Updated: 5 days ago
"I think we need to just set our fears aside. I think a lot of people make excuses because deep down they're scared to do it... And it is 100% scary. But what is life without doing things that are scary?" (Neena, Episode 49)
Today's guest Neena Rouhani reminds me of Nailah (episode 39) in that she and I were within reasonable proximity to each other during most of our college years, but never got acquainted until we spoke to each other for Young, Gifted and Abroad. Neena and I actually went to the same high school around the same time as well, but I didn't get to meet her properly until last month! I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to learn more about Neena now, and she was very open and eager to share about the time she did a gap year in El Salvador at age 17.
Neena comes from a Persian family and was raised in Detroit. She went to school in Detroit all the way through middle school and then went to high school in the suburbs. On top of the usual difficulties that a student might face when transitioning to high school, Neena had the added obstacle of feeling behind; she didn't feel like she was coming in with the same level of knowledge that a lot of the other students had. She struggled to catch up for a while. And that effort to catch up, along with her natural curiosity and a passion for learning that her parents and older sister had cultivated in her, eventually manifested in Neena spending lots of time on YouTube and Google Scholar researching topics that the average person usually wouldn't know much about. Being from the Eastside of Detroit and having observed how gangs function in the community there, she was curious about the significance that gangs have in other countries. One of those gangs was MS-13, a Salvadoran gang that was formed in the United States. More on that later.
As high school graduation approached, Neena had been accepted to Michigan State University but was unsure of what she really wanted to do going forward. She is part of the Baha'i faith, and in that faith it's quite common for young people (especially high school and college students) to take a gap year by doing a year of service in a community within or outside of their home country. Neena's dad was initially opposed to the idea, fearing that if she took a gap year, she would never continue on to college and get a degree. He decided to let her go, under the condition that she go somewhere and learn a language. Since Neena was already deeply interested in Latin American cultures, music, film, and art, and since she'd developed a sociological interest in MS-13 in particular, she asked her local Baha'i assembly to put out feelers for any communities that could use a volunteer in Central America. She received invitations from multiple countries, and ultimately chose to help teach English and run other activities for kids at a rural preschool/grade school in El Salvador. She moved there in 2012.
Neena lived in a town called Santa Tecla, which is approximately a 30-minute drive west from the capital city of San Salvador. She lived in a house with two other young women who were doing similar work as her, but for the last 4-6 months of her time there, she lived in that house all by herself. This gap year was Neena's first time living independently, and learning daily hacks that she hadn't needed to do in the States (hanging laundry to dry, boiling water and doing sponge baths, repelling roaches, etc.) really made her feel like an adult. She spent her days at her assigned school bouncing between classes and sometimes learning dances with the kids as part of their PE. She was usually done by 3pm everyday, at which point she had free time to hang out with local Baha'i people and other friends that she'd made. And sometimes she went on field trips with her students too; they even went to the neighboring country of Guatemala once.
Neena had actually been placed in MS-13 territory, which was unavoidable (she explained to me that El Salvador, in terms of "terf", is basically divided between MS-13 and another major gang). Gang presence was evident to her on a daily basis, and was markedly prevalent around the school where she worked. However, Neena never felt unsafe. Looking somewhat racially ambiguous, she didn't stick out, plus she had the street smarts to stay alert, make appropriate moves, and not draw unnecessary attention to herself. And the areas with the most severe gang activity were guarded by government troops anyway. So while she remained conscious of the reality of her surroundings, she did not live in fear.
"If I want to make a meaningful change, I need to acquire more knowledge."
When I asked Neena if she was ever tempted to not go back to school, to move to another country after her gap year, to do something else altogether, she said it was exactly the opposite. She was humbled in such a powerful way and learned so much about life, people, and community (and she became fluent in Spanish) while serving in El Salvador, that it made her appreciate her education even more. Doing a gap year actually made her more excited about getting a university degree, "I was like, 'If I want to make a meaningful change, I need to acquire more knowledge.'"
After returning to the States, Neena went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in sociology (with a minor in Chicano and Latino studies) from Michigan State, and then lived in Orange County for a time. At the beginning of September 2019, Neena moved to Chicago to begin pursuing a Master's degree in journalism at the Medill School of Journalism (Northwestern University). As someone who's loved writing and singing since childhood and who started releasing her own original music as Neena Roe while living in California, Neena hopes to continue her music career while being a grad student at the same time. As for El Salvador, she's been back once since her gap year, and she would absolutely love to go again. For her next trip, she's looking forward to going to the Dominican Republic with a friend sometime soon. Neena can be found on Instagram (@neenaroe).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Year of Service, School of Life (EL SALVADOR)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Danielle G. is the creator and host of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.