Season 2 | Episode 6: Mirrors and Windows
What are mirrors and windows? And why are they important in our lives and the lives of our families? In our season two finale, we talk with Saira Siddiqui of Confessions of a Muslim Mom, along with Shawn Smucker, author of When We Were Strangers.
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What are mirrors and windows? And why are they important in our lives and the lives of our families? In our Season Two finale, we talk with Saira Siddiqui of Confessions of a Muslim Mom, along with Shawn Smucker, author of When We Were Strangers.
Saira and Shawn share personal stories exploring how, despite our differences, hope for our children and creating a different way to live in community is a thread that can unite us all.
We believe that getting people together helps us heal. That intentional time with people who are different than ourselves fosters empathy, pushes us through fear, and brings us to a better understanding of ourselves and others.
This episode explores friendships that cross cultures, healing stories of community in unexpected places, and the importance of slowing down and paying attention.
Learn More About Saira Siddiqui
Learn More About Shawn Smucker
Host Erin Wilson’s Favorite Quotes from Once We Were Strangers:
- “To be honest, I know I’m not a great friend. If I have the choice between hanging out and staying home, you know I choose home almost every time. I don’t like it when other people depend on me, because that requires something.” I stop talking, waiting for her to jump in and confirm what I’m saying, but she’s silent. I look over at her. “Mai, I’m scared that if I write this book, it will expose me for the bad friend I am. I’ll have to be a good friend to Mohammad, a better friend than I’ve ever been to anyone else, not only while I’m writing the book but even after I’m finished. That’s why I don’t know if I should write it. I don’t know if I can enter into this kind of commitment.” She turns out the light, and for a moment all I can hear is our breathing. “Maybe that’s why you should write it,” she says.”
- “Every time I leave Mohammad and his family, I feel I’ve been given so much. Every time I leave them, I feel they have given me a small gift of peace, a kind of shalom absent from so much of our culture these days. It’s good to have friends who live quiet, peaceful lives. It seems strange to me that of all the families I know, most of whom are Christian, Mohammad’s family lives the most quiet, peaceful life of all.”
- “Who is my neighbor? Friendship is such a strange, unexpected thing. It can creep up on you when you least expect it, from the least likely places. I never could have imagined I’d become friends with a Syrian man from 6,000 miles away, a Muslim man whose children call him Abba. In the last year, Mohammad has changed my life in ways difficult to explain or describe. The coffee, the drives to Philadelphia, the chats on my front porch. There’s one thing I know for sure. If you insert me into the story of the good Samaritan, I’m not only the good Samaritan; I’m not only the one who stopped to help. I’m also the man lying along the side of the road, beaten down. I’m the one dying from selfishness and hypervigilance and fear. The role of the good Samaritan, in a role reversal I couldn’t have seen coming, has been taken on by Mohammad. Before I even knew him, he called me friend.”
Erin: As we’ve explored this season, the world can be a scary place, for kids … and for adults. But we’re not without hope.
Because we believe that getting people together can help us heal. That intentional time with people who are different than ourselves fosters empathy, pushes us through fear, and brings us to a better understanding of ourselves and others.
We start today’s episode with Saira Siddiqui. Saira is a mom of three, a wife, a former teacher turned doctoral student studying social justice education. She is an unschooler and an avid traveler. Saira is also a child of immigrants, a Muslim-American, a social activist, and a passionate writer.
Saira: So I think I’m ready on my end. My phone is on Do Not Disturb. Do you know if there’s a Do Not Disturb feature on the computer?
Erin: Saira is an observer. She watches the world … and shares her findings on her growing blog and Instagram platform.
Saira: My name is Saira Saddiqui, I am the writer, blogger at Confessions of a Muslim Mom. But I’m also a digital instructor, a digital teacher, I’m a parent educator. And I believe strongly in teaching our children to be critically thinking, to be emotionally healthy. And to be anti-bias…to be actively anti-bias.
Saira: I’m a huge advocate, I talk a lot about shifting power paradigms, and releasing control to children, and giving them that ability to have autonomy over their own lives, whether it be at home, or whether it be in an educational setting. I think that this is crucial for us, uh raising this next generation if we want them to be the ones to, to think critically, and to make positive change in the world. They have to learn how to do that.
Erin: In the past year, Saira and her husband, along with their three kids, temporarily moved from their home in Houston, Texas to South America. From her home in Colombia, Saira talked with podcast producer Kayla Craig.
Saira: before we had children, my husband and I had lived briefly um in Pakistan, which is actually one of our home countries. My father also hails from India. But we had, I mean, that experience for us was really profound in a lot of ways I think living outside the United States general, is a really good experience, in terms of just seeing things from a different perspective. We knew we kind of always wanted to do something like this with our kids.
