Over the centuries, The Banyan tree has taken on significance as a symbol of fertility, life and resurrection. It is a fitting symbol for ‘DesiStoriesAshaUSA’ which presents the stories of South Asians who have wandered far and wide from their ancestral homes, traversing new frontiers and setting down roots and networks in the US. Our goal is to connect and establish closer ties within the diasporas of the South Asian community and facilitate a dialogue with our readers, one story at a time. We will showcase stories of achievement and success and also resiliency and hope during the COVID pandemic.
Our story today features the accomplished Niloufer Merchant, a Minnesota resident of thirty-one years, activist and advocate for underserved populations.
TEDx St CLOUD
On October 14, 2021, Niloufer reached a significant milestone in her multifaceted life journey, when she gave a Tedx Talk to an audience of 500+. This journey began in British Aden, and flourishes in the Twin Cities today.
Niloufer was invited to present at Tedx by the ’St.Cloud’ Tedx committee, a city that has benefited from her generous contributions for 28+ years. She was one of a distinguished line-up of nine luminaries, ranging from a Physicist to a Robotics expert to the President of a University.
The theme of this year’s event was ’Embrace’, giving the audience an opportunity to consider new ideas, and address together the challenges faced as individuals and as a community.
In her Tedx talk, Niloufer highlighted “how emerging theories in neuroscience validate ancient practices. These practices help our nervous systems feel regulated, when we feel safe and socially connected with others”. Niloufer compared the simple practice of drinking tea together in the Indian culture, as a parallel to co-regulating with others.
The Tedx presentation was an affirmation of Niloufer’s life’s commitment and work, and the video can be viewed on YouTube:
TRACING HER MULTI-CULTURAL IDENTITY
“As I look back, I see a kaleidoscope of multicultural experiences that have shaped my life”.
Niloufer was born in the city of Aden, a seaport in Yemen and a British Colony at the time, to hardworking, entrepreneurial parents. Her earliest memories include a mixture of happy-go-lucky days, playing on the sandy beaches of the Red Sea with her siblings. The family lived in the part of the city that was located inside an extinct volcanic crater, providing endless fascination to a young child. Her fondest recollections are of her smiling mother, and the unconditional love she showered on her family. She was the role model in Niloufer’s own parenting journey and her wisdom guides her every day: ”She inspired us to be our best selves in every way”.
As the political power shifted from the British to the Yemeni, sounds of gunfire and civil unrest prompted her parents to send Niloufer and her sister to boarding school in Pune, India for safety and a better education.
The school run by British Anglican nuns was run on strict christian principles, bringing more cultural transition to the eight year old Niloufer, after immersion in the Arab culture of Aden. Niloufer reminisces that her experiences were parallel to the beloved British children book series, ’Mallory Towers’ by Enid Blyton, involving midnight feasts and other escapades.
In Pune, Niloufer was raised and surrounded by a tight knit circle, while her parents were away in Aden. Extended family and the large ‘Colony’ of neighbors: Hindus, Christians, Jews and Muslims enveloped them in their ’Village’, ”an extensive kinship network with many surrogate aunts and uncles”. Every festival and religious holiday was celebrated with gusto.
Niloufer and her sister, surrounded by a loving, nurturing community, were cradled in a cocoon of security.
COMING TO THE US
“Education was a very big thing for my dad”. Having come from humble beginnings, “he was very keen that we would be able to support ourselves”.
Niloufer’s true passion lay in Psychology, but she negotiated a compromise with her father who wanted her to become a medical doctor. If persevering at the sciences for two years was not successful, she was free to pursue her own ‘dream’, which she eventually realized, with a Graduate Masters in Psychology from the University of Pune.
On impulse and at the urging of a friend, she applied and was admitted, with a graduate assistantship, to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and obtained her second Masters in Counseling. But, not before she achieved a life long degree in assimilation, small town America, eurocentrism in course material and racism.
Her next stop was the University of Cincinnati, to pursue and complete a Doctorate in Counseling. She finally had the ‘Doctor’ title that her father had always wanted for his daughter!
A pivotal turning point for Niloufer, which influenced her future advocacy work, was her participation in a racial awareness pilot project in Cincinnati. She was so fascinated and involved with this initiative, that four years later she assumed Directorship of the program.
Around this time she was introduced to her future husband Moiz, born and raised in Mumbai and living in Texas. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married three months later in a traditional Indian wedding, replete with all the rituals of henna, gifts, colorful bridal wear and jewels.
