From nervous newcomer to confident contributor to Hanoi Community

From nevous newcomer to confident contributor to the Hanoi community, Barbara Ali shares her story about her involvement with the Hanoi international women’s club.

I never thought I'd be standing o­n stage in front of hundreds of people, giving a speech and enjoying it. But o­n a sunny Sunday afternoon in November, I found myself clutching the microphone as I thanked the many people involved in the 2005 Hanoi International Women's Club (HIWC) Festival Charity Bazaar.


To my utter amazement, I wasn't scared. I didn't shake or quiver, stumble or stutter. In just two years of being involved in the HIWC, I’d found not o­nly enjoyment working with a great group of women, but also the surprising satisfaction of stepping outside my comfort zone to do things I'd never imagined myself doing, including working in unison with a lot of people from a vast array of cultural backgrounds and experiences. It was o­nly two years ago that my family and I stepped off the plane to start our new life in Hanoi. I had no idea how drastically my life would change. I was happy in my home: I was comfortable. I would never have been described as "outgoing." But it didn't take long to realize that Hanoi is a long way from my home in Pakistan. My normal house routine was turned upside-down: I didn't have my old friends to call up or visit. It's a long day when you are in a new country and have yet to meet those people who will become your good friends.


I can't remember exacdy how I heard about the HIWC, but when I did , I decided to take the plunge and attend their Newcomer's Coffe Morning. My mother-in-law, who lives with us, also came along. I remember shaking at the knees when I was asked, along with other newcomers, to do a small introduction. For 10 years I had done nothing but look after my children, and was convinced I would be a total bore.


I stood in disbelief when a month or so later I was asked to help the coordinator arrange the Newcomers' Coffee Mornings. Coffe mornings are a monthly event hosted by a HIWC member at her home. It is a great way of meeting new and exist­ing members. You learn, through informal conversation, what is going o­n in and around Hanoi, as well as activities within the HlWC. At these meetings, many newcomers form friendships that remain strong and even long after they have left Hanoi.


I remember walking in wearing o­ne of my formal Asian suits trying to look businesslike, carrying a hand­bag and a pile of papers, o­nly to find them relaxed in jeans talking, disagreeing, and drinking coffee.What struck me o­n entering was their overwhelming acceptance of a newcomer into their circle.


That first Newcomers' Coffee Morning seems so long ago, and much has changed for me. From a nervous newcomer, I am now the HIWC President, but I remember what it was like to be a new person in Hanoi. Now I make a point of first asking newcomers whether they would like to introduce themselves. They, as I o­nce did, may feel appre­hension about talking to a group of strangers.


Shortly afterward, Laurie Reece Evans, then president, asked me to be the Corporate Sponsorship Coordinator for the Festival Charity Bazaar 2004. That's when things began to change for me: my confi­dence grew. I sent more than 250 leners to donors, and the moment I got my first response I called Laurie and literally howled down the phone “I’ve got my first donation!” I was ecstatic, determined, and eager for more. Yet when Laurie asked me to become her Vice President, I recoiled again - sure there was no way I could take o­n the feat. Or so I thought.


Sometime after accepting the title ofVice President, the Community Aid Canminee (CAC) invited us to accompany their coordinators to the Cuba Hospital. About 30 children from provinces close to Hanoi were undergoing surgery to correct cleft palates. As soon as we entered the hospital ward, we could see how much the parents relied o­n us to provide a glimmer of hope in their children lives. The children didn't seem to be worried by their facial flaws, as their smiles lit up the room. We had tears in our eyes - it was neither sympathy nor sorrow, but happiness at being able to make a difference. After the surgery, they could lead normal lives. Eating and drinking would no longer be an ordeal. They would no longer be "different."


Would I have been able to experi­ence this joy had I not become involved in HIWC? Probably not. To reach out to people and help, even in a small way, and to see how that help is received, is a truly magnifi­cent feeling. It's a feeling HIWC members experience as they become involved in our many projects that help communities and individuals overcome adversity.


This past year, the Community Aid Committee (CAC) Coordinator, Kalpana Scholtes-Dash, joined me in taking o­n a charity project called "For Your Eyes," funding 57 eye­damaged children who were med­ically fit for surgery. We made daily trips to the Eye Hospital o­n Ba Trieu. I contacted several airlines to ask if they would agree to donate in-flight "kiddie bags," and was thrilled when some agreed.


The young patients were over­whelmed with the flashing of cam­eras, television, and presents. It was clear that they were thinking "What is going o­n... is this what happens when you have an operation?" Now I understood that joining the HIWC and CAC was turning out to be o­ne of the best decisions I'd ever made.


Even my husband's perception of the HIWC was changing. He thought, as I am sure many do, that women in the HIWC just sat around over lunch and coffee gossiping. Yes, gossip we do-but a lot more as well: we make a marked difference in the lives of women, children, and small communities.


I became President of HIWC in September this year and, although it has o­nly been three months, I've attended numerous ceremonies, openings, and, of course, the Bazaar-where approximately 4,000 people from the expatriate and local community come together for a day of fun. The Bazaar represents just o­ne way in which we in the Hanoi International Women's Club, and indeed the entire expatriate community in Hanoi, can join to share talents and ideas as a way of benefiting the whole community.


The Bazaar also represents the unity of the foreign community in Hanoi, as we endeavor to demon­strate our commitment to assist our Vietnamese friends who have wel­comed us into their beloved country.


In two short years, I've found com­panionship, challenges, and enjoyed achievements that I never thought I'd experience. I've learned so much about myself, my host country, and indeed people from many other countries, that I now feel comfort­able talking to anyone from any­where. The HIWC can bring out the best in a community, but it can also bring out the best in individuals./.

International relation departement (Heritage)