Erin: For years, Saira had encouraged her husband to put his name in the hat for work positions abroad. And then … it happened. Colombia wasn’t on their radar, but when the opportunity presented itself, they jumped at the chance to expand the worlds of their three kids.
Saira: I have two that are 11. boy, girl twins. And then I have another one, one who followed after three years. So he’s eight.
Saira: it’s important for us to that they, they would have this opportunity, at least for a little while.
Erin: To Saira and her husband, raising children who own their identity as global citizens is important.
Saira: You know, growing up, as the children of immigrants, we had this perspective of being sort of on the outside of the looking glass, you know, you know, with the conversation and political banter that’s been going on lately, this, this whole idea of, you know, go back to where you came from, this idea that, who really can own this American identity. And it didn’t matter that I was born and raised in the United States, it didn’t matter that, that this was the only culture that I had really known. And this was my home.
Saira: When you are the children of brown or black immigrants, and all, you know, like to put it, to put it bluntly, when you are brown or black period, you don’t, you don’t get that sense of you don’t get that privilege of being fully American, you know, you’re always sort of, on the outside looking in.
Erin: Saira began to notice that her kids … for better, of course, but sometimes for worse … had a different perspective.
Saira: I noticed my children looking at the world very differently. There was definitely a stronger sense of American entitlement. You know, I always sort of walked on eggshells with my American identity, never fully feeling like I could claim it. And they don’t really have that perspective. They feel 100% American. And it was sort of through that lens that I, A — I started to think differently about myself and my own sense of identity here. But B — I, I wanted to make sure that they still had this perspective of I don’t want to say the other, but that they still had his global perspective.
Saira: I think I worried that the trap of American isolationism would start to seep into my children. And so it was important for us, you know, as, as we raised them to just build their awareness of other parts of the world. Simply living here has really kind of, kind of created this four-dimensional space, just south of the border. I wanted that for my children, I wanted my children to see the world and think this world is full of people with dimension people with thoughts and feelings. And there’s so much similarity and commonality between us all.
Kayla: Do you have any stories of maybe a way that your family has gotten involved with your neighbors or with community, maybe something you attended, or a way that you invited neighbors into your home?
Saira: Really early on, a neighbor came by he had seen my husband kind of roaming around a little bit, and he found out where he lived. And that evening, the very first night that we settled into this house, he came by, and we must have talked on our front porch. I mean, we had no furniture in their house, our house was completely empty. We really had nothing there. And this neighbor came by we talked to the porch for about 30 minutes. And he said he spoke English. And he said, You know, I know what it’s like to be in a place where you are new. And I wanted to make sure that you felt welcome here. And it was such, a such a beautiful, poignant moment on our very first night here.
Erin: And that was just the beginning … A few months later, Saira’s neighbor called, inviting them to a World Cup party. While their new friend and neighbor would be out of town, he wanted to make sure they had somewhere to go. … He couldn’t fathom his new friends being alone to watch the soccer games. So he called Saira and her family to extend an invitation to a fellow neighbor’s party.
Saira: He said, I wanted to let you know that one of the neighbors is having a party and he specifically told me make sure that you tell them to come because we want to welcome them into our house. And we had never met a family whose home it was before we went we never met them before. And so we were watching the game. And every few minutes, I noticed they would come out. And there would be a tray of food that they would pass around. And you know, we’re Muslims. So we’re very cognizant of what kind of food is being served. And we noticed that everything was chicken and beef. And, you know, the gentleman who lives in the house, he said, You know, I’ve never been Muslim before. But the only thing that I know about Muslims is that they don’t eat pork, and they don’t drink alcohol. So keep that and you know, this is Columbia, that’s Latin America, they know how to do. They know how to do barbecue, they know how to do me to grill. But they really know how to do pork. And he said we made sure that everything that we made, including the Teresa that they made by hand, was all stuff that we could consume. I was so touched by that it was so overwhelmed by that. But this is the kind of experience that we these are the kinds of experiences that we keep having here over and over and over again, this sort of very gracious meeting of two different cultures and two different ways of life. But having it blend together very seamlessly, and very beautifully. I think, you know, in hindsight, I almost feel as though the opportunity came up for us to leave our home to leave the states at a very pivotal time in our nation’s history, but also in our own personal development. And I feel like being here has really cemented this hope in my heart of what plurality can look like, what living amongst difference can look like and should look like.
Erin: We’ll be right back.
