Change the world one day at a time. That’s what the Muslim students are doing at Arizona State University in Tempe AZ. On Monday, November 24th, I had the pleasure and the privilege to attend an interfaith dinner organized by the MSA (Muslim Student’s Association) to raise money for a local food bank. In addition to Muslims, students from faith groups attended such as Sikhs, Christians and Jews. Guests of all faiths sat together in unity to hear speakers discuss their religions. We then shared food, prayers, and a delightful evening of talk and laughter. I met young people from not just the US but from around the world. To see their exuberance about changing the world and making a positive impact in our community was so refreshing. I felt like a proud parent, even though I don’t have children. Thank you MSA for organizing this marvelous event and for the good work you do not just on behalf of Muslims but for the entire ASU community. Keep me in mind for future events. I’ll be happy to attend.
Everyone loves Diba
At the mosque, a young woman says I know your friend Diba. At a fundraiser for an Islamic charity, another young woman says I too know Diba. It seems everyone knows and loves Diba, including me.
Who is Diba?
A simple smile brought surprising changes into my life in July 2013. I volunteer as a navigator at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. Navigators like me assist passengers, their friends and family with questions about flight connections, services such as food, ground transportation, etc. Last summer a middle-aged Muslim woman wearing a colorful hijab stood outside a security checkpoint. That was Diba.
“Do you need help?” I asked.
“No, thank you,” Diba said, watching passengers enter and leave the secured area. “I’m dropping off family. They’re flying back to Virginia”
“OK,” I said. “I hope they have a safe journey home.”
Our casual encounter continued. Warm feelings lingered. I didn’t want to leave and neither did Diba. Away went her cell phone and we both started a new phase in our lives. I explained my motorized scooter, the result of traumatic brain trauma from a pedestrian car accident in 1994. Diba too was seriously injured in a car accident. Diba and I bonded in just a few minutes. I couldn’t let her leave without asking if we could get together. Of course, she said, handing me a slip of paper with her phone number. Ramadan, the most sacred Muslim holiday, approached so Diba said we’d meet afterwards. She’d be fasting all day for three weeks, a tradition followed by all Muslims during Ramadan. I understood and looked forward to sharing a meal with her soon.
Meeting Diba on a blistering Sunday afternoon was truly a chance encounter. By the end of July, Diba and I were Facebook friends. We talked on the phone once or twice. I forwarded posts from the New York Times about Afghanistan, her native country. After Ramadan, I reminded her I was still interested in getting together. She asked me to dinner in mid September. Of course I said yes. I was so excited.
As soon as I parked out front, a for sale sign hammered into the lawn squashed my enthusiasm. Why was she leaving and where was she going? Oh well, I said to myself. How far can this friendship go? I rang the bell, coughed up a smile and walked into Diba’s life. I hope I always stay.
Why are you moving, I asked during dinner of Persian style basmati rice, chickpeas and Pita bread. Zaynab, her only daughter, and her husband, recently relocated to Southern California where she attends graduate school. Diba and Abdul her husband want to be closer. Did I understand? No, not really. I lack family closeness. None. If my mother (who is now deceased) wanted to move near me, I’d have packed my bags and taken off, even if it meant living in a cardboard box by the Salt River. I left home in 1976, regretting that I didn’t go in 1972 when I turned into a legal adult at 18. That’s another long story too. I have a lot of long stories.
Dinner that evening was delicious but honestly food held no interest. I enjoyed talking to Diba and learning about Afghanistan. Her extended family intrigued me. There were too many names and stories to remember but everyone – siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and friends- got along and loved each other. Wow, what a change for me. Adopt me I said to myself. Make me part of your family. I replaced family closeness by adopting throw away dogs over the years at animal shelters where I volunteered. They needed me when no one else did. If I was gone for five minutes or five hours, my dogs greeted me with the same enthusiasm.
