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United by Differences
Couple finds friendships without borders
By Dale Dodson
As a 74-year-old white male, I sometimes fear being profiled by my appearance and lumped into a demographic group. In reality, my experience is exactly the opposite. Every day, I am reminded of the gifts that come from getting to know people of different religions and cultures.
For me and my wife, Margaret, our global family began 17 years ago. That’s when Rasha, a young woman from Sudan who had recently completed a graduate degree at Sacramento State University, came into our lives.
We met through a mutual friend, and Rasha quickly became a part of our family. When her mother, Nour, arrived from Sudan to visit, she thanked my wife for being a “second mother” to Rasha. When Rasha and her husband Ed traveled to Sudan for a visit, Margaret accepted Nour’s invitation to join them for two weeks. The hospitality she received was warm and loving.
Six years ago, we met Amit and Renu, a young Sikh couple living a block down the street from us. Renu was completing residency at UC Davis Medical Center. Amit had relocated from Detroit to be with his fiancé. Learning of Amit’s love of fresh California produce, I invited them over to harvest plums from our tree.
Despite an age difference of some 40 years and our different religious and cultural backgrounds, we discovered a kinship. When Margaret was abroad and I was immobilized by a leg injury, Amit was first to help me. He took me to the hospital and spent the night to make sure I was OK.
Many Sikh men wear turbans and have beards. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some people have ignorantly regarded Sikhs as terrorist threats, even though the Sikh religion is based on tolerance, service and compassion. Amit was working as a consultant and traveling in the East Coast and Midwest after 9/11. He told me of the threats and intimidation he faced. Such conversations open doors of understanding.
I was honored to serve as a groomsman at Amit and Renu’s wedding at the Sikh temple, or Gurdwara, in West Sacramento. My head was wrapped in 16½ feet of fabric to form a turban. When Amit and Renu became parents, we were delighted to receive the titles of “Babaji” and “Beeji” to signify our relationship to their baby boy.
More cultural opportunities have come from my work as a volunteer instructor at Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. I teach English as a Second Language to students from Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Columbia, Honduras, Afghanistan, Iran, Morocco, Japan, China, Vietnam, South Korea, Moldava, Ukraine, Pakistan and Madagascar. The students bond quickly, thanks to their common goal of learning a new language and adapting to life in Sacramento.
I offered to provide individual tutoring to one student, Ali, an accomplished journalist, author and musician from Iran. He lives with his wife Maryam, who is working on a graduate degree in psychology, and their daughter Zara.
At tutoring sessions we watched scenes from the classic film “Casablanca,” which we both love. The dialog was a springboard for vocabulary and discussion. Over time, our families became friends.
One day I received a call from Roger Jones, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento. A young man, Sayed Ashraf Mansur, had arrived in town from Afghanistan and appeared at Roger’s office door. The young man had been advised to find a Unitarian church because the denomination welcomes all faiths.
Ashraf explained his family had won a U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery that allows recipients, spouses and children under 21 years of age to immigrate to this country. His first priority was to find a job and provide for the family. His second goal was to obtain a driver’s license and car. Finally, he wanted to enroll in school.
Within weeks, Ashraf interviewed for a job at the Apple warehouse in Elk Grove. He was accepted and quickly figured out the best bus route to work. He acquired his driver’s license and saved money to purchase a car. He supplemented his income by driving for Lyft on weekends in San Francisco.
Ashraf was ready to enroll in a summer English class at Cosumnes River College, but the out-of-state tuition was more than $800. When Ashraf visited our home to update us on his progress, another friend stopped by. This friend was so impressed by Ashraf’s motivation and focus that he offered to pay the $800 tuition. Ashraf’s education was launched—thanks to a friend who happens to be Jewish, helping a young man who happens to be Muslim.
Ashraf is completing his second year of general education at the college. He hopes for acceptance in a nursing program and works part-time as an office assistant at a medical practice.
Each of the people I’ve mentioned has a cultural perspective that values tradition, hard work, persistence, hospitality and kindness. They love poetry and music. Our lives have been enriched by these relationships. We shared our hearts and received the same.
Dale Dodson is a volunteer English as a Second Language teacher at Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.