Neighbors

I’ve been reading newspaper stories and first-hand accounts about a new group of immigrants that arrived in my home state of North Dakota. These new folks lived in tight-knit communities, worshipped differently and continued to speak the language of their homelands. This made the neighbors nervous, because some people in their homelands were openly hostile to the United States. Some leaders had even declared war against America.

These new immigrants just kept coming. Hundreds, then thousands arrived every year. Their neighbors felt like they weren’t assimilating into mainstream culture fast enough. Even after they’d been in the United States for a few years, these new immigrants insisted on preserving their culture’s traditions. Many still wore the clothing they wore back home. Some of the women even covered their hair.

You know which group of North Dakotans I’m talking about, right?

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If you guessed the Germans and the Germans from Russia, you’d be correct.

This group of North Dakotans, like many other immigrant groups that came both before and after, encountered prejudice from their neighbors in North Dakota. It started well before statehood and continued until after World War II. Like many states in the nation, North Dakota even outlawed the practice of speaking German in public schools.

This seems illogical in a state where, as recently as 1990, one quarter of North Dakota households had a German speaker in the home and many more families could trace their roots back to a German ancestor. These Germans and Germans from Russia were pillars of their communities. Nobody today would think to question that their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren patriotic, hard-working Americas.

But biases are rarely logical. They change with the times, with the current mood of the country and — perhaps most importantly — they change to reflect our collective fears. That explains why the notion of German-speaking immigrants probably didn’t even occur to you when you read the first few paragraphs of this story. This kind of mistrust doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s prompted by current events, like the anti-immigrant sentiment and wars in Europe that kept mistrust brewing generations ago. But it’s the fear of the unknown that keeps that mistrust percolating.

I’m writing a book about the history of beer in North Dakota, so I’ve been spending a lot of time digging deep into our state and our country’s past. And I’ve realized that people have an unfortunate habit of painting entire groups of people with one brush. The target of this fear and anger changes, but the impulse shows up throughout history and across the world.

In my research, I was heartened by the quiet power of the individuals who spoke up for their neighbors. Some of these folks were politicians, teachers, business owners or members of the clergy. But more often they were just ordinary people like neighbors and friends who said (and I’m clearly paraphrasing here), “Hey now, that’s not my experience with the Germans and the Germans from Russia. Let’s all just calm down for a minute here. These are good people. Let me tell you why.”

I wish I didn’t need to repeat their message that there are both good and bad individuals in every single group, no matter how we break ourselves down into categories, again today. But I do. Because we seem to keep forgetting.

I am just one person, as ordinary as the neighbors who went on the record in North Dakota over the last two centuries. I don’t have all the answers for this divided world of ours. But my own personal experience has taught me that kindness, empathy and bringing everyone to the table (often literally — I’m a Midwestern woman and my foremothers have taught me that lots of food and a pot of coffee never hurt) help us hear each other more clearly. And our stories matter.

So here is a story from my own life for you today. I originally wrote it for On Second Thought, a great magazine published by the North Dakota Humanities Council earlier this year. It’s still relevant today. I hope that when my son reads it decades from now, it won’t be.

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The ends of their scarves danced in the wind. Their brightly colored tunics billowed behind them, a softly rippling swoosh of vivid violet, luscious saffron and prairie sky blue, giving them the look of a flock of exotic birds about to take flight.

I must have driven by this little procession daily. We were neighbors, after all. Yet I didn’t give them a thought until my first week back at work after a particularly great vacation. International travel wakes me up, makes me a little more engaged, a little more curious about the world around me. And this time, the effect clung to me long after my flight landed.

I was back home, back to the grind and already frustrated. The world had opened up for me, but now I was right back where I started, smack dab in the middle of a calendar full of appointments, a twelve hour work day with five minutes to inhale my lunch at my desk and the constant ping of emails until well after midnight.