At the end of a delightful evening, Diba escorted me outside, hugging me as I opened my car door. I said goodbye friend, I hope to see you again. I meant that too. I enjoyed her company. I hope she felt the same. I only briefly met Abdul her husband and wanted more time to talk with him. He seemed pleasant and kind.
Perhaps the next day, we traded more Facebook messages. I mentioned I’d be attending the annual meeting of the Arizona chapter of the American Muslim Women’s Association. Over the summer I had donated games, dolls and puzzles to their Ramadan toy drive for Muslim refugee children. For seven years I had volunteered as a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels with my adopted dog Luke who sadly passed away in January 2010. We spread kindness and compassion to homeless children at a family shelter. At Christmas time we always brought gifts to the children. Muslim children would surely enjoy toys for their special holiday so I donated to AMWA’s effort. I planned to introduce myself at the annual meeting. Diba said she’d meet me there. We had a fantastic time learning about the humanitarian work of the Muslim women’s association, engaged in conversation and sharing with others.
The following Monday I saw Diba again after she came home from work. I straggle close to the edge, scratching out a living on $17,000 a year, my disability income. Treatment by a private dentist is outside my means so I take advantage of the public clinic at the AT Still School of Dentistry in East Mesa, only minutes from Diba’s house. After my appointment, I drove there for a light supper. Sizzling summer weather still lingered and I lacked an appetite. Diba however said it’s Afghan custom to serve guests a generous meal. I accepted her offerings even though I wasn’t hungry. We talked and laughed. Every time she brought up moving, a knot tied up my stomach. Why did you have to go I said to myself. Already, I felt like I belonged around her. Family is everything among Afghans and Muslims in general. I longed for those family ties yet they always remained elusive.
At the end of our meal, Diba invited me to her family’s home in nearby Queen Creek. I glanced down at my shorts, T-shirt and sneakers then compared myself to Diba, stylishly dressed, wearing make-up and a bright hijab. How can I meet her family looking like I’m ready for a pick-up basketball game? I declined. Please tell your family I hope to meet them soon.
Before long, we talked or texted every day about everything and anything. I grew more attached, relying on Diba, like the sister I was never had. I do have a step-sister but she’s much older. She moved away when I was a child and lived apart from me her entire life. Diba and I are smooth, relaxed and at ease around each other. It’s like a missing piece finally filled in.
Soon, Diba invited me to her younger brother Tariq’s home for dinner. Cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, everyone it seemed was there enjoying each other’s company on a cool Arizona evening. Tariq welcomed me into his home not as a guest but part of the family. We ate dinner in the backyard. There, I was introduced to the Afghan custom of eating with your hands while sitting on the floor. Because of my injuries I sat on a chair but I had such a lovely time. Tariq led us in prayer to honor the anniversary of Diba’s late father who died in 1992. Before I left, Tariq presented me with a Quran, my second copy. I explained how I got my first one (at an interfaith service in 2011). On the half hour drive home to Tempe, I felt both elated and sad. I wanted a family like Diba’s.
Over the next month, Diba and I shared a pancake breakfast at the popular eatery, Wildflower Cafe and browsed for books at Barnes and Noble. We talked or texted every day.
Knowing Diba would leave soon, my brain said hold back but my heart let our friendship flourish. She is loving, kind and open hearted. We took her nieces trick or treating for Halloween. I demonstrated laughter from the group I attend and bonded with her mother and sister. I tagged along to a “Persian Party” one evening, a baby shower attended only by Muslim women, mostly Afghans. There was fantastic home-cooked food, lively music and wonderful company. I could have stayed all night. The atmosphere pulsed with delight.
Afghan people are thoughtful, generous hosts. As soon as I enter an Afghan home, there are always plates of food, sweets and green tea. I present an enigma however because I don’t eat meat, sugar and rarely eat dairy. I gave up caffeine in 1992. Drinking tea is an Afghan tradition. So is offering sweets to guests. I didn’t want Diba or my hosts to feel slighted by my dietary habits so I finally found caffeine-free green tea. Sugar has been out of my diet since 1982 so eating sweets is just not possible. Fruit, dates, and nuts serve as substitutes.
