* Smita Netra is a Communications volunteer with the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.
I came to this country from India about a year ago. I was newly wed, a little nervous, a little confused and not just a little tired. Idleness is a human’s worst enemy and after two months of actively looking for something to keep me busy, anything to keep my sanity intact, I stumbled across a volunteer position at the American Red Cross. And as they say, the rest is history.
On my first day on the job, I was as nervous as little girl on her first day of school. The butterflies in my stomach were not there because I was starting a new job but because I was scared of whether people would accept me. My irrational fear was because I looked different, I spoke with an accent and I just felt strange in this new country. But the moment I walked into the communications department, three faces looked at me. To my relief, they were all smiling.
I know it sounds silly to give so much importance to a smile. Trust me when I say this, we take smiles for granted. A smile is the first step in acceptance. The genuine smiles that I saw on my colleagues’ faces made me feel a little more welcome and a lot less anxious.
The weeks went by and I received amazing assignments and projects to work on. My colleagues were extremely supportive and understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, although I must say it took them a while to pronounce my name correctly!
Over time I started to get to know more people in the building and to be honest, it felt wonderful. Yes, there were awkward moments of silence – meeting a person from a different culture can put you in a spot where you are thinking of not saying anything that might offend the other person. It’s like an auto correct function in your brain, only much faster and less reliable.
I love how people give high fives or ask about your weekends and I love our intellectual discussions on politics and religion. I always call one of my colleagues my American History teacher and the other my little ray of sunshine.
A very profound and memorable moment for me here was when I was chosen as the Volunteer of the Year. It was completely unexpected and I was stunned. I honestly thought I received the email notice as a prank. I read it at least a hundred times before I believed it to be true. The fact that Red Cross had chosen me among others over such a short time reinforced my faith in them. I knew I had come to the right place only because I was surrounded by the right people who had accepted me for who I was. These were the people who made me feel at home away from home.
The reason I believe in the Red Cross and its humanitarian services around the world is because, in my opinion, the Red Cross and its people understand the true meaning of humanity. Acceptance is the first step. The Red Cross has shown me that compassion starts at home, wherever home may be.