Dearest Gargi… letters that bridge generations

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Queanbeyan pen pals… Naazmeen Patel and student Gargi Saroha.

Reporter BELINDA STRAHORN discovers that the pandemic has revived lost art of letter writing. 

PENFRIEND programs are popping up all over the country as children reach out to seniors in order to stay connected.

There may be five decades between them, but these two pen pals are as thick as thieves.

Paired up through a local pen-pal program, the letter-writing duo has forged a formidable friendship that spans generations.

Eight-year-old Gargi Saroha and 59-year-old Naazmeen Patel have been corresponding through letters – yes, old fashioned letters – for more than a month. 

A letter to Gargi from Aunty Naazmeen.

So far, Naazmeen has learnt that Gargi – a student at Queanbeyan East Public School – likes swimming and drawing butterflies and only moved to Australia from New Delhi with her family, one year ago.

Gargi has learnt that Naazmeen, who lives in Queanbeyan, also has Indian heritage; has four children, five grandchildren and likes to cook. 

That these pen pals, and total strangers, found each other just a few weeks ago is a heart-warming — and most unexpected — outcome of the coronavirus crisis.

“She writes beautifully,” says Naazmeen, throwing her arms around her newfound friend. This is the first time the keen correspondents have met face to face. 

“Last week she wrote three pages,” Naazmeen explained.

“I like writing,” Gargi said. “It makes me feel happy.”

Putting pen to paper for almost five weeks, the pair have shared letters, pictures, jokes and heart-warming advice. 

Having migrated to Australia from Fiji 28 years ago with her husband and young family, Naazmeen knows what it’s like to be a stranger in a new country.

In her latest letter to Gargi, Naazmeen writes: “Our festival of Eid is on Sunday. So, there is lots of cooking. We make sweets like barfi and gulab jamun. Then lots of savouries like samosa, spring rolls etc. 

“In normal times we have a lot of visitors during Eid. So, this year we are really sad we won’t be celebrating with anyone.

“I know you miss your family (in India) and it’s hard but please stay positive… things will get better.

“Take care. Regards, Aunty Naazmeen.”

Canberra’s Multicultural Hub chief Zakia Patel… organised the local pen-pal program.

Naazmeen’s daughter Zakia Patel runs Canberra’s Multicultural Hub, she’s the brainchild of the pen-pal program. 

Letter writing has played an important role in the 32-year-old’s life.

“My pen pal growing up was my grandma, she lived in Fiji, I was six when I started writing to her,” Zakia explained.

“My grandma was deaf so writing to each other was important. She passed away when I was in my twenties… now I have those letters to cherish.”

In today’s fast-paced world filled with the instant gratification of emails and text messages, it’s easy to forget the important role that letters played in the life of an entire generation.

“You don’t have the same connection and follow through with phone calls or Facetime as you do with letters,” Zakia said.

“Seniors have really been missing social contact, so we thought about what we can do to help them stay positive through this time.

“Given that most of our clients don’t have access to technology or aren’t able to use software to send emails, we thought traditional pen writing would be good.”

Thus, the pen-pal program was born.

Dubbed “letters of love”, the program encourages school children to send letters, pictures and cards to seniors – preventing social isolation and loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fifteen participants – throughout Queanbeyan and Canberra – aged between five and 80-years-old are on board.

Zakia and her team provide the letter-writing essentials – pens, paper and envelopes – they hand collect the letters on a Monday and deliver them on Thursday. 

“We get a giggle from some of the stuff the kids write,” said Zakia.

“A couple of the seniors love to give sweets in the letters to the kids, and we have one boy who writes to his pen pal in Italian, so there’s been these wonderful outcomes that we just didn’t expect from the program.”

In what has the potential to introduce the next generation to the wonders and joys of writing letters, Zakia says the program, in partnership with Queanbeyan police, is helping children develop their letter-writing skills.

“We read some of the letters that came through and what we have noticed over the last few weeks is a vast improvement in the kids’ literacy skills, the neatness of the handwriting and the spelling has improved,” Zakia said.

Beyond COVID-19, Zakia hopes the pen-pal program continues, bringing two different generations together, allowing them to share experiences and life stories.

It seems, one should never underestimate the power of a handwritten letter.

“If something good can come out of this it’s the friendships that normally would never have been created… and all you need is a stamp, a pen and a piece of paper,” Zakia said.

Email zakia@mhub.org.au to be part of the program.

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