Review: Once We Were Strangers

Shawn Smucker wasn’t sure what this book would be about when he started writing it. Or if he even wanted to write it.

He had met a Syrian refugee family and, as a novelist, he was considering the fact that he could write their story.


“I don’t know if I want to write this book,” I tell [my wife] quietly. “I don’t know if I’ll even be disappointed if the book doesn’t happen.”

“Really? Why?”

I pause. “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’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.”

“Maybe that’s why you should write it,” she says. (p. 46-47)

Spoiler alert: He decided to write it. And in so doing, he answers the question, “What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority?” (p. 54).

Smucker’s writing is brilliant. Most books on immigration or ministry among internationals are informative, factual, rife with statistics and…dare I say rather dry? They are helpful, but you don’t find yourself staying up too late at night because you just can’t put them down.

Enter this book. I highly recommend reading it yourself and also giving it to people who are considering getting involved in welcoming internationals. The power of the book is in its narrative format. You get caught up in the story, internalizing its message at a deeper level than you would if you were simply presented with facts.

And what is it’s message? Honestly, it’s manifold, and unfolds at the speed of life in a way that is at once mundane and compulsively readable. Smucker is self-admittedly “building the plan while flying it, ” figuring out what he’s writing about while he writes about it. But I actually really like this aspect of the book, because it makes it feel like you’re learning right along with him.

He doesn’t pull punches about the awkwardness of communication and interaction across cultural barriers (so many times while reading, I laughed/cringed/teared up many times while saying “That is REAL. That is how it is,” to no one in particular. But on the other side of awkwardness is true friendship, the beauty of which Smucker is experiencing and processing right along with you as the reader.

I’m going to stop here because story-form is so much better. You just need to read the book. You’ll be glad you did, and I think you’ll want to pass it on. Consider this a good over-the-holidays read, or a great gift.

Perfect for people who wouldn’t read a book on immigration issues full of facts and figures, or people who are weary from reading them all the time.

Buy Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor here.




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