This is what I was thinking about when I saw – really saw – the women on the sidewalk for the first time. They looked present, engaged, as if they were really seeing the sky and their friends and the kids at the bus stop and not rushing off to the next thing. This is a state of being I could only cultivate on vacation. I was jealous.

I wondered who they were and where they’d come from. I assumed they were immigrants because of their decidedly non-western clothing and the fact that they seemed to be walking not for exercise but just for the pleasure of it. I wondered what they thought of my city and what place it held in their world.

So later that day I called Lutheran Social Services — the only organization I could think of that might have answers. Then I asked the question that made all the difference. I asked how I could help.

A week later, I stood outside an apartment complex on the very same street with a LSS caseworker. She waved at current and former clients. I was correct in assuming the women out front were recent immigrants. What I hadn’t realized was that the majority of them were also refugees, individuals forced to flee their homes due to violence or persecution.

They were Bhutanese, Somali, Nepali, Iraqi. The caseworker was there to introduce me to one of them. She was not one of the women in colorful clothes, but a dark eyed Iraqi with a shy smile. She cared for her two small children while her husband was at work and couldn’t get out to English classes with such little ones in tow. My assignment a new volunteer was to chat with her and help her learn a little English before she started formal classes. I’ve been known to strike up conversations with strangers, so this seemed easy enough in theory. The reality was much more amusing.

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I showed up a few days later at the appointed time, with my wedding album in hand. Her English was basic and my Arabic was non-existent and I figured that showing her my family would be a whole lot easier than trying to explain them with hand gestures.

She opened the door and it was immediately clear that she hadn’t understood what the heck the case manager was talking about when she made this appointment the week before. She glanced from me, into the apartment and back again with politely and expertly masked panic.

Now that I work from home with a toddler, I realize that she was having one of those days – the kind where you don’t want anyone to see you or your nightmare of a house, especially not some stupidly smiling stranger with a stack of books in a language you don’t understand. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have left so the poor woman could have gotten so sleep during what was surely the only moment had to herself all day.

But she was – and is –the consummate hostess, so she recovered quickly and invited me in. She spent the next ten minutes conjuring up an impressive spread of juices, fruit, cookies and cake so extensive that I didn’t need to eat dinner that night.

I ate quietly, wondered what on earth we were supposed to do now. She sipped juice and fed the baby, who had just woke up and stared at me with enormous, knowing eyes. I had – and I cannot stress this point enough – no earthly clue what I was doing. I didn’t know a single word of Arabic. How do you talk to someone without words? I assumed I’d just figure it out, but instead we both sat politely on the sofa and stared at each other.

She found the solution in the end. This was just the first of many, many times where she would quietly lead the lesson. She would pick up my glass and give me a prompting look. “Milk”, I’d say. She would nod and repeat the word in English. Then she would point to the glass again and say “halib” and I would obediently say the word in Arabic. We’d worked our way through the oranges, grapes and desserts on the table in front of me when her daughter woke up and I remembered my photo album.

Her face lit up. “Ah, married!” she said, pointed at me. “Yes,” I nodded. “Married.” We had that in common, at least. She ran to get her wedding album and we sat with the black bound books open on our laps, side by side on the sofa.

She was a lovely bride, so young and pretty in a spectacular ball gown, dark curls cascading down her back. “You look beautiful,” I said. Her cheeks went pink, but she smiled as she ducked her head.

She touched a photo in my book. “Beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

We smiled, and they were real this time. We’d had a conversation. Maybe we could do this after all.

Before I left, I asked her to choose a day on her calendar to meet again. I would go back a few times a month to eat and chat and pretend that I could teach her something. Some ideas worked (magazines, movies and our lifeline, an Arabic-English picture dictionary were hits) while some (flashcards) didn’t. Eventually the baby would sit with me and I’d stay until her husband got home and we’d just laugh at my horrible Arabic pronunciation. I still think they brainstormed lists of the longest words for me to say, but I didn’t mind. Then one day she said maybe I should just stop teaching her and we could just be friends instead.

