We started downstairs, standing in a circle around a table of tea and snacks. At first, even with twenty people in one kitchen, the room was so quiet that I’m pretty sure everyone could hear me chewing my third serving of baklava.
We all know the feeling of walking into a room full of strangers. Everyone wants to connect, but no one knows exactly how to start. Someone has to ask the first question, take the first pastry, crack a joke. It’s intimidating.
But the volunteers were brave. Everyone shared a challenge they have faced as a Hello Neighbor volunteer:
I enjoy cooking for clients, but I still don’t understand what Halal means.
It’s really hard to communicate through a language barrier.
I’m afraid I’ll accidentally do something disrespectful just because I don’t understand their culture.
I barely had to say a word, as volunteers counseled each other:
Here’s what helped me understand what Halal means…
These are the apps that I find easy to use…
Everyone makes mistakes, but as long as you try your best, people understand.
After caffeinating, Professor Tafseera Hashemi gave us a crash course in Dari (also known as Farsi or Persian). Tafseera is currently a Medical Case Manager at Hello Neighbor, but her past teaching experience as a botany professor shone through as she led us in practice exercises. We laughed at ourselves (and maybe a little at each other) as we tried to pronounce sounds that don’t exist in English. By the end of class, one particular Dari phrase seemed to resonate with everyone: خسته ام - I’m tired!
Living in a constant state of newness is tiring. Spending hours every day trying to grasp strange words and navigate unfamiliar streets is tiring. Even the most basic tasks require a level of attention and vigilance that we take for granted when we have the privilege to stay in our hometown or home country for as long as we like. Our new neighbors have much to teach us about ingenuity and resilience because they make it work.
Thankfully, new things can become familiar and beloved. By the end of our time together on Sunday, I got to eavesdrop as volunteers shared pieces of their lives with each other. One person is turning her farm into a safe space for LGBTQ youth; another is earning her MSW while she cares for four children and creatively landscapes her yard. One made us laugh til we cried with hilarious stories from past mentorship experiences. People exchanged tips for taking the bus, finding a new restaurant, becoming a foster parent, and more. Because that’s what we do: we teach each other. We show up in new spaces, even when it’s scary. And we make those new places feel like home.