Recently, I became acquainted with a young Afghan refugee who has been resettled in the US. She’d only been in the US a few days when I met her on a bitterly cold day in February. I had no idea what she might have or need, so I brought a scarf and warm mittens, some toiletries, tea and snacks. The resettlement agency had given her appropriate winter clothes. Within a few weeks they’d found an apartment for her and given her basic furnishings.
Despite our age difference (she’s 24 and I’m in my sixties), we got on well. She had worked with the US embassy and her English is good. I’ve tutored immigrants learning English for years and am aware of some common cultural disconnects. So much of teaching English involves explaining American history and culture as well as grammar and punctuation. My intention is to be a friend, someone she can trust with questions about confusing customs.
When I mentioned meeting her, a number of women I knew immediately asked what household items she might need. Like me, they’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years and would be happy to give it to someone who can use it. We all have so much. We’d never miss an extra end table, coffeepot, or winter coat. I had the same impulse, but thought I’d wait to see what she wanted and needed.
Her apartment’s furnishings seem sparse by American standards, but she was delighted by her things. She’s accustomed to sharing the kitchen with several families and told me she’s never had so many clothes. I recalibrated my instinct to offer her a bunch of stuff. Should I push my aesthetic on her? Maybe she prefers simplicity. Would the donations from my friends and me make her feel inadequate or signal that she seems poor by American standards?
I’m aware I often overthink things. Maybe she’d love to have more for her apartment. The simple generous reaction friends have had—how can I help—is a good one. Why wouldn’t we help when we have so much? Shouldn’t we?
Yet I know the dynamic between givers and receivers can feel unbalanced. Uncomfortable for the recipient. I’ve already seen my new friend’s deep sense of hospitality. When I visited her and another Afghan family she’s friends with, they insisted on serving me a full meal. Although I wasn’t hungry, I knew it would be rude to refuse, so I ate with them. Similarly, when I gave her the handful of things culled from my closet and kitchen at our first meeting, she gave me a new pair of earrings she had, something I suspect she’d bought for herself.
I try to think how I’d feel if the roles were reversed. Would I simply be grateful, because I needed things and someone cared enough to help? Or would I feel awkward about the charity? In time would my pride be pricked so I became resentful? Trying to be sensitive, not stingy is confusing.