My stint as a volunteer was both a complete failure (she improved her English all on her own) and a complete success because I’d made a friend, a real one that I probably never would have met on my own. My days as a teacher were over, but my education had just begun.

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One day I talked to four of her sisters-in-law on the webcam. The second youngest served as the translator. She was wide-eyed, precocious and already trilingual. They would be coming to the U.S. any day now, she said. Her mother and father had ten children, scattered by war across the U.S., Iraq, Sweden, Canada and Syria. By now, I’d already learned how difficult it was to get refugee status and how agonizingly long the process can take. But before that conversation, I didn’t realize that refugees don’t get to choose where they live. They can ask to join relatives, but for most, where they land is a game of chance.

I’ve learned a lot since that first halting conversation. My Arabic is still horrible, but when my son is naughty, it’s often “la” — not “no” — that rolls off my tongue first. I’ve learned to dress up for birthday parties and to come hungry and to leave a little left on my plate or my hostess will keep giving me more. I know the secret spot to find the best grape leaves for dolma and how to line my eyes like a contestant on “Arab Idol” – even though the end result looks way too dramatic for my typical, laid-back outfits.

My friends have painted my hands with henna, introduced me to the beauty of Arabic poetry and the over-the-top romance of Egyptian cinema. I’ve learned that if I had to take the citizenship test that they aced today, right this minute, I would not pass. I’ve learned how to eat dinner without utensils, that some of the best meals are consumed on the floor and that my obsession with making plans is both silly and quintessentially American. “Inshallah,” my friends laugh – Lord willing. “This crazy girl, she thinks she controls time.”

The world has changed since we first started talking. Friendships have a lovely way of multiplying and I’ve had the privilege of meeting more of my neighbors from around the world at parties and community gatherings. I smile when see new Asian and African markets full of staples that are unknown to me. I like exploring the menu at Liberian, Nepali and Somali restaurants that promise new flavors.

When my friend, the former pre-teen translator, graduated from high school last spring, she received her diploma from the most diverse and fastest growing school district in the state. Many of the students surrounded by clouds of balloons and roses and ecstatic, beaming family members were new immigrants and refugees like her.

But not everyone is happy about that. Two boys fight over a girl – a story as old as humankind — and local headlines wonder if it means some kind of immigrant street war is coming. Terrorists attack in Europe and it suddenly gets a lot harder for my girlfriends who wear headscarves. Someone firebombs a Somali coffee shop a few miles away and social media hisses that maybe they deserved it, maybe the owners did it themselves, maybe now they’ll just get out of town and go back to their own country once and for all. Governors try to stop new refugees from coming. Neighbors sign petitions to try to limit immigrants from moving in next door. A Presidential candidate rallies his supporters with comments so callous and inflammatory that people fear for their safety.

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Maybe I would have been silent before. It’s easy enough to stop following someone on Facebook – just one mouse click and it’s done. I could have politely changed the subject at a dinner party, ignored a joke or a comment at a meeting. But now I can’t. Because when people talk about “those people” I don’t see a group, an abstraction, a scary mass that’s impossible to understand.

I see women in rainbow-colored clothes strolling on the sidewalk. I see my friends, telling me about their day at work. I see the little ones playing at their feet, the boys who play soccer in the park, the sweet old men who play chess and wave to my son as we walk back home. These are my neighbors, my friends, my people.

“Why don’t they learn English? Why can’t they just get a job and work like the rest of us?” Ask the older-than-average student who goes to school during the day and stocks shelves while most of us sleep at night. “I should be better,” he says, “but English uses a different alphabet. And you read left to right. I’m not used to that.” He is apologetic. English is his third language. I wonder how many languages the haters on Facebook speak.

