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Yvonne Abraham

Total global living

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / October 24, 2010

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WALTHAM — I’m not the first person to entertain dreams of moving in with the roomies on Winthrop Street, and I won’t be the last.

Their place isn’t all that spectacular — the barely-furnished top half of a green two-family near Brandeis University. But the roomies are a different story.

There are seven of them, from seven countries: Ethiopia, Nigeria, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Russia. The youngest is 27, the oldest 40.

They’re all students at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis — that’s the place where people who are already saving the world go to learn how to save it more. Even by Heller standards, this group is remarkable. It includes three doctors, a human rights campaigner, two children’s advocates, and a diplomat.

In a few years, master’s degrees in hand, they’ll be shaping policy around the globe — heading government departments or NGOs.

Right now, they live in a household that is a cross between a PBS documentary and a network sitcom.

“It’s not what we planned,’’ said Linda Arogundade, a Nigerian doctor who helped put the group together. “We came to see the house. Before you knew it, we were seven.’’

On a recent Monday, they sat around a small table off their large, hospital-clean kitchen. Farhad Farewar, a 38-year-old doctor from Afghanistan, had made a giant bowl of pulao, an Afghan pilaf with chicken. Everybody scooped piles of the steaming rice onto their plates.

Sam Hat Khim, a Cambodian doctor with the World Health Organization, and Van Ta Ngoc, a lawyer who works with street children in Vietnam, squeezed pools of Sriracha sauce onto their plates.

After five minutes here, everything starts to look like a corny metaphor for global understanding.

In the couple of months they’ve been together, the seven housemates have learned a lot from one another. They talk about politics and history, culture and food. They don’t discuss religion.

There have been no major arguments, because they’re careful. At lunch, Farewar was talking about Afghanistan’s problems, but he was mindful not to offend his roommate Dmitry Zaviralov, a youth worker from Russia:

“People keep imposing themselves on Afghanistan. First it was the British, then — sorry Dmitry — Russia, and now any country that comes wants to impose its ideas.’’

Around that table, the roomies ponder many mysteries. Some of them have international implications. Some do not.

“What does this ‘organic’ mean,’’ Farewar asked. “What characteristic does it have that costs so much?’’

“This word ‘free,’ ’’ said Maheder Dachew, who worked as a diplomat in Addis Ababa and organizes many of the household bills. “You can find it everywhere . . . but it’s just a word. Nothing is free.’’

Zaviralov’s quandary stopped the conversation briefly. “If I have sex in my country, it means relationship,’’ he said. “Here, it is maybe just sex, or maybe a relationship. Should you ask before, or after?’’

After the laughter subsided, members of the group began to excuse themselves. They were due in classes aimed at solving less daunting problems, like global poverty.

I wanted to stay. We’re in the middle of a particularly ugly election season, in which a bunch of privileged politicians are ripping one another to shreds in the name of making people’s lives better. This Waltham household is a glorious respite from all of that posturing. They are the change we can believe in.

The students threw a party recently, to celebrate the Ethiopian New Year. A few guests noticed there were a couple of vacant bedrooms, and wondered if they were accepting new roommates.

Hey, the line forms right behind me.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com.

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