Meet Bella. She doesn’t know she’s a good-will ambassador, working on bridging the gap between cultures, but, she is. She has helped open up more conversations with my neighbors than I could ever imagine.
As my neighborhood began to change and I was blessed with tons of New Americans to meet and greet and get to know every day, one of the first things I noticed was their deep fear of my sweet Bichon-Poodle, Bella. Now, in my eyes, Bella is a little 10-pound ball of fluffy energy that is scared of most everything. She thinks she’s a person and, well, maybe that’s because I often treat her that way. But, to my new Muslim neighbors, she was an unknown variable in their daily life that caused fear when they met her unexpectedly in the hallway or sidewalk.
I was initially curious about this so I did a bit of research (I’m no expert by any means) and found out that in Islam, the saliva of a dog is considered impure and should not be touched. Rather than risk having their clothes or themselves become unclean, it is best to avoid dogs at all cost. In my apartments, this sometimes meant women dropping their groceries and running or small girls hiding behind their mothers crying when we saw them. It broke my heart to see my new neighbors so scared of my dog, so I made it my goal to help them become more comfortable with her around, while respecting their beliefs and concerns.
At first, it was as simple as showing them that when they passed me in a narrow hallway or on the sidewalk, I would pull Bella close and smile, letting them know it was safe to pass by. Early on, they’d pass by me, leery, watching Bella every second. But as time went by and they realized I wasn’t going to cruelly let her attack them, they’d walk by without a second glance. We were then able to exchange smiles and hellos and they knew they didn’t need to run away if they saw Bella.
From those early moments, I then noticed (especially the children) hanging around and looking inquisitively at Bella a lot. So, I would pick her up in my arms and ask if they had any questions about Bella. You know what I love about kids? If you ask them if they have any questions, they sure do! The first thing I was often asked was “will she eat me?” Now, as an adult, I know how silly this question sounds, but when I looked into their eyes and saw the true concern there, I knew this first question had to be answered kindly and respectfully. So, I’d remind them how little she is and I’d show them her tiny teeth and say “No, she could never eat you, she’s too tiny. And besides, she likes to eat watermelon.” These children would laugh and look at me like I was joking (which I wasn’t – she loves watermelon!).
It didn’t take long for them to learn her name and ask me new questions every day: “Does Bella go to daycare?” “Does she watch TV?” “What does she do when you’re gone?” “Why does she go to the bathroom outside?”
Now, each day when I take her out, they say hello to Bella and smile at her. She sometimes smiles back if she’s not too concerned with whatever scent is on the ground. I get to hear them tell new friends, “Bella won’t eat you! She likes watermelon!!!” And one brave neighbor even offered to help me walk her one day.
Did this happen overnight? Or in a week? How about a year? No, this change of hearts has actually taken about 3-4 years. But as I’ve learned in life, relationships take time, change takes time, and building trust takes time. And sometimes in life, all of these things can happen in the most unlikely of places and they’re always a blessing.