Her whispered words prodded me out of my deep sleep. It was early morning and I lay there fighting off the reality of a day in this new room, in this foreign city, with this complete stranger. I didn’t move. I pressed my eyelids closed and remained dormant. I listened as she paced lightly back and forth across the cramped room full of unpacked boxes.

She spoke in a hushed tone, and after moments of eavesdropping, I gathered she was talking with her mother, whom I could faintly hear speaking broken English on the other end of the line. I found myself engrossed in their conversation, which seemed to center on her classes, financial aid, textbooks and new life on campus. I actively listened in hopes of learning more about the stranger I would share my life with over the next year.

As the conversation progressed, there was an edge creeping into her voice and her tone grew louder and louder. Suddenly I could no longer understand their exchange.

My eyes flashed open, giving away my façade, and I stared blankly at the petite girl standing two feet away from my bed. Her English was failing her and frustration consumed her small frame. In efforts to make her mother understand what she could not explain in English, she began to speak in her native tongue.

Once she took in my confused expression, the flood of Russian words spilling from her mouth stopped. In English, she quickly told her mother she needed to go and hung up, flinging the phone on her bed as if nothing were the matter. I kept watching her as she proceeded to gather her keys and wallet. What she did next I will never forget.

She found my gaze, and quickly explained that her mother is a “boater,” and doesn’t speak English very well. With that, she gathered her belongings and left the room, leaving me dumbfounded by the term “boater.”

That morning I became certain of two things: Nataly Somova would change my perspective on life and I had wrongfully miscalculated hers.

Nataly and her family left Russia 12 years prior to that fall morning and migrated to the United States in efforts to provide the children with better opportunities and to reconcile with distant relatives who had moved to the U.S. The relocation wasn’t the first for the Somova family. Though Nataly and her younger brother were born in Russia, her two older sisters and parents are native to Azerbaijan. The family relocated to Russia in 1989, four years before Nataly was born.

Nataly and her siblings have assimilated, but her parents still hold onto their native traditions and encourage their children to do the same. The family doesn’t stray far from their old way of life. Her father, Mayar, spends five months of the year in Russia, running his import and export business. With each trip, he is reminded of the Russian culture and traditions they left behind.

Many of the Somova traditions emanate from the family’s life in Azerbaijan as Mountain Jews. One of them is the idea that girls are not to move out of their parents’ home until they are married – a custom both Nataly’s sisters adhered to by living at home during college and moving only after marriage. Nataly was the exception.

Since her freshman year of high school, Nataly knew she had the potential to attend an institution more prestigious than those near her Michigan home. Over the next four years, she often reminded her parents of this notion and elaborated on her plans to attend a university with an established medical program. Because of this, when her Northwestern acceptance letter arrived during the spring of her senior year, her parents were willing to allow her to move to Evanston, Illinois, where a few months later, she would become my first college roommate.

Over the months Nataly and I shared together, I learned how some of the Jewish Azerbaijani traditions molded her life. Though they came to the United States with a tight grasp on their traditions, Nataly’s parents have loosened their grip for their children’s sake in the past and she hopes the trend continues. For Nataly, casual dating is not an option. Instead, her parents expect a young man to ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage rather than for a date. Yet, Nataly has not accepted this as her older sisters have and has been in a relationship with a Muslim for nearly three years without her parents’ permission or knowledge.

Many months later, I would look back and realize how symbolic that early morning was because throughout our year together, Nataly had many of those morning phone calls where she jumped back and forth from English to Russian and still tried to help her parents understand not only the language but also her life.

Since that morning, Nataly’s parents have learned that she has a crush on a Muslim boy she’s known for years. And in the months to come, there will be more early morning calls.


Disclaimer: Due to our close relationship and the sensitivity of the matters discussed, the subjects name has been changed for her privacy.