On a Friday, the Muslim holy day, I attended prayer services with Diba. Following tradition, I wore a hijab for the first time. The loosely fitting scarf was a bit lopsided on my head, not quite covering my hair like other Muslim women but I looked presentable. I joined her for an in-law’s Islamic memorial service. I learned more and more about Afghan customs and traditions. To add to my growing knowledge, I took out books from the library. I read about the misery created by the Soviet invasion, the ensuing violence and the cruelty imposed by the Taliban. I gobbled up information as fast as I could.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon, I stopped at an ATM. I needed cash. A surprise call from Diba invited me to join her at the hospital to visit her sister-in-law Maniga who had surgery. Sure I said, I’ll meet you there. Inside a small hospital room, at least a dozen Muslim women and me surrounded Maniga with well wishes. We all talked and laughed. On my way out, I saw more women in hijabs carrying flowers and gifts on the way to see Maniga. I was impressed by the outpouring of support and concern from the Afghan community for their sister Maniga.
Then the news of the impending move punched a hole in my heart. The house sold and a moving date was set. Tears welled up in my eyes then trickled down my cheek. I only knew Diba a short time but she became such an important part of my life. How could I live without her? Asking her not to move was selfish. That would be unfair to even ask. Her family is her life, not me.
Diba’s dear friend Zermina lives in Southern California was hospitalized with breast cancer complications at the end of October. To visit her, Diba hitched a ride with her brother who drives there regularly for business. Naturally I missed her but prepared myself for her impending departure. Diba returned in about a week with more sad news – she rented an apartment. Bit by bit I was losing her and there was nothing I could do but accept the inevitable.
Packing up a two story, four bedroom house takes time, sweat and energy. Diba needed my help so I pitched in as much as I physically could. As the boxes piled up so did my heartache even though Diba gave me clothes, purses, and other items. I hid my tears by ducking into the bathroom so Diba didn’t see me. She’d think I was a weakling. Stacks of boxes reminded me of yet another loss. I’m tired of losses. I’ve had too many. Diba and Abdul sold their house and looked forward to reuniting as a family. Who was I to stand in the way? The newcomer? The outsider with the chronically broken heart?
The end came sooner than I expected – Thanksgiving weekend. On the drive to say goodbye, I sobbed all the way drying my tears before I arrived. My face was puffy and red. I can’t explain why Diba’s move shredded me emotionally. I just met her yet I felt like we were old souls brought back together after a long time apart. Seeing her nearly every day was a joy. Now it was time to leave and I couldn’t stop crying. I hugged Diba and then Abdul. I would of course visit her in California and I would see Diba on her trips to Arizona. But my life changed since she left. I found a safe comfortable place I always wanted and then it was gone. I will never experience casual conversation during family dinners, holiday gatherings or nieces who just drop by to say hello. A serious pedestrian car accident broke my body but the lack of family will always leave my soul in tatters. Family is everything. I’m sorry I missed out.
But in a way I didn’t miss out. I’ve become close with her family especially her mother, sister-in-law Maniga and her two children since Diba moved away. During Ramadan 2014 we shared special times during Iftars, breaking of the fasts, at a mosque. We’ve enjoyed meals together as well as a night of family fun at the state fair. I enjoy watching Persian soap operas with the family even though I don’t speak Farsi. I just like the closeness and the camaraderie. Sadly, a beloved and dear family member passed away last February, Diba’s brother Aimal, who was Maniga’s loving husband. His sudden loss tore a chunk out of the family’s hearts. I mourned with them and shared their pain. Aimal is missed not only by his family but by his friends, neighbors and colleagues.