Erin: Kayla asked Saira how her upbringing as a daughter of immigrants has shaped not only how she views their world, but also how she parents her children. To reflect on that question, she had to go back to her own childhood.
Saira: Whoo, that’s a good question. It is a very deep question for me because I grew up as the children of brown immigrants in a very small, predominantly white homogenous town in Ohio.
Saira: I was the only brown person in my grade level. So amongst hundreds of kids, I was the only non-white individual and on picture day, you know, where, where everybody gets their picture taken, the lighting was always set for the white complexion. So every yearbook picture, it’s like this huge shadow, just across my face and across the photo. That’s how white it was.
Erin: Saira spent her adolescence under piles of books. She was an avid reader. Getting lost in a good story is a childhood experience many of us have fond memories of. But even in those worlds of imagination and wonder, she never saw herself reflected in the pages.
Saira: I don’t think I ever once in all of my younger years, picked up a book, that was from the viewpoint of somebody who was not white. Not once. That really shaped my sense of self and shaped my view of the world, you know, I had a lot of self-hate, and I grew up with a lot of personal shame about myself and about my family, my own home culture. And there was a sense of, of white Western superiority. And I was very ashamed of all things not white and not Western. And it took me many, many years to unpack all of that.
Erin: When her family moved to Houston, Texas, she experienced a much more diverse world. Suddenly, she saw other people who looked like her, who talked like her …
Saira: One of the things that really helped me tremendously, really shift the way that I think was, when my family moved to Houston, Texas. I was just on the cusp of eighth grade, it was just becoming a teenager. And I remember the first time I walked into a grocery store in Texas, and I saw an Indian woman wearing a sari. And I was mortified. I was, I was mortified for her, I was embarrassed for her. That’s how much this self-hate had sort of, trickled into my heart unknowingly. And but you know, it, Houston is an incredibly diverse place to live, you will find every race, every religion, every kind of person in one big, you know, metropolis. And that was an incredibly profound experience for me growing up and shaping who I was, or who I would be, in my adult years.
Erin: A former teacher, Saira says one thing she has learned? Every child needs windows and mirrors in their life.
Saira: Children need to have windows and they need to have mirrors, windows, meaning they need to have representation of different so that they can look into the lives of other people. You know, that sort of speaks to what we’re doing Columbia and what we’re trying to do and raising global citizens. But it’s, it’s equally important and, and I would argue, you know, perhaps because my lack of it, children need to have mirrors, they need to have representations of themselves, that they can see, that they can touch. Because when you see yourself, it helps you figure out who you are, right, it helps you understand your own identity. And here I was, in a glass house that was full of windows, and I was seeing everybody else. But I was not seeing myself. And Houston to me was like a huge mirror.
Saira: I know the pain of coming from a place where you don’t see yourself fitting with you’re not comfortable with yourself. And that completely informs my perspective on everything, but particularly how I’m raising my children. I’m very conscious of the fact that my children need to be around same and different, that they both equally play an important role in their life.
Kayla: That’s so good. Do you have a story or a memory of when that rose to the surface as you were having a conversation with one of your kids or watching them interact with someone where these kind of experiences came to a head?
Saira: I remember when my twins when the eldest were about five, five years old, I would say. And we went to a park in Houston. And we were just kind of hanging out. And I was I was sitting on the side with a friend of mine. And the children were kind of playing and we were kind of keeping an eye from afar. And a gentleman came up to me. And he said excuse me, is that your daughter over there on the hill. And so I look to where he was pointing and I saw it was my daughter. And then I started my heart started racing. And I thought, oh my god, what happened? What does she do? You know, you start to get nervous when people point out your children. And I said, Yes, that’s my daughter. And he just looked at me, remember he turned to me. And he looked at me, and he just said … Sorry, I’m getting choked up … He said, I’ve never heard a young child speak about themselves, and about their faith, with such confidence and such clarity. I hadn’t it was, it was like, there was it was just this moment, where I realized that their upbringing was, was so different than my own. And, you know, I realized the importance of raising them a certain way. It matters, and it’s making a difference. It’s just, it made me so happy to know that she’s growing up in a world where she’s very self-aware of who she is. And she’s given the space and the freedom to really kind of come into her own um and be comfortable with who she is, you know, if there’s nothing else I give my children, I hope it’s that, you know.
Kayla: Gosh, well, now I’m tearing up. I think that’s just a universal hope for all mothers and I have four kids. And um two of them came to my family through adoption, and they have brown skin. And I’m hearing what you’re saying. And I’m just hoping that I have these mirrors in their lives and that they can have an experience like that where somebody says, Wow, look at that, look at that confidence. Look at them, you know, living in and who they are, that’s really beautiful. You should definitely keep that memory close to your heart, I think is really powerful.
