Moving to a new city brings with it many challenges, such as finding grocery stores,
registering kids for school, and locating the public library. But when you move to
a foreign country and don’t speak the language, those challenges intensify. This is
the situation faced by families moving to Ann Arbor from other countries each year.
In 1958 Esther Dunham, an Ann Arbor resident, learned from a friend at the University
of Michigan International Center that the number of foreign graduate students coming
to the University with their families was increasing. It was common for the husbands
to study in class all day while the wives, who faced the challenges of learning a new
language and culture on their own, often felt lonely and isolated. Dunham and her neighbors took action and began an informal gathering of neighbors held each month. Next, they added English conversation groups and then a newsletter. By 1963 Dunham’s
group, International Neighbors, became an official nonprofit charitable organization.
A variety of activities
International Neighbors’ emphasis is on activities that strengthen friendships between
women while promoting cultural exchange and helping participants feel welcome in the
United States. All women are welcome to participate.Groups meet regularly at libraries,
churches, cafés or members’ homes. The nonprofit is funded through donations, with
no fee to participate. All group leaders and board members are volunteers.
A dentist abroad
Aya Fujiwara was a dentist in Japan and came to the U.S. with her husband and
three children, so that her husband could do research with the University of Michigan
Medical School. This is Fujiwara’s second year in an English conversation group. She
comes prepared with a pocket translator that she occasionally uses to look up a word.
She enjoys other women and is happy that her 2-year-old daughter can attend the nursery
during the meeting, with other children. Fujiwara believes the organization needs to
advertise more. She loves the groups she has attended and wants more women to know
When Sonoko Sato’s husband was transferred from Japan to Ann Arbor to work with Toyota, she began looking for resources to help her adjust to life in America. She discovered the International Neighbors website and attended an open house. There she found an English conversation group that would fit her schedule and allow her son to attend as well. To Sato, “This time is precious!” as she can sit with other women and speak English while learning new things. She enjoys the small group setting that allows everyone to have the opportunity to speak. Sato, who is expecting another boy this spring, is nervous about adjustment to a new baby, but is grateful that friends through International Neighbors are supportive.
Hearing others’ experiences
Satoko Hikage, a dermatologist from Japan, came to the United States for her husband’s studies. As the mom of two daughters, Hikage was excited when a friend told her about International Neighbors’ conversation groups with free babysitting. For Hikage, the chance to speak English has been very helpful. She has enjoyed getting to know women from around the world, learning about their cultures, and hearing their experiences.
Originally from Japan, Sayaka Aoyama is the mother of two sons. Her family came to Michigan for her husband to study business. Apart from International Neighbors functions she speaks Japanese almost exclusively. Attending the weekly conversation group allows her to practice her English skills and meet other women. She has made new friends and even carpools to group meetings with her neighbor, who also attends.
Valeria Mora was a busy mom and practicing psychologist in her native Chile when her husband received a scholarship to U of M to work with the Institute of Social Research. Mora, who had studied English, was excited to come to the U.S., yet she found it isolating to be in a new country. She was at home with her toddler during the days while her husband
and two older children were attending school, when she heard about International Neighbors at the community center in her housing complex. It’s wonderful to find a weekly group where her young son is welcome and where she can speak English, talk and laugh with other women. Mora values the friendships she has made.
Valeria Mora and Luciano Melipillan
A brief visit
Hacer Kirli (not pictured) was a student in Istanbul studying Islamic law when her husband was admitted at the University of Michigan. Only here for a year, and wanting to make the most of her time in America, she attends an English conversation group. Kirli has been delighted with visits from International Neighbors friends congratulating her and meeting
her new baby daughter, and looks forward to attending the group again, once her baby is older.
Truly International Neighbors is building bridges of friendship and understanding, one woman at a time. To find out more about International Neighbors visit international-neighbors.org
Photo Credit: Brett Moyer