Houda Makansi and Melanie Cooley are the co-hosts of Mn Huna: Finding Refuge in Friendship, a community radio program aired in Tucson, Arizona, USA.
The unlikely friendship between Houda and Melanie is given voice as a way to break down barriers and misconceptions between Americans and Syrian refugees; and to open listeners’ hearts.
Houda was born in Aleppo, Syria. She was 14 when she and her family fled to Jordan to escape the war. In 2016, when she was 18, the family was resettled to Tucson. Houda was placed back in 9th grade, so that she could develop her English skills. She will graduate high school—for the second time—in 2019 and plans to study nursing.
An activist and community organizer her whole life, Melanie is committed to creating connections between people. She has a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from the University of Michigan and has spoken at TEDxTucson.
Catriona Mitchell: What made you did you decide to work with Syrian refugees?
I grew up an outsider in my hometown. Different religion, different diet, different values. I know what it feels like not to belong. But rather than make me timid, it made me bold. When I was in school, I befriended the new kids. I volunteered in the English Language Learners class, made friends with the Afghan and Laotian girls.
I had intended to volunteer with refugees someday. But in 2015, as the xenophobic rhetoric from politicians started to heat up, I decided that “someday” was now.
Are there many incidents of violence or unrest affecting Syrian refugees in your part of the world?
There have been a few incidents I know of. Most of the targets have been women, as their hijab makes them more visible. The most extreme that I am aware of was recent—a man yelled at a group of young women wearing hijabs at a coffee shop and then knocked over their table.
Houda’s mom has been verbally harassed a couple of times—but strangers also compliment her on her headscarf, which definitely reads as a way of communicating openness and support.
Why are you such a fierce believer in forging connections between seemingly disparate people?
I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and would always want to alleviate that suffering.
I am always curious to learn about other people’s lives and cultures.
And at a hard-nosed level, it’s self-defense—for myself, for my community, for the world I want to live in and leave for those who come after me. Xenophobia drives wedges between peoples. Hatred and demonization of “the other” creates violence and suffering.
Through reaching out to my new Muslim neighbors, I can contribute to flipping the script. I can help write a different story, both here in Tucson, and in what my Arabic friends tell their family and friends in the Middle East.
Brené Brown writes, “People are hard to hate up close. Move in.” I try to move in closer myself and to invite others—who might not be as bold on their own—to move in with me.
How long have you and Houda known each other?
We met in 2016, about three weeks after her family arrived in the United States, at a dinner for Arizona Welcomes Refugees.
What was your first impression of Houda?
Houda was very quiet at that first dinner. I had no idea that she spoke English until much later!
First impressions: intelligent, curious, quick-witted, serious, devout, courageous, with a passionate sense of justice and desire to make the world a better place. Those impressions have definitely borne out as I’ve gotten to know her. Though I’ve also learned that she’s a bit goofy and has a taste for horror movies.
Who picks the themes for your radio show?
My goal has been to support Houda. It’s her show: her voice and thoughts should drive it.
Houda has written her own scripts since the beginning. At first she wrote in Arabic and we had a couple of translators who helped her.
She has casually shared stories that to us have been horrifying. Her experience of “normal” and ours are deeply different—no pre-teen should have to pick up bits of flesh from a bombing victim in her schoolyard so that the other girls will stop screaming. To Houda, that story was not too bad compared to what other people have gone through. To us, it was a heart-wrenching story that an American audience needed to hear, to understand Houda’s experience.
Right now, fear-based stories have a loud voice in our media. So it is vital that we raise our voices to share our stories of curiosity and friendship, of real connections between real people.
The name of your show is ‘Finding Refuge in Friendship’. How do you find refuge with Houda?
Houda’s family had lived close to their extended family for generations. Being far from family is new to them. Traumatic. So they have adopted me as theirs. And they have become my family.
What’s the thing that binds you most closely?
We are bound by openness, curiosity, and love. We take each other as we are and try to understand each other’s world-views.
I’m a born-and-raised vegetarian. Syrian cuisine is meat-heavy. But Houda’s mom always makes a Melanie-friendly meal when I visit.
When I’m out with the girls or their mom, and I see that their hijab has slipped, I’ll let them know. Not because I care whether a little bit of their hair or skin is showing, but because I know they do.
What do you hope to achieve with the radio show?
In some ways, Houda has become a virtual Syrian friend to listeners. The station frequently hears from listeners who are deeply moved by hearing her stories. Her stories are a bridge that allows them to connect.
Why do you believe the sharing of stories like Houda’s is important?
Right now, fear-based stories have a loud voice in our media. So it is vital that we raise our voices to share our stories of curiosity and friendship, of real connections between real people. Because connecting across differences is difficult, scary, vulnerable. And it is what will save us as a species.
Melanie teaching Houda pronunciation of the word “spiritual” during a recording session. Photo by Radwa Abdel-Barry
I have been in Tucson one year and seven months. I had learned some basic things in English, but when I arrived here most people speaking fast, so that not help too much. It’s hard for me to tell how much I have learned. But bit by bit I have been learning more. That’s what Melanie says.
The first American friend since we arrived to Tucson was Melanie. I had met her at a monthly potluck. She was a welcoming person, open and friendly. At the beginning, I did not think one day we will become friends. Not because we don’t want or we hate each other, but language and culture I thought will prevent us. But I forgot heart and humanity will not prevent us, and Melanie have both. I feel that she became part of my family – and her husband, Nick. Our friendship like what Nick always saying, “Friends are family we choose.”
There are many things Melanie taught me, about living in America and how Americans live. That is so important for me, because I am building new life here and I need all [of the information] to integrate with that.
The radio show taught me that I can express myself and share my stories. I learned that there are many people who do not know about refugees, and their life in their countries, not because they don’t want to, but they don’t have anyone who will tell them.
All feedback l got from people who are listening to the show were encouraging me. Our show can make our stories accessible to them, and by that I see their sympathy with us.
You can learn more about Melanie and Houda’s radio show, and listen to episodes, here.
Feature image by Jody Greer Cummins.
Other photos by Kathleen Dreier (unless otherwise indicated.)