Shaista Kazmi, a Michigan local, was taking care of her elderly mother-in-law and father when she realized that she could use some help. However, when she called local senior service agencies, she realized there was a problem: the services being provided didn’t meet their cultural needs. Kazmi took initiative to found the company Apna Ghar, Urdu for “Your Home,” which provides homecare services catered to those from South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds in Michigan.

One of the projects that Apna Ghar has been working on recently is providing cultural food with nutritional value to homebound seniors. When Kazmi spoke to Meals on Wheels, a senior service that delivers food to the elderly, she found that “they were aware that there were some cultural and religious issues and the halal meats are taken care of in Dearborn.” However, what she “had to explain to them was that their palate was very different.”    

Fortunately, Apna Ghar is planning to work with Meals on Wheels to fill some of these gaps to allow these seniors to use these resources that should be more readily available to them. They are a part of this community. As Kazmi says, many of them worked and raised families here, and thus, their cultural differences shouldn’t make them unable to attain the same services as others.

“We’re just trying to get local agencies to hear their voice because I don’t think their voice was being heard and their needs were being met,” Kazmi mentioned. Though local senior services are likely happy to accommodate this elderly population, they are often unaware of their needs, or that these needs even exist.

This lack of cultural awareness is a problem that’s present in many social, work and school environments and needs to be addressed at every level.

In my daily interactions at school with my colleagues, or even with some school faculty, I sometimes find that lack of cultural awareness. To clarify, I don’t expect people to understand everything about my cultural, religious and socioeconomic background. To fully understand every culture and subculture is impossible, but what I do expect is for people to understand how to speak in a way that is culturally sensitive and to think in a way that is culturally aware. I often find that some people who have questions are too afraid to ask because they’re unsure of exactly what words to use. I expect people to take something new that they learn about my culture as a learning opportunity as opposed to something to ridicule.

That’s what I expect at the University, and often I do find people with those qualities. I acknowledge that the University is making efforts to fix some of these problems by re-evaluating the race and ethnicity requirement and creating an Intergroup Relations minor. I acknowledge that the University is also trying to incorporate halal food in the dining halls to accommodate Muslim students and that they try to communicate with students from different backgrounds to accommodate a range of student needs. 

However, I also do not feel that the University itself strives enough to educate its students and faculty on cultural awareness, which could then be translated into the workplace. This would hopefully also improve campus climate, but only if done effectively by addressing the real gaps. 

Instead of the race and ethnicity requirement being a class that focuses on a single culture, there should be a requirement that educates students on how to conduct themselves in a way that is culturally aware. This could include appropriate language use, American demographics and how to differentiate between stereotypes and realities. However, this is something that professors should also keep in mind when teaching about a specific culture or speaking to a student of a different background. It should be a part of training or orientation so that these gaps are filled.

The University is just one example of where this should be implemented. Although cultural awareness is important in every situation and should be taught to students across many ages and workers in all occupations, it’s something we should strive for, to create a shift so that people appreciate diversity rather than shy away from it.

Rabab Jafri can be reached at rfjafri@umich.edu.

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