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THE FREEDOM ISSUE

P H O T O F E AT U R E S T O R Y
MAKE AMERICA
WALK AGAIN
L
BY ARI HONARVAR

ast year, when hundreds of Syrian refugees came to San Diego, My neighbor and I drove home in silence. I wondered if his being amongst Middle
my community wanted to help. My family, friends, and neighbors Easterners who wore hijab and spoke in their native tongue had only served to
donated money, supplies, and time to help with this transition. As reaffirm his anti-immigration stance. But as we parted he said, “Let me know if
happy as I was with the outpouring of support, I wanted to reach out you need help with more deliveries. I’m happy to help anytime.” He had tears in
to my staunchly anti-immigration neighbor, but wasn’t quite sure his eyes.
how. I’d seen both sweetness and trauma on the faces of refugee
kids, and was wondering how my neighbor would respond to this. So one day I When my neighbor came over a few days after, he brought donuts and told me
asked him to help me deliver a piece of furniture to a family who was struggling. it’s our responsibility to do what we can to help the refugees. I was speechless.
This reaffirmed my theory that if we could have more face-to-face encounters
While we were in his truck, I told him stories I’d heard from the refugees. When with those we rarely know, we would be less divisive and more cooperative as a
we arrived at the apartment building, the woman who had asked for the dresser society. But how?
came to greet us in the parking lot, with her three year old clinging to her leg.
By all accounts, she looked like a typical young mother, but when she spoke, I In this age of isolation, our lives keep us compartmentalized. We live in the
detected slurring and a slight tremor in her voice. I recalled reading in her bio that midst of a loneliness epidemic, where the lack of belonging and community
her speech was affected by the trauma she’d experienced. has been linked to high suicide rates and an increased sense of despair. Mobile
communication devices are a major culprit, as studies from the Journal of Social
As we struggled to maneuver the dresser out of the truck, refugee kids gathered and Personal Relationships indicate that their mere presence negatively affects
around us, and I heard a man’s voice offer to help. When I turned to respond, I saw human relationships. Difficulty in cultivating and sustaining relationships is also
it was a refugee who was living in the apartment complex; he was missing a leg due to the fact that the United States has one of the worst work/life balance scores
and used crutches. I glanced over at my neighbor, who was wearing an expression in the world. (We’re second to last, according to the Organization for Economic
of discomfort. He waited in the car as I delivered the dresser and chatted with the Cooperation and Development.)
refugees.

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T H E D I S PAT C H BY F O L K R E B E L L I O N

IF WE COULD HAVE M
ENCOUNTERS WITH TH
KNOW, OUR SOCIETY
DIVISIVE AND MORE C
P H O T O F E AT U R E S T O R Y

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THE FREEDOM ISSUE

MORE FACE-TO-FACE
HOSE WE RARELY
Y WOULD BE LESS
COOPERATIVE.

P H O T O F E AT U R E S T O R Y
We no longer have an organic multi-generational fashioned post-dinner constitutional around the
support system. Instead, we have work, school, neighborhood. Since I had taken an informal survey
scheduled activities, and playdates. We have less time and knew many families would be finished with
with the family and friends we already have, let alone dinner by 7:00 PM, the start time was set for 7:15.
enough bandwidth to make new relationships. People also said their least favorite day was Monday,
so we chose it as the designated day of the week.
And, well, how does one convince people to come to
a gathering with the sole purpose of getting to know Since September 2017, we have been meeting at a
people they aren’t already friends with? local cafe on Monday evenings to walk for thirty
minutes or longer. Our group ranges in age from 0
These were legitimate obstacles in my goal of helping to 89, and many of us are meeting for the first time.
people meet. To make matters more complicated, I We are unplugged, getting exercise, helping with
envisioned a gathering which required little to no neighborhood safety, and, best of all, we’re building
effort or money on the part of the organizers and sustainable relationships.
participants. That meant restaurants and cafes and
our homes were out. Being a writer and having a One of the pleasant surprises of these walks has been
sedentary work routine, I selfishly wanted to get some children’s engagement. Kids are now a permanent
exercise. I wanted to include kids, but didn’t want fixture of this gathering. My 10 year old gets so
them to be attached to a device. I wanted to include excited, he begins asking when we’re going to leave
pets, and people who are allergic to pets. Weekends an hour before the designated time. Other parents
are packed and daytime is reserved for work for most recount their own conversations with their walk-
people. The only logical outcome of this weeding-out enthusiast children. By the time we converge at our
exercise was that the gathering had to be mobile and meeting spot, children’s joyful squeals can be heard
outdoors on a weekday evening. around the neighborhood. They have begun their
own ritual of playing question games and visiting the
It turned out the solution was quite simple: go on a neighborhood playground while adults take two laps
walk. around the park track.

