I pressed my forehead against the door of my apartment. After emptying my purse twice in fifteen minutes, it was time to admit that my keys were inside and I was locked out. This happened in 2002. My husband and I had lived in the D.C. metro area for only two months, and we shared a cell phone and a car–both of which were in his possession at that moment.
The closest payphone was about a mile away and walking to it alone in the dark scared me, so I decided to ask someone who lived in the apartment complex for help. I didn’t know any of my neighbors, but a couple who smiled at me a lot lived upstairs and I knew they were home. Nervously, I knocked on their door and the husband, whose name I learned was Hasim, opened it and invited me inside before I said a word.
While I explained what had happened, Hasim’s wife, Aisha brought me a glass of water and offered to serve me dinner. When I politely declined a meal, she asked me to sit on the sofa and then placed a large bowl of fruit on the coffee table in front of me. Hasim smiled as he handed me the phone. After I reached my husband and learned he’d be home in 20 minutes, I thanked my neighbors and told them that I’d wait downstairs.
“Angela, will you please stay with us as our guest until your husband is home?” Aisha asked while sliding the bowl of fruit closer toward me. “You are our neighbor, we don’t want you to sit alone outside.”
Picking up an apple, I awkwardly agreed to stay. Their kindness was genuine and although we struggled to understand the words we spoke to one another, I felt connected to the generous couple.
In less than ten minutes, I learned that Hasim, who drove a taxi in the United States, used to be an engineer in Pakistan. He said money as a cab driver was decent in 1999 and 2000, but after September 11, 2001, his business declined.
“So many people hate us now because of the terrorists,” Hasim explained. “People get close to my car and almost open the door until they see ‘Muslim.’ Then they walk away. They are scared. I understand why … to them, I look like the evil men who killed so many people. That was such a terrible, terrible thing,” he said through wet eyes and a tight throat.
In that moment it became clear that although they weren’t happy that I locked myself out of my apartment, Hasim and Aisha were grateful that I ended up outside their door that night. My mishap presented them with a rare opportunity of friendship with a neighbor.
My husband knocked at the door, was ushered inside cheerfully, handed a glass of water, and directed to the couch. He looked at me as if we had been kidnapped.
“Go with it,” I whispered. “We have new friends.”
Our neighbors asked us if we were Christians and told us how much they respected Jesus, who they knew as a “good man.” Feeling comfortable, I shared more about my faith and how I knew Jesus as my God, savior, and friend. Hasim and Aisha listened closely. They didn’t interrupt or shift with discomfort. They soaked in every syllable. My husband and I stayed put on that gray couch for a few more minutes before leaving with plastic containers filled with traditional Pakistani meals.
The next day, I washed Aisha’s containers, filled them with chocolate chip cookies, and knocked on her door. Again, I was invited inside and we talked for about an hour. She told me about her young daughters and how lonely she felt in her new home.
She also spoke about her family in Pakistan, her mixed feelings regarding the possibility of returning, and how she felt like she didn’t fit in America or her homeland. I told her I understood and that I, for years, felt like an outsider in my hometown and a wanderer wherever we moved next.
“Now we have each other. We are friends,” she said with a question mark while wrapping her hand around my fingers.
“We are friends,” I confirmed, returning her grip. “You will always have a friend in me, Aisha.”
For the next ten months, the gentle Pakistani family and mine strengthened our bond and we never returned a container empty. Sometimes, along with food, I included scripture verses that spoke of Jesus’ love, because above all, I wanted them to know how deeply they were loved despite how despised they were in the eyes of many.
One day I answered Aisha’s knock with fragility and a broken heart.
“I lost my baby,” I whispered half the words and mouthed the others as tears chased my chin.
Aisha hugged me tight and through tears of her own said, “Jesus is holding your baby right now. He loves your baby.”
A few months later, my husband and I moved into another apartment complex about fifteen minutes away. Hasim, Aisha and their girls were among the first to visit us. They even brought a toaster oven as a housewarming present (and we still have it today). They visited again after our daughter was born. Sadly, that was the last time we saw or even heard from our precious neighbors. They were returning to Pakistan and asked that we pray for their safety.
I think of our neighbors often. I remember our deep conversations, our food exchanges, and how much we needed one another. Different backgrounds, different faiths, different languages even, but the same basic needs to be seen, understood, and accepted. Most of all, I remember how Aisha and Hasim helped me grow closer to the heart of Jesus through their generous hospitality. They didn’t know Jesus like I do (although I still pray that they will), but they knew how to love like Jesus asked us to love others. And sometimes, they did it far better than I did.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love is from God. Everyone who loves has been been born of God and knows God.” – I John 4:7.