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A home away from home in Cape Town
July 6th, 2023 | Africa, IHP, SIT Graduate Institute, SIT Study Abroad
By Kate Casa
CAPE TOWN, South Africa – In dorm rooms around the United States there are colorful socks from a small Cape Town market stall. The socks aren’t the next big Gen Z internet sales crush. They are personal gifts, bought and shared with love from a generous South African couple who have hosted dozens of U.S. students in their warm and welcoming home since 2016.
Uncle Ishmael and Auntie Shahida, as they are fondly and widely known, share their comfortable, two-bedroom flat with one or two SIT students each semester. In addition, Ishmael coordinates homestays with another 16 families around Salt River, a colorful Muslim neighborhood of Cape Town where residents stop to chat on their front steps and gather for Thursday evening worship and community at the local mosques.
During an SIT homestay, students not only share a family’s home and meals, they participate in family activities, go to the beach together, attend community events, and generally become part of the family’s daily lives. Students often return from their programs saying the homestay was one of the most impactful experiences, and many stay in touch with their homestay families for years and even generations after their programs end.
It touches my heart and brings a tear.Ishmael
At Ishmael and Shadida’s home, the scrapbooks and stacks of greeting cards are a testament to the bonds the couple have developed with students whom they all seem to remember by name.
Shahida reads from one card, from Lindsay in 2016: “Thank you for opening your home and hearts to us … I enjoyed being a member of your family so much. Just the way you greeted us when we returned home from school with all the lovely hugs, cooked us delicious meals with love, and took us on many fun outings. I love Cape Town and I love your family.”
”It touches my heart and brings a tear,” says Ishmael.
“I want to hug them,” says Shahida.
She continues, “We are with the students from the day they arrive until they depart. We welcome them at the airport and we see them off. And that’s the saddest part of it. I cry the whole night because each and every one of them has a special place in my heart.”
These socks have reached throughout the world.Ishmael
And that’s where the socks come in. The couple likes to give their students parting gifts, which are often socks that they buy at the local market where Ishmael and Shahida sell corn. “These socks have reached throughout the world,” says Ishmael. “In fact, Auntie did the shopping today for socks for Rick, one of the master’s degree students.”
Ishmael and Shahida have typically hosted undergraduate students on SIT’s multi-country International Honors programs, which visit three countries over a semester. Recently, they have also opened their home to SIT graduate students like Rick Bentley, who was in South Africa studying for his master’s degree in sustainable development practice.
The kitchen is the heart of Ishmael and Shahida's warm and welcoming home. There, Shahida serves up everything from a vegetarian version of mince curry to homemade rotis, to koe-sisters, a spicy Cape Malay pastry.
“I cook all types of food: South African food; I’ve tried to make some American food; food from all over the world. I also give students cooking lessons. I make my own spices, and I give students lessons on how to make coriander and whole cumin that you roast in the oven, and how to grind coffee so it’s nice and fresh,” she says.
The food is clearly memorable; it is mentioned in dozens of thank you cards. One student even asked Shahida if she would come cook for their wedding.
But as much as Ishmael and Shahida work to make students’ stays as comfortable as possible, they also do not shy away from uncomfortable conversations. When they arrive, Ishmael said many students are unaware of South Africa’s political history and present-day challenges. On SIT programs, they confront the realities of the country’s history of apartheid and the legacy of that system today. They often visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held in prison for 18 years.
“It changes their whole mindset,” says Ishmael. “So we also try and talk to them about our childhood, how we grew up. We've lived through apartheid and new South Africa. My sister’s father-in-law was politically an activist, and he spent 14 years with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. My brother-in-law was part of the Black Consciousness movement with another activist, Steve Biko. At the time I was still a teenager when they used to talk about all this. So I listened and took it all in. I didn't know that 40, 50 years later, I would be meeting students who would want to know these things.”