So I placed a notice on nextdoor.com for an old- Once our routine was set in motion, we continued

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T H E D I S PAT C H BY F O L K R E B E L L I O N

WE LIVE IN
LONE
PHOTO BY ARI HONARVAR
P H O T O F E AT U R E S T O R Y

going on walks even after it became chilly at night. naturally shift to midterm elections, homelessness,
“I was surprised at how enchanting it was to walk volunteer opportunities, the challenges of raising
during the Halloween and Christmas seasons,” said kids, and personal stories.
Steffanie Fry, one of the original members of the walk.
“During those nights, the lights and decorations One neighbor told me that one dark winter night,
really inspired a sense of community.” while living in Cambridge, MA, he decided to commit
suicide. He was in his twenties and living in a dingy
Fry joined the group for social time with her neighbors. apartment, with the gas burner in the wall for the
“It is an opportunity to get to know people more than heater. He turned on the gas without first lighting it.
just a wave and hello.” Just before passing out completely, he turned off the
gas and decided to walk to a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts
It’s true. From the beginning, during each walk, down the street. “I just cannot recall or identify a
I would learn something new about one or more conscious reason as to why I decided to go for a walk,”
of our neighbors. I learned that Fry once sang the he said. “I thought I was going to return to my pad and
Japanese National Anthem for the International Gay [turn on] the gas again—except for what happened
Square Dancing Competition. Another neighbor, inside the coffee shop.”
Lupe Rios, who migrated from Mexico to the U.S. at a
young age, has never lived without her mother. “My Inside Dunkin’ Donuts, he sat at the counter, near the
mother has always been supportive and avantgarde only other customer in the place. The other man looked
in her approach to life. I’ve always gotten along with so sad, he was almost in tears. My neighbor reached
her,” she said. This past April, the mother-daughter out and put his arm on the stranger’s shoulder. That’s
pair celebrated their 31st year in our neighborhood. when the man collapsed, crying, into my neighbor’s
Another neighbor told me about her life in Malaysia arms. When the man finally was able to talk about his
where she worked for a nonprofit. One woman was life, my neighbor just listened, barely holding back
excited about getting chickens. tears. The man had gone to Dunkin’ Donuts for “one
last cup of coffee and a favorite donut” before putting
Rios said she is surprised at how friendly and caring an end to his life.
our neighbors are. It only took a few walks before
we began opening up to each other. Conversations Neither man carried out their suicide. Instead, my

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THE FREEDOM ISSUE

N THE MIDST OF A
ELINESS EPIDEMIC.

P H O T O F E AT U R E S T O R Y

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T H E D I S PAT C H BY F O L K R E B E L L I O N

START YOUR OWN


neighbor befriended the man, keeping an eye on
him. He said he discovered the amazing joy of seeing
someone so down in the dumps gradually find his way
to a satisfying life. “Of course, in the process, I forgot
NEIGHBORHOOD WALK:
about my [own] suicidal intentions,” he added.
1. The host should pick a well-known area in
their neighborhood, like a public park, in
If it weren’t for these walks, I might have walked past front of a popular cafe, or a high-foot-
this neighbor without knowing he even lived near traffic intersection.
me. Instead, I’m getting to know and appreciate him
in a way that might not have been possible otherwise. 2. Post a notice on nextdoor.com with the
Other participants also tell me they enjoy our new date, time, starting point, and invitation.
tradition, that they walk away feeling energized and
3. Ask everyone to bring flashlights or glow
light. If adults can’t come, they send their kids to join
sticks for when it gets dark.
us.
4. Pick a lovely route which would take 30-45
They say “it takes a village.” One recent Monday our minutes (round-trip) of leisurely walking,
walking group had a Trump voter, a gay man, an and lead the way!
Israeli, a Muslim, a Mexican, and their collective kids,
all getting to know one another. In this age of isolation,
we need nourishing (and fun!) ways of maintaining
a community by bringing together members of PRO TIP:
different generations, just as our ancestors did. In
Run a pilot walk or two with your family and
our neighborhood, we’re discovering we like our
close friends. You can then identify perks
neighbors and want to spend more time with them.
and snags, and suggest options when bringing
Perhaps we’re on our way to creating that mythical the walk to all neighbors.
village after all.
P H O T O F E AT U R E S T O R Y

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