It was a bleak, winter night in Parramatta but we had been having fun with several friends who had warmed themselves with a BBQ dinner, hot showers, freshly cleaned clothes and lively conversation. We had started to get ready to pack up, waiting for one load of clothes to finish its drying cycle. A few friends remained chatting with volunteers but there was one man seated alone on an orange chair. He was quite an old man, well into his seventies I think, and he looked lonely sitting there by himself. I decided to sit down beside him and see if he wanted to chat.

It was pretty obvious from the outset that he spoke little English. He pointed to the van and I understood that his washing was still in the dryer, which was obviously why he was sitting, waiting. Through a combination of a few English words, hand signals and a trusty iphone, I soon learned that he had come from Syria and was staying with relatives while trying to figure out where to live.

He animatedly talked about the dangers of living in Syria and the everyday terror of living in a war torn country. He showed me photos of several of his children who were dotted all over the world. His eyes filled with pride over the beauty of one of his daughters, and the fear was etched on his face when he showed me one of his sons, who must have still been in Syria. It was an extraordinary conversation, made so much more special somehow by the absence of a shared language.

After about 15 minutes, a volunteer who had been helping with tidying up around the van came up and spoke to me and asked if the man spoke Arabic. Of course he did! I’d been struggling to communicate for 15 minutes and here was a young woman who could speak the man’s language!!! I was then able to ask so many more of my questions and find out so much more about his life. He asked us about Orange Sky and what we all did. We all chatted and laughed about nothing and everything.

Another of the volunteers removed the man’s belongings from the dryer and put the still warm clothes carefully into the man’s shopping jeep. The man spoke softly to the volunteer who spoke his language and said, “you people provide a beautiful service”. He pushed his little jeep forward and shook hands with each of us, then waved goodbye as he walked away. It struck me that this interaction typifies the magic of Orange Sky, the basic but respectful act of washing someone’s clothes, engaging with them in simple yet powerful connections, and parting company from them knowing that they, and you, are enriched by the experience.

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