56 penpals, 32 countries: Sana Khader is learning about the world through letters

(Courtesy of Sana Khader)

(Courtesy of Sana Khader)

“My letters and postcards are my way of traveling the world,” explains 23-year-old Sana Khader from India.

Sana Khader has seen the hills of Ireland, the wildlife of Alaska and the skyscrapers of Malaysia — through letters that is. Sana is a prolific penpaller. She has 56 penpals from 32 countries. She isn’t able to travel the world, but through her penpals, Sana feels like she has.

(Courtesy of Sana Khader)

(Courtesy of Sana Khader)

While most of us are busy checking our emails, texts, WhatsApps, iMessages, Slacks and DMs (the list goes on and on), Sana looks to the postman to bring news from her friends. She began penpalling because she wanted to learn about cultures outside her home country of India. She finds writing letters to be one of the most honest and personal ways of communicating.

Sana has always been drawn to paper and crafting. “I really love the idea of turning scraps into something useful and beautiful,” she explains. While studying engineering at university, she realised that her true passion lay in art and crafting. She started making handcrafted gifts and accepting orders online — income that helped pay for her school tuition. The young entrepreneur now boasts 61,000 followers on Instagram and gave a TEDx talk at TEDxSJCET Palai about her work.

I spoke to Sana about her penpalling hobby, why she thinks letters are important in a digital age and how you can begin penpalling.

Tess Thomas (TT): How many penpals are you in correspondence with right now? How do you keep track of them?

Sana Khader (SK): I have 56 penpals from 32 different countries. I have a journal where I note down the details of each letter I sent and received. I keep track of them by assigning pages for every one in my penpal list. I also paste a photograph below their names so that I know how they look when they receive mine!

TT: What is something you learned about another culture or country from your penpals?

SK: The postcards I get from my penpals tell me a lot about the place and country they live. I have always felt that we are all citizens of the world. I really want to travel the world. But since I can’t right now, my letters and postcards are my way of traveling the world. I already feel like I've been to 32 different places because of these penpals. It’s incredible how a letter can teach you so much about another country that you’ve only heard about. My penpals, whom I’ve never seen, have always encouraged me to live life more fully.

TT: What benefit do you think physical letters have over communicating electronically?

SK: Letters do tell stories. They're real. They don't hide feelings. Penning down our thoughts on a piece of paper is an emotion. I don't feel the same about the text messages we get on daily basis! No technology can beat it.

TT: How does it make you feel when you receive a letter in the mail from a penpal?

SK: Opening up the mailbox to see a handwritten letter written by someone we care about us always puts a smile on my face. I wait for the postman to knock my door, wanting to know how many of my friends have written to me that particular week. I treasure all of my letters as a little gift of affection, attention, patience, thoughts and effort.

TT: How do you first get connected with your penpals?

SK: There are a lot of sites that help us find penpals around the globe. We send a request, wait for them to accept it and reply back with their interests. If everything matches, we exchange the mailing addresses!

TT: What is your favourite part of penpalling?

SK: My favourite about this hobby of mine is of course the art of culture exchange. We get to know a lot of things and traditions. I am also planning to learn new languages.

...my letters and postcards are my way of traveling the world. I already feel like I’ve been to 32 different places because of these penpals.
— Sana Khader

TT: Is there a letter you received from one of your penpals that stands out to you?

SK: I have a friend named Alicija from Ireland. We are so attached to each other through ink. We exchange happiness sorrows and worries without seeing each other. But the bond is intact.

TT: Tell me about the “Letters of Love” project writing letters to refugees.

SK: “Letters of Love” is an initiative by my friend Pooja, where we send handwritten letters and postcards to kids in refugee camps in Syria, Palestine, Jordan and other war-affected countries. We meet as a team, scribble together and stack the bundles of letters written in Arabic and send them to these kids on New Years, Valentine's Day and Children's Day.

TT: What advice do you have for girls who want to start penpalling but don't know where to start?

SK: If you really want to start penpalling, go ahead! Give it a try. But please make sure that the user whom you interact with on these sites are genuine and valid before you give your address!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article is available in Arabic, French and Spanish.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.