Strangers Who Become Family

Translated by Majd Nassan

When the wave of refugees arrived in Austria in 2015, the couple Grete and Günther Naynar, who were in their late sixties, decided to host a small Syrian family in their home in one of Salzburg’s beautiful mountainous villages. Given that Margarite barely spoke English, unlike her husband Gunther who was fluent, she would mostly communicate with their Syrian guests using signs. Yet, through the magic of eye contact and smiles, the young Syrian couple Rasha and Mohamed Ibrahem managed to build a strong and deep bond with this Austrian couple. Strong enough that six years later, they consider them family.

Before coming here, Rasha and Mohamed had been living in Damascus. As the war became more intense, they decided to flee over the Balkan route until they arrived in Austria. For two months, they had lived in a refugee shelter with other families. But due to the poor conditions, the couple started looking for another place to move to. Which is when they met Grete and Günther.

Initially, Grete was hesitant and told Günther over and over that she disapproved this “experiment.” She knew nothing about these “strange” people or their culture. Unfortunately, given the media attitude, she had only negative views about third-world countries in general and Arabs specifically. She thought that all Arabs traveled by camel, lived in tents in the desert, that all women wore burqas and lives amid a constant state of war and seeking refuge.

It only took a few days to shatter these misconceptions. The two couples started sharing everything about their lives with each other. The Syrians were speaking English and Günther would translate for Grete. Rasha began telling them about Syrian culture and introduced Grete to her new addiction: Arabic (aka Turkish) coffee infused with cardamon. Grete and Günther immediately fell in love with Syrian sweets, so much so, that they now make them during holidays to give to their friends and neighbors. Food, it seems, is often the fastest way to learn about a new culture.

Grete became committed to helping the family learn German and drove them to the German classes every day for a year, as there was no public transport nearby. Learning German became an important part of their shared experience. Rasha believes because of this situation – they needed to be able to communicate with Margarite without always reverting to Günther and signs – learning German was almost an automatic process.

Today the Syrian couple are eternally grateful for all the kindness, help and motivation that the Austrians gave them. They gained a family in this strange new homeland; and without them, Rasha believes, they surely wouldn’t be as well integrated as they are.