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One Door At A Time: Henrico Couple Brings Back Neighborly Values

giving gifts to neighbors
Hina Latif and her husband Salaam Bhatti distribute gifts to neighbors each time they move to a new community. Bhatti says he learned these gestures from his mother and the language of kindness from Mr. Rogers. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa)

Only about a quarter of people who live in cities and surrounding suburbs know all or most of their neighbors, according to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center. Of those who do know their neighbors, about half reported regular face-to-face conversations. One Henrico couple aims to change these trends in their community, by knocking on one door at a time. In our series Where We Live, WCVE’s Yasmine Jumaa has more for Virginia Currents.

Transcript:

Salaam Bhatti: Still moving in...welcome, welcome.

Salaam Bhatti and his wife Hina Latif, are still unpacking at their new Henrico apartment. But they took a break today, to prepare something special.  

Hina Latif: This one’s dark chocolate, but some of them have milk chocolate, as well…

In one hand, Hina holds up a package of thin, chocolate-filled wafers…in the other, a round blue tin of assorted sugar-cookies…

Salaam: You can’t say meeting without eating!

The couple takes a unique approach to meeting their neighbors...handing out gift bags is a long-standing custom for the two.

Salaam: I learned it from my mom, it was just something that she did and I saw how impactful it was…

A few years after September 11th, while growing up in Pennsylvania,  Salaam and his family got new next-door neighbors. It was a Marine, his wife and two kids. Salaam’s mom swapped recipes and sometimes even meals with the woman...still, her husband kept his distance.

Salaam: He was very stoic. He would never meet with us, what he did do was he made this little concrete memorial on the side of his house facing us that said: 9/11, never forget.

That didn’t discourage Salaam’s mother..

Salaam: And slowly but surely throughout all the gifts, all the invites...he softened up and over time, you know, just kept chipping away and...I mean, he’s family at this point.

Salaam and Hina’s families are both from Pakistan. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and had similar experiences connecting with her neighbors…

Hina: We lived in a very white, affluent neighborhood and so being very approachable to our neighbors, in the beginning, was very difficult and no one really did that. Nobody interacted with one another.

Hina’s mother also gave out gifts during every holiday season...without exception.

Hina: Regardless of how much it snows, we don't even celebrate Christmas. But it's important for us to acknowledge other people celebrations.

The concept of giving back to the community was instilled in them as children, and has grown ever since.

Salaam: I grew up in an immigrant household and we spoke Urdu at home. I learned English from Mr. Rogers and his English was one of:  positivity and curiosity and kindness. So, I like to think I learned the best English.

Salaam says Mr. Rogers reinforced the importance of being a good neighbor, with his messages of acceptance.

Salaam: Meeting people who are different than you, inviting them in, welcoming them and just being good to people overall.

Hina: I think it's really important that we bring back this understanding of, you know, what it means to be a community. The sharing of food and stuff...It makes it more of a homely or family lifestyle…

The couple hopes to be present and supportive, like an extension of one’s family when relatives are far away...

Salaam: And, you know, just be a shoulder to lean on. Through thick and thin. We want to be there for them. I think that's what a neighbor is all about…

Despite their good will, Salaam and Hina haven’t always been able to connect with their neighbors...and having a neighbor that doesn’t greet you back can create tension.  

Hina: There are personalities that you can't break it. You cannot just change some people's personalities and expectations, and so, how do you live with that?

Hina and Salaam have greeted some neighbors in passing, and, so far they’ve all seemed welcoming.

Hina: So I'm excited to actually meet them today. They've seen me in and out, me rushing with suitcases every weekend and they probably are like, why is this girl not settled in yet?

Salaam: Good God. They were probably like, why do two people have so many boxes coming into this place? And I agree.

And on that note, they shuffle around, and get ready for the gift exchange...meaning it’s time to finally meet the neighbors.

Salaam: Hey! We’re your neighbors, we just moved in

Heather: Well Hello!

The neighbor’s name is Heather, she lives across the hall with her sister and two nieces.

After the introduction they chat about their pets including Elvis the cat who has a sinus infection,

Heather: How an indoor cat has a sinus infection, I don’t know...Salaam: Cats!

And their fluffy dog named Sarah

Salaam: what kind of dog...um American Eskimo...

Salaam and Hina give their neighbors their phone numbers in-case they need anything…

Heather: I appreciate it thank you very much, yeah and if you guys need anything either we’re here feel free.

The couple goes downstairs and knocks on a few more doors. They meet more of their neighbors and hand out some more gift bags.

Back at their apartment, they’re pleased with how things played out.

Salaam:  And our neighbors right next door, they invited us in! That was pretty cool.

Hina and Salaam look forward to hosting the newly-acquainted neighbors, and strengthening the social fabric of the apartment complex...

Hina: For Salaam and I, you know, we make it a point and made it a point to get to know our neighbors because we live next door to you, you know, like we're working, you know, it will be raising kids and in, in these communities. And so it's really important to, you know, be friendly with your neighbors.

Mr. Rogers said “the greatest gift you ever give is your honest self”…And that’s what Hina and Salaam will continue to bring to the neighborhood. For Virginia Currents, I’m Yasmine Jumaa, WCVE News.