Erin: That’s the thing about what we do. We listen first, but we also bring our own hearts and our own memories and perspectives to every conversation we record. Kayla asked Saira one last question…what does love anyway mean to her?
Saira: To me, that speaks to difference. To me, that speaks to plurality.
Saira: I feel like we’re edging closer and closer to a world where there’s this belief that in order to love one another, in order to have respect and kindness, and to really even be able to have a conversation with somebody, we need to be the same. I find it on both sides of the spectrum. And I think there is so much benefit that comes from being around difference. But at the end of the day, we are all, you know, people of value, people values, people have certain beliefs. And this is a huge world, and there are going to be a lot of difference in the things that we believe and the ideas that we subscribe to.
Saira: That’s kind of where we’re moving in this social media age, this tendency to judge more you know, you must have an opinion about something. Something to write and tweet and post. And unfortunately, that leads us to being more divisive. So for me, love anyway, really is about us appreciating the fact that we can benefit from one another as human beings. And we can live beautifully and seamlessly together, despite the fact that we are different.
Shawn: So as I got to know, Muhammad, I realized he was looking for friend. I thought maybe I would help him get furniture or give him rides to work. But as soon as I connected with him, I realized that Church World Service was doing that for him. Like he had people in his life, who could make sure he had food, make sure his kids were getting a school, make sure he found a job.
He was really looking for a friend, he was really looking for someone to spend time with, someone who was willing to come to his house and sit with him. Someone who was willing to eat with him and his family, to laugh, to tell jokes, to show pictures, you know, here’s pictures from home, those sorts of things.
Erin: That’s Shawn Smucker. Shawn lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where his family roots in the United States go back 13 generations. Yes, 13.
Shawn: I grew up feeling so much a part of this community. I felt so at home here, I would go places and meet cousins I didn’t know I had. Even if I show up somewhere where I’m not related to someone, I know who they are, or I know who their parents are or, you know, their parents are friends, old friends of my parents. So it’s one of those areas that you know, you can feel very connected if you’ve grown up here, but if you’re not from here, it can be very difficult.
Erin: Saira’s life experience has convinced her that, in her words, we can “live beautifully and seamlessly together, despite the fact that we are different.” Shawn has the same conviction. But through the friendship he forged with Mohammad, a refugee to the United States from Syria, he also learned that it takes real intentionality…and sometimes a shift in how we view family.
Shawn: Your family is the most important thing. And it’s not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s just that it’s become so important that you know, so many of us don’t even look outside of it anymore. It can become all-consuming. You know, if you go to church with your family, okay, well Sunday afternoons you’re at your family’s house. Holidays, you’re with your family.
I think that we have to be willing to look outside of our circles, you know, look outside of our predetermined family and friend circles, and be aware of people who need relationship. And that can be refugees. That can be immigrants. That can be single people who don’t have family. There are so many individuals in our lives who need someone to reach out to them.
But that’s the thing. It’s not just a one-way thing. So like me reaching out, quote-unquote reaching out to Muhammad, ended up being one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever had in my life. It wasn’t just about, oh, I’m gonna go help Muhammad. That is not what it’s about, you know, it is about enriching your life.
And that happens when you make space for people, when you invite other people into your home, when you’re willing to go to other people’s homes. That’s when true community starts when true friendship is able to form and, and that’s what we need right now.
I mean, look at the news, you know, oh my gosh, look around us like we have got to start connecting with other people or we’re just going to destroy ourselves.
Erin: Connection takes time though. I asked Shawn, on a super practical level, how he and Mohammad made time for friendship. In the early days, they barely spoke each other’s languages. Shawn was a busy writer with another job on the side. Mohammad and his wife, as is often the case for refugees and new immigrants, worked multiple jobs, 6 days a week, to make ends meet.
Shawn: I can’t speak for everybody. For me, it was a willingness to be interrupted.
It was—slow down. You know, my life is just a constant go, go, go. And when when Muhammad lived here in the city, I had to slow down, I never would have seen him, I had to say, ‘Okay, this afternoon, I’m just going to push everything off. And, you know, Mohammed’s going to come over and we’re going to sit on the front porch for an hour, or I’m going to go grab a coffee with him tonight at 10 pm after the kids are in bed, and my wife’s asleep and things have quieted down.’
So I think, we’ve developed these mindsets towards interruptions, towards a pace of life. And I think we have to be willing to back away from those and make space, practically speaking, it meant so much to him when I would just stop by. How often do we do that anymore? And he loved it, you know, if I was out driving for Uber, or if I happen to be in that part of the city, I would just swing by, and oh, my goodness, he would, you know, he loved it.