“Why don’t they just go home?” They’ve never seen the ache in a father’s eyes when he talks about home, his garden, his fruit trees, the house, the life, the family he worked his whole life to nurture and build. He and his sons narrowly escaped with their lives, hidden in the back of a friend’s truck. They drove away from a country they loved and could never go back. It is a memory now, something that burns in him, just another thing he fought to save and had to lose. His oldest friends, his family and his children are scattered around the globe. Where is home? What does that word even mean now?

“They come here with nothing and just expect hand-outs.” Listen to the busy, bubbly woman, so vital to her family and her church as she tells the story of the day everything changed. Let her tell you of the armed men at the door. They came without warning. They told her to take what she could carry. They let her use her two arms and five minutes to carry away the whole of her life. What would we do, staring down the barrel of a gun? What would we choose?

She told me this story one afternoon while the afternoon sun streamed through the curtains. Only one of the teardrops slowly spreading across the delicately embroidered tablecloth was hers.

These are not people to be pitied. These are not people to be demonized. These are people who should be honored for their resilience and their dignity and their incredible tenacity in the face of horrors that most of us cannot even imagine. They have walked through grief and loss and they have come out on the other side of the world. And they need us now, though they will certainly be too proud to admit it. They are already Midwesterners that way, stubborn, strong and awfully reluctant to call attention to themselves. So it’s up to us, the native born, to take the lead. After all, nearly all of us are the children of immigrants too.

They need us to smile when we see them in the grocery store, to wave at the park, to introduce ourselves at the party. They know that we’re eyeing their hijab — they can feel us watching — so they need us to take a moment to show them that we’re admiring the fabric, not wondering if they’re a suicide bomber. They know that we know they weren’t born here, but they’d love for us to talk about the weather, the game, something, anything to acknowledge the many things we have in common, instead of the things that are different. They need to feel like one of the mamas at the playground because they are one of the mamas at the playground. They are different, yes, but they are not separate. They are one of us. They are welcome.

They need us to stop, to notice, to reach out, to listen. I did that once. And it changed my life.

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A note from me: Some of the photos in this post are from a Citizenship Ceremony held in Fargo a few times a year. If you’ve never had a chance to witness this ceremony, I encourage you to go and welcome our newest citizens. It’s very moving. I’ve talked to many people at a lot of events as a freelancer and this is the only time where people cried, hugged, prayed and squealed for joy during interviews.

My own great-grandfather just arrived in this country from Norway at the beginning of the last century. It’s incredible to think of how many of us have ancestors who, just like these folks, can remember the exact moment they became Americans.

The rest of the photos are just me and my family hanging out with some of my friends on my grandparents’ Minnesota farm. Every single one of us is a member, either by birth or by marriage, of a farm family. What a small world.

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7 Replies to “Neighbors”

  1. What a beautiful and thoughtful article, Alicia! SO important! Thank you for writing and sharing — and for being a role model for us all. (Also, fun to see your family in the farm pic! 🙂 )

    1. Thank you Heidi. And I really don’t know what I think about being called a role model! I’m just being a friend and a decent human being, I hope. Anyone can do that! (But thanks all the same.) And yeah, this photo always makes me smile. It was a fun day. And it amuses me that I’M the one not looking at the camera! Whoops.

  2. Alicia,
    I really benefited from your article as we have several Somali families and Iraqi families that we provide housing for and sometimes the communication is challenging. Your article helped to remind me why we were doing it. We are truly missing the point when we lose sight of the human interaction. Del

    1. Hi Del! Thanks for your comment. Yes, communication can be a challenge, but I really think it helps to remember that we’re all people just trying to do our best. I imagine my ancestors faced many of those same communication challenges. Thanks for your kindness! Tell your tenants “As-Salaam-Alaikum” from me! (It means “peace be upon you.”)

  3. This is such a moving article. Thank you for this! It’s so easy to lose sight of history – of the fact that just a couple of generations ago, our ancestors were immigrants and many of them had similar challenges.

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