- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

DU QUOIN, Ill. (AP) - When he first moved to Carbondale two years ago, Duran Aldaraan would try just about anything to meet people. He’d go to a coffee shop, sit in the window and hold a newspaper upside down. He hoped someone would notice and say hello; he hoped someone would just say anything to him.

“I could see it in their faces that so many people were dying to say something to me, but they just wouldn’t, they’d just pass by,” he said. “People are so nice, but they don’t want to engage with outsiders.”

Aldaraan kept trying. He threw parties and no one came; he sent invites on Facebook and no one responded. Then, in a last ditch-effort, he logged onto Meetup.

It’s a website and app that brings people together based on similar interests and geographic locations — users select what they like doing, whether it’s crafts, dining, sports, hiking, etc. and join events, usually with a group of strangers.

“I thought if I created the only Meetup here, then people would have to find out about it,” he said. “Since others weren’t going out of their way to talk to me, I decided to do something.”

Aldaraan, who is originally from Dubai, moved to Carbondale to study at Southern Illinois University in 2013. He had used Meetup in bigger cities like Chicago and New York, but what he didn’t realize was that he was creating the first Meetup group based in Carbondale.

And he watched on the computer screen as people started to join. As of today, his group has more than 130 members online and roughly a dozen people attend his monthly events.

Over the past two years, the network, which boasts more than 200,000 groups and 22 million active members around the world, has gradually trickled down to Carbondale, where there are at least four Meetup groups set up within a 25-mile radius.

The reason for joining a Meetup is usually straightforward: “Why would I want to do something by myself?”

“Most people want to try a new restaurant or a winery, but they don’t want to go alone,” he said. “Some people are afraid to look like a loser or look awkward.”

That was Sana Haque’s mindset when she started a Meetup group last year centered on exploring arts and culture around Southern Illinois. They go to showings at SIU’s museum, attend concerts at Hanger 9 and check out movie nights.

“People really want to go out and try things, they want to be a part of the community, but they want to be around other people while they’re doing it,” she said.

The site calls itself the world’s largest network for meeting local people, but Aldaraan and Haque have mostly met other out-of-towners through organizing events.

“If you enjoy the same activities, it works because you don’t have to be alone on the sidelines, you have someone to talk about how the wine tastes or if you like the food,” he said.

Most of his members are in their 30s or above, and not from the area, while Haque says her group attracts a catch-all.

“We get locals and non-locals, some students and families, if you’re curious and interested in trying something new, this is a perfect way to do it,” she said.

But the friendship is sweet, regardless. In the Spring, Haque’s group took a trip to Touch of Nature for paddle boating.

“That day stood out for us, because everyone got along so well and we all enjoyed doing something we never would’ve done alone,” she said.

And on Sunday, a group of five met up for the annual Fall Farm Crawl, sponsored by the Neighborhood Co-op, where crawlers visited different farms around Southern Illinois. They had each recently moved to town, from San Francisco or St. Louis or New York, but together, they discover pieces of their new home.

“That was our 34th event as a group and that’s really special to me,” Haque said. “We found each other online, but our friendships don’t stay there.”

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Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/1KSpedY

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Information from: Southern Illinoisan, https://www.southernillinoisan.com

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