Moiz and Niloufer successfully practiced family parenting. They shared the work of a household based upon skill, not gender. ”My partner does most of the cooking because he is a far better cook”. In adjusting traditional gender roles, her husband supported her career and activism in the community, so Niloufer ”can go do her thing”.
Niloufer found the most satisfaction in her family life. Being the mother of two boys allowed her to experience ”the most esoteric peace work that exists”. They grounded her, by making her focus on the simple realities: ”I’m hungry”; “Can you please help me with my homework”; ”Can you play with me”.
Her joy was boundless in 2021, when their eldest son got married in the United Kingdom, and Niloufer finally had a daughter.
ST. CLOUD UNIVERSITY – SCSU and ADVOCACY
Niloufer moved to St. Cloud, to take a position as Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology at St.Cloud State University in 1991, retiring twenty-eight years later as Professor Emeritus, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Graduate program.
It was a tumultuous time at SCSU with disharmony and unrest. Niloufer worked to bring conflicting sides together and assumed the Co-Chair of the ‘Faculty and Staff of Color Caucus’ for seven years. She held many leadership positions on campus over a thirty year period, including Department Chair.
A key to her classroom success was showing her humanity to her students: ”I might cry with them, be upset about things. I disclose my own struggles and perspectives on the issues”.
Multiculturalism, a binding thread through her entire life, was at the core of her teaching courses. Using an experiential approach on tough issues empowered her students, by taking them on a self-awareness journey. A confrontation of diverse perspectives, finally led them to a realization that they were part of the solution.
Being employed at SCSU University engaged Niloufer in the broader community. She participated in a community diversity task force for the Mayor of St. Cloud, and also served as Interim Director of the SCSU Women’s Center. It was a very fulfilling role for Niloufer, as the mission was to promote women, and respond to issues affecting women on campus and in society.
Niloufer’s devotion to advocacy, and empowerment of knowledge and wellness in underserved populations remained inexhaustible. She was a co-founder of ‘Parents of Children of Color and Concerned Citizens’, and assumed other influential positions in the St.Cloud Community and professional organizations locally and nationally.
At any point she was involved in seven or eight projects, in addition to her teaching responsibilities.
COMPLEXITY OF IDENTITIES
As Niloufer’s time in her adoptive country lengthened, she straddled two, three and four worlds. She dressed, ate, spoke and behaved differently when she was at home versus work, and within her conservative and traditional religious community. She saw herself as a radical feminist in one context and wearing traditional garb and following conservative values in another.
Over the years, she has seen this complex reality in a new light. ”Cultural identity is not static or one-dimensional. It is multi-dimensional and contextual”.
She is true to herself ”in all places, just showing different facets of myself depending on where I am. I have begun to appreciate the beauty of living in multiple worlds. I now embrace the complexity of my identities and I am working on finding the common threads that bind us all”
GARDENING and RELAXING
Gardening has been a solace for her. The garden that Niloufer cultivated in her St.Cloud home helped balance the complexities of her life. She also loves to travel, exploring different culinary experiences, knitting and crocheting.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Retirement has proven elusive for Niloufer. After moving to the Twin Cities from St.Cloud four years ago, her husband’s fervent wish was to spend their retirement years traveling, discovering the bounty of ethnic food in their new environment and spending quality time together.
However, Covid has disrupted many of those dreams. Also, Niloufer’s relentless drive has led her down a different path.
Using the advanced training she had done in trauma related work, and her earlier involvement with ‘Lutheran Social Services’ and the ‘Veterans Resilience Project’, Niloufer set up her own successful practice as a Psychologist, specializing in emotional and relationship issues, PTSD, meditation and mindfulness.
Moiz runs the business side of the practice and was able to fulfill one of ‘his’ key retirement goals: Spending quality time with his wife!!
“Education was a very big thing for my dad”. He believed that a good education would enable ’us to stand on our own two feet’.
Inculcated in this theory from an early childhood, Niloufer’s life journey has proven the veracity of her father’s value system.
DISCUSSION : Our goal is to start a dialogue through the stories we present here. Please send us your thoughts and comments either by leaving a reply or posting a comment at the bottom of this blog, and/or sending an email to ’firstname.lastname@example.org’. We will collate all the feedback we receive and share back with you. (And let us know if you wish to remain anonymous).
A. What has been your evolution during your life journey in the US?
B. What life lessons/insights have you gleaned from Niloufer’s story?
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