their two sisters and father are in Germany; their younger sister is studying chemistry and the older works as a teacher there. They have been separated for over a year.

After lunch and post-lunch tea (Mahmoud took his with five scoops of sugar), the Sawans invited Howard and Evan on a walk. Instead of just roaming the campground, however, the company found themselves at the beach. This is a common camp outing: they saw several other families there because anyone under 18 is allowed to leave the camp with his or her parent.

The beach helps remind these families of their home. The Sawans went swimming almost every day, according to Mahmoud.

“We love to swim, and we’re glad the water is accessible again,” he said.

While skipping rocks on the cool, calm Aegean, one of Mahmoud’s friends came by with a Greek-Arabic dictionary. Howard asked which language Mahmoud was going to learn next.

“I want to learn all of them!” he said. “I just want to be able to talk to everyone.”

On the way back from the beach, the Sawans insisted on stopping to see one of their friends from another camp across the street. Camp Bacchus is home to a thin, middle-aged Frenchman who did not appear to have a name nor did it seem to be important. What mattered is that he was the Sawan’s friend. Though they could hardly speak to one another, their affection for one another endured. Howard and Evan left Camp Bacchus with an invitation to lunch the next day: an invitation they could hardly refuse.

As performance time drew near, Mrs. Sawan invited the two Taylor boys into her home for Arabic coffee. The three-bedroom house was scarcely longer than a dorm room and no wider. Sitting proud and vibrant in a room cluttered with piled clothing, mattresses, and the bare minimum cooking tools was a gleaming bowl of strawberries.

“We could see what they had, and we could see that they had these strawberries and a small fridge,” Howard said.

Yet the mother would not allow the guests to refuse. They drank coffee and ate her precious strawberries while her sons dressed up for the concert. Each strapped on the biggest, flashiest watch they owned in preparation. They pulled their sleeves up to show the palm-sized faces off: Mohammed’s was blue with gold trim, Mahmoud’s was black and white.

At dinner that night, Mohammed gave his watch to Dr. Rediger as a token of how much he appreciated her hard work. It turns out blue and gold goes great with concert black.

Howard and Evan want people to know how few opportunities God provides without risk. They took the risk of feeling exhausted and unfed by staying in the camp until performance time, but they said they would do it again if they had the chance.

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