And who are all the other women who love Diba? There’s a sisterhood among Muslim women I’ve come to admire, love and respect. It inspires me to be around them. Women call each other sister. At the mosque, strangers are greeted like family. Everyone is welcomed, even non Muslims. If a sister needs help, there is always someone there to lend a hand. Diba and her family are examples of their faith. They just doesn’t say they are Muslim; they show me every day why they are Muslim by their caring and compassion. That’s why everyone loves Diba. And that’s why I love Diba and the Muslim sisters I’ve met. Thank you for embracing me. And thank you to Diba’s family for accepting me as one of your own.
By Debra J. White
Forty years old, educated and articulate, Fatima fled the chaos of internal strife, a mix of tribal warfare, religious rivalries, and a failed democracy. The escalating violence threatened Ahmed’s ability to protect his beloved wife from harm, especially a brutal rape. Young men with no job skills, no education, and no faith in their government menaced neighbors like Fatima and Ahmed. With only suitcases and dreams for a better life the couple arrived in the US as refugees. That’s why most people came to the US before and now – for a better life, a job, a nice house and to live in security.
Since I started to volunteer with refugees, my heart and my eyes opened up to the long, arduous process involved in reaching the US. There are perhaps 50 million internally displaced people around the world scratching out a living in refugee camps mostly because of war. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, most will never resettle in another country. Children born in refugee camps are stateless. Only about 1% of refuges will ever be placed in Western nations. I’m fortunate to know a few such people through my volunteer work.
The refugee may be a teenager like Juan, who attended school and earned good grades until the community was ravaged by violent gangs pulling in huge profits from drug sales. Mistaken for a dealer, Juan’s father was brutally murdered by a drug lord. The family was never the same. His mother Susanna loved their small village. Every Sunday morning Juan dressed in his only suit and together the family attended mass. Villagers were close with no one being a stranger. Poverty was rampant but people showed pride and dignity. They shared food, clothing, and friendship. All that changed when the gangs took over, rupturing the bonds of peace and tranquility holding the village together. Juan arrived in the US as a refugee along with his mother Susanna. Initially, they were reluctant to leave their village, the only home they ever knew. At night, shots rang out until dawn. Streets were unsafe. Women were raped for kicks. Drug lords lured boys like Juan into the trade. After Susanna lost her best friend and husband, she said enough. To protect herself and her son, she applied for refugee status and unlike so many others, her application was approved.
The refugee may have few skills and little education, the result of a non-functional government where nothing worked, not even the school system. But she is eager to learn and hard-working like Batuulo from Somalia. She attends English to secure a job to become self-supportive and independent. Why did Batuulo apply for refugee status? Years of endless civil war and poverty tore her country apart. Her husband died from a bomb blast while fetching water for the family. Batuulo wanted to experience safety and freedom for herself and her children. Was it a gamble? Sure, but with determination and help from social service agencies, she’ll have a chance to succeed. So will Batuulo’s children who all attend school. Batuulo cleans office buildings during the day. Sometimes she works weekends too, but she is safe now. So is her family.
What happens to a refugee family who becomes displaced? If they’re lucky, they escape without harm. Maybe they find sanctuary with family or friends in a safer part of the country. Others find refuge in a camp administered by the UN or a friendly country. Camps may be well run with sanitary conditions, food, security and even schools. Or they can be free for alls where crime is common, food is scarce and medical care may be non-existent. A refugee camp may provide temporary security for a family fleeing violence from a war ravaged country like Syria but they are not homes. There is no future in refugee camps.
Friendly countries contribute money and supplies to refugee camps but that’s only a band-aid solution to a staggering long-term problem that few major world leaders address – a vision for world peace. Without a plan for peace and prosperity, the world’s refugee crisis will grow and fester, like an open wound. Children will grow up without parents. Parents will lose children or parents to violence. Instead of attending school, children will witness the horrors of war. Women and girls will be raped.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said if we don’t live as brothers we’ll perish together as fools. What’s the alternative to war in Syria? The murderous thugs known as ISIS? Scattered fighting in Africa? All religions believe in God and God doesn’t approve of our despicable behavior towards one another. The refugee crisis is entirely man made and only man can end the crisis. We’re bombing the world to pieces but we can’t bomb it to peace.