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Generations forge intercultural connection at Mirabella event

Afghan refugee students at ASU, retirees share holiday traditions

Older woman and college student smiling and talking.
December 13, 2022

Cold winter months drive people indoors and families together to celebrate resilience — and good food.

An intergenerational group from the Arizona State University community gathered last week to share their own holiday cultural traditions and learn about one another's. Several residents of Mirabella at ASU met with a group of Afghan students who arrived in Tempe nearly a year ago. The students were among a group of 61 young women who landed at Sky Harbor Airport on Dec. 15, 2021, after fleeing the chaos of their homeland. They’ve spent the past year honing their English and creating their new lives at ASU.

Nooria Hamid, a nursing major, said she came to the cultural exchange event because "this is the way to find new friends.”

The participants talked about winter holidays, and Nasiba Hakimi, a business major, described the holiday of Shabe Yalda, which is celebrated in Afghanistan.

“It’s the first night of winter, so it’s also the longest night,” she said.

“Winter in Afghanistan is three months; schools and universities are closed and families are together.”

Families cook their favorite dishes, share stories and read poetry late into the night.

“The main thing is we have pomegranates and watermelon,” Hakimi said.

“The red color is the symbol of love in our country.”

The event, held on the rooftop patio of the Mirabella high rise, included conversation and food, and was part of the honors thesis project of Caroline Pernat, a medical studies major who is in Barrett, The Honors College.

After the Afghan women arrived last year, Pernat met some of them through a student mixer. She befriended several of the refugees, learning about their culture while they cooked together.

“The experience really pushed me to face my biases and my ignorance of places around the world,” said Pernat, who will graduate in May 2023.

“It had me reflect on the importance of diversity and inclusion in our teams and classrooms.”

Building friendships

As part of her job as a social embeddedness analyst at ASU, Pernat was able to interview the Afghan students for her idea to create more engagement with them.

“They talked about how difficult it’s been to build friendships with American students, and how it can be comforting and helpful to have a relationship with faculty and staff,” she said.

So Pernat reached out to One Heart, a Phoenix-based refugee-mentoring nonprofit.

“I thought about how we could utilize their model and apply it to a college campus,” she said.

Pernat also met many Mirabella residents through her job and came to value their wisdom and experience.

“I found it extremely rewarding to build friendships with individuals in different stages of life,” she said.

“It’s given me a community at ASU that I didn’t realize I was missing.”

The Mirabella at ASU community, which opened in 2020, is focused on lifelong learning and exactly the kind of intergenerational exchange that happened last week. Residents are integrated onto the ASU campus — not only in the classroom, but also at arts and sporting events and through volunteer opportunities. The community is part of the Learning Enterprise at ASU, an ecosystem of lifelong learning opportunities.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Last Friday’s event was one of several throughout the semester in Pernat’s honors project, the Intercultural Mentorship and Friendship Program. Pernat designed the Mirabella get-together to be a guided conversation, plus a potluck.

“I’ve learned that everyone can connect over food,” she said.

In the spring, Pernat will interview all the participants to get feedback to create a handbook or other proposal for a more formalized campus model of the Intercultural Mentorship and Friendship Program.

Winter memories

As the sun began to set over the rooftop patio, the Mirabella residents, the Afghan women and several other ASU student guests split into groups and engaged in a series of “icebreaker” question-and-answer conversations.

One question was, “What’s your favorite winter memory?”

Lou Fox, a Mirabella resident, described how his family would escape the weather.

“It was cold in Chicago so we would go to Florida and be on the beach, which was nice for Christmas,” he said. He described how he and his wife still make holiday cookies and ship them to family members.

Mirabella resident Linda Redman kept the Chicago theme going.

“My grandparents lived in Chicago and I used to love going down and seeing the big department stores downtown that put up these amazing, elaborate, Christmas winter scenes with movable parts,” she said.

“You’d just walk down the street and look at all these window displays.”

Hamid said that her favorite winter memory was of her mother, who would crochet.

“She made everything for us, like gloves, scarf, everything. Every winter we had new ones in different colors and I was so excited that it should be winter as soon as possible so I could use my new gloves,” she said.

Hamid and all of the Afghan students described how much they miss their families, especially as Shabe Yalda approaches.

“Right now, I’m so happy that they are alive, and this is more important for me than anything,” she said.

After the conversation sessions, it was time to eat. A large table was filled with food, including a dish brought by the Afghan women of lamb, rice, raisins and almonds.

Sheila Zieglowsky says she loves living at Mirabella and enjoys the book club and the weekly lectures by ASU professors. She volunteers every Saturday at the Pitchfork Panty, a food bank for students in need.

She did think her cooking days were behind her when she moved to Mirabella, so she had to borrow a big pot so she could boil potatoes to make potato salad for the potluck dinner with the Afghan students.

“Maybe this will be a new taste for them,” she said.

Top image: Nasiba Hakimi, an ASU student who is from Afghanistan, talks about her holiday traditions at an intercultural event at the Mirabella at ASU community on Dec. 9. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU

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