Erin: Shawn first met Muhammad when he was researching a book, which eventually became published under the title ‘Once We Were Strangers’. Their first meeting happened in the offices of an agency that was helping Mohammad and his family get settled in the US. But that’s not where their relationship stayed.
Shawn: The children I think, had a much easier time of it. They’re just so much less concerned about everything. You know, I think as adults, we bring so much baggage into meetings like this, when you meet someone new and you think, ‘oh, they’re from the Middle East, they’re from Syria’, like, there’s just so many things swirling in your mind.
Whereas with kids, like, my kids anyway, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a new kid’. You know, they have no concept of, real especially like the eight-nine year olds, like, they’re not thinking about religion, they’re not thinking about geopolitical issues. They’re like, oh, he can kick a soccer ball really well, or, oh, you know, let’s go throw a football, they just they hit it off immediately and we would meet at different parks in the city. And the kids they never wanted to leave, you know, they just wanted to keep playing and they had a blast.
Erin: Widening their friendship to include their families was a practical function of living busy lives. But it had much wider implications for Shawn’s children.
Shawn: I think the family side of things was actually one of the most rewarding because it opened up a lot of opportunities for us to talk about some stuff with our kids that, you know, maybe we might have felt forced are out of place otherwise.
But for us to be able to say, Hey, you know, you know these refugee issues that you’re hearing about, or these kids who are coming to school who are new…you know, those are just like Muhammad’s kids, and, you know, the people who are trying to travel here, trying to start a new life, they’re just like Muhammad and Marathi. And it was such a perfect touchpoint for our kids at, at what proves to be, I think, a really important age, as they develop ideas about the world and things like that.
Erin: Having a relationship with Mohammad and his family opened up the world to Shawn’s children. And for Shawn, it opened up his own ideas about patterns he’s lived his whole life.
Shawn: I realized pretty early on that, that that was going to be a big commitment. You know, it was going to be a commitment to something that I committed to very few people in my life in that way. And so yeah, friendship, wow. It’s, I don’t know that those of us in the West, especially my generation, you know, Gen X and younger, we’re just so busy. And those of us that have families, are so committed to our families and the activities that go with that. I think we’ve really strayed from that sort of day to day community friendship.
Erin: But as Shawn said earlier…building relationships that cross cultures and language is a two-way street. In their first meeting, Mohammad was excited at the idea that his story of fleeing Syria and making a new home in the US might be published in a book. But Shawn outlined the difficulties of a project like this, and told Mohammad that there were no guarantees.
Shawn: I don’t want you to get too excited about the book. Because, you know, when it comes to publishing, you just never know. It may be that nothing comes of this. And he got a big smile on his face. And through the translator, he said, “Oh, that’s impossible. It’s impossible for nothing to come of this. We’re friends now.”
And I was, I was actually kind of stunned by that, like, I gone into the meeting, thinking, you know, here’s a Syrian, Muslim, someone who has probably heard as many bad things about the United States, as I’ve heard about Muslims in the Middle East.
And to have him just be completely open, completely willing to be my friend was, it was almost kind of disarming. And I remember just sitting there in the silence for a minute and thinking, wow, “Where is this, where is this grace coming from?”
Erin: As Saira said, despite our differences, our love and hope for our children and creating a different way to live in community is a thread that can unite us. Thanks for listening to our final episode of Season 2. Of course, you can binge on all of our past episodes — and read transcripts and show notes — at preemptivelove.org/podcast. The show notes for this episode includes a few of my favorite quotes from Shawn Smucker’s book Once We Were Strangers, and links to Saira Siddiqui’s digital homes.
We’ll be back soon for Season 3 of Love Anyway. If you want to hear more stories of challenge and hope in podcast form, let us know! Connect with us and learn more about what we do via preemptivelove on Instagram and Twitter. Use the hashtag #loveanyway to give feedback, start a conversation, and share with others.
And make sure you’re subscribed on your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode. We have some exciting stories coming your way.
I’m Erin Wilson, and this is Love Anyway. Thanks for listening.
End credits: The Love Anyway podcast is written and produced by Kayla Craig, Ben Irwin, and Erin Wilson. Skip Matheny is our digital production director. Jonny Craig is our audio editor. Our audio is mixed and mastered by Dylan Seals. Jeremy Courtney, Jessica Courtney, and JR Pershall are executive producers. Special thanks to Saira Siddiqui and Shawn Smucker. Our theme music is by Roman Candle.