When I came to Israel a couple of years ago as a recent oleh (immigrant), I arrived with a rudimentary speaking knowledge of Hebrew and no Israeli cell phone. Yet I had arranged from America to meet old friends, now living in Israel, at the airport, who would take my wife and me to our home in Beit Shemesh. The challenge: how to make contact with him if I had no cell phone and no Israeli money to use a pay phone. Moreover, even if I had money for a pay phone, I was unaware that I had to dial city code prefixes before the actual phone number.
Fortunately, I found my friends and everything worked out, but I was reminded of my unsettling airport experience as I watched an early scene in The Terminal, in which Viktor Navorksi, a citizen of an Eastern European country in the midst of a violent coup, arrives in the United States and is unable to leave the airport. His passport is no longer valid and he cannot enter the USA until his situation is resolved. While stuck in the airport, airport security gives him food vouchers and a 15-minute phone card, but Viktor does not have the language skills to know how to use them. Viktor is confused and I understood his frustration.
As his temporary stay at the airport extends into weeks and months, Viktor, a building contractor, uses his skills at construction to get a job with a renovation crew at the terminal. This enables him to earn money to buy food, clothes, and other necessities. These crafting skills and his modest personality slowly ingratiate him with the airport staff, who admire his resourcefulness and his innate kindness towards others.
A turning point occurs when a foreign national wants to bring in medicine for his deathly ill father. He threatens airport personnel and Viktor, because of his language skills, is brought in to diffuse the situation. He successfully resolves the tension by calming the foreigner and creatively suggesting to him that he claim that the medicine he brought in from Canada is for goats and, therefore, needs no special clearance. Viktor, originally seen as a buffoon, now is perceived as a savvy negotiator, which brings him the admiration of many who work at the airport.
Our first impression of outsiders may be akin to seeing Viktor for the first time as simply a foreigner; but once we mentally engage another human being, we are peeling an onion, discovering new layers every time we speak with him. I have found that the more I get to know people, the more interesting they become.
When my wife and I have guests over for a Friday night Shabbat meal, I always ask the invitees to introduce themselves for a moment. I sometimes suggest that each guest tell us something we may not know about them. Surprisingly, I learned that one of our guests celebrated her 70th birthday by parachuting out of a plane. There is clearly more to people than what meets the eye. Viktor Novarski reminds me of the innate complexity of people, and that we should give people a second chance to make a first impression.
The Bible instructs us many times to remember our sojourn in Egypt when we were strangers in a strange land. I am no longer a recent immigrant but I remember how good it felt when I was greeted with a smile, when someone asked me what my name was and where I was from, when someone clarified a confusing moment. It is a good thing to be kind to the stranger. After all, one day the stranger may be you.