By the time Ali (not his real name) reached Azerbaijan, the most difficult part of his long journey was supposed to be over. He had left his father, wife, and one-year-old son in their village in Afghanistan, trekked across his war-torn country, crossed the Iranian border illegally, and sneaked into Azerbaijan at night.
Taking a train to Baku, he enrolled in university. His hope was to learn enough English to be able find work back in Kabul as a translator or driver. But in Baku, more often than not, Ali found himself missing home and his family. He would wander the capital’s streets at night, staring at the unfamiliar buildings and longing to go home to Afghanistan.
It was then he remembered his brother’s advice: find places where English speakers gather and go there—a library, maybe, or a coffee shop. Instead, Ali, a devout Muslim, started going to the weekly English-language Mass at the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. “At first, I just wanted to improve my English,” he said, “but after one or two times, I was excited to go.”
It was at the church that Ali became friends with an Iraqi businessman who left his country prior to the war that ousted Saddam. He is not able to return to Iraq. Ali also met a group of Fillipino women who are in the church choir, an Indian student, and a Pakistani Christian who had to move to Azerbaijan when neighbors threatened to burn down his house and attack his children. “There are so many...