I want to tell you a story. Part of it is my story. But the important part isn’t mine. It belongs to a North African woman named Fatima. And to countless others like her.
I first met Fatima at Dollar Tree. It was her bright clothing that caught my eye. A colorful piece of cloth called a malhafa was draped around her body and her head, and I knew immediately that she had traveled far, from the Saharan desert, all the way to America. I went over and introduced myself, and we immediately became friends and exchanged numbers.
A week later I found myself at her house, sitting on the floor, watching her prepare green tea with mint. Six years had passed since I last drank the tea of her people, and I anxiously awaited my first sip, watching as she poured the tea from one cup to another to create an airy top layer of foam. She handed me my tiny glass and after taking a picture to remember this special moment, I took a sip. It was perfect- sweet yet bitter and smoky, just as I remembered.
I congratulated her on making the perfect cup of tea and let out a loud and joyous shrill used by her people for special celebrations, like weddings and the birth of babies. This was my special celebration, finally being reunited with the culture I had grown to love so much while living overseas, and which I thought all hopes of ever reencountering were lost after moving to the states. A smile, mingled with a look of astonishment, spread across her face, and tears soon joined the mix.
I turned to her five year old daughter to say a few inconsequential words about her Pokemon cards, giving Fatima time to recover, so she wouldn’t feel embarrassed about crying in front of a virtual stranger. Our time together continued with more tea—three cups in all to be exact, as is the custom of her people—plus tickle fights with the kids, showing each other pictures of our families, and the typical get-to-know you type of questions.
At one point I asked her if she had any other American friends. Though I knew she may not, I hoped that after four years of living here, she might have at least one other American friend. “Well, I do know one American woman who is married to my husband’s friend. But you are my first American friend,” she replied.
And then her heart spilt open to me, as she chopped her vegetables in the kitchen. She began to tell me how she wants to be friends with Americans, but no one has ever come up to her to be her friend, until I approached her at the Dollar Tree. Even though it’s normal to do that in her culture, she knows it’s strange here in America. She wants to make friends with Americans, but what should she do? An American woman might find it quite strange and uncomfortable if she were to randomly approach her and ask her to be her friend. She might surprise her, or worse yet, scare her.
“My neighbor is an American woman,” she told me, “but she never says hello to me. I see her come and go, but not once has she said hello. I just want to be her friend. I want to be a good neighbor. When I make food, I want to bring it to her and share with her. When we have a holiday, I want her to come over and celebrate with us. When she has a holiday I want to go to her house and congratulate her. That’s all I want. But she’s never said ‘hello’ ...My heart was so happy when you said ‘hello’ to me in Dollar Tree.”
As I lay in bed that night thinking about our visit, my conversation with Fatima in the kitchen kept running over and over in my head. She just wants to be a good neighbor. She just wants to share her food with the people around her.
Yet no one has even said “hello.” In four years, not one American made any kind of conscious effort to befriend her.
I know that there are countless others just like Fatima. Strangers in this land, they struggle with the language. They want to make friends, but they don’t know how to navigate our system and culture. So they spend their days, their years, isolated, surrounded only by others just like them, because no one has thought to say “hello.” No one has tried to enter into their world, or invited them to enter into theirs.
My one little “hello” at Dollar Tree made a world of a difference to Fatima. Now she has a friend. Someone from this land to help her navigate this complex system and culture. Someone to sit with her and drink tea and talk about life and have tickle fights with her kids.
My one little “hello” at Dollar Tree made a world of a difference to me, too. Now I have a friend who helps me to see colors I had never seen. Hear giggles that otherwise would have never been heard. Experience flavors never before discovered. But most importantly, share love that would have gone unshared.
I wish I could, but I can’t be friends with every Fatima. There’s just too many. I can only drink so much tea and fight so many tickle fights.
So won’t you say “hello”? Won’t you sit on the floor and have tea? Just step into their world, and show them how to step into yours.
For when we step into someone else’s world, there’s a special magic that happens. The mixing of two worlds, to create a new world, in which love and understanding abound.
Emily Ibrahim, a native Texan, has a Master of Arts in Islamic Studies. After living for years overseas among North African Muslims she now teaches Elementary school Spanish. Emily has been married to her husband Ayman since 2012 and together they serve among Arabs in the United States and Middle East.