At any dinner party, you’re bound to experience a wide range of sights, smells and small talk. That’s especially true at a Refugees Welcome dinner, a campaign that brings together refugees and non-refugees to break bread and, maybe more importantly, to foster a deeper sense of community and connection.
Attend one of these dinners, and you’ll be rewarded with an array of aromatic scents wafting from plates of such ethnic dishes as kabsa, baklava or chicken shawarma. You’ll hear stories of abandoning home countries and embarking on new challenges. Frequently, you’ll also witness new friendships blossom.
And that’s exactly the point, said Refugees Welcome co-founder Gissou Nia of the isolation immigrants face when they arrive at an unfamiliar place. “We decided to do something that really spoke to those issues through the lens of culture and using food as a uniter,” Nia told NationSwell.
The Welcome Refugees dinner series started in 2017 as a temporary project spearheaded by Purpose, a social impact branding agency in New York, with support from UNICEF. Two years later, the campaign is still going strong: Each month, there are dinners held in places as diverse as Boston and Berlin, as well as other locations throughout the world. Organizations and businesses can offer to host dinner, and Refugees Welcome has a list of refugee-owned restaurants and catering companies for hosts to reference. The host pays for the caterer and then connects with refugees through nonprofits and local resettlement agencies.
Nia said they function as tangible ways for people to help “that go beyond a social share.” The campaign has hosted over 150 dinners.
There are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world, 25.4 million of whom are refugees. In 2017, 24,559 refugees resettled in the United States.
Nia described how finding friends is difficult in a new country. As they settle into their new cities and towns, refugees and migrants tend to interact with a small circle of people — those from their home country, the social workers assigned to their case and ESL classmates. Those connections are useful, but meeting other kinds of people — for example, those with similar professional backgrounds — can mean the difference between merely surviving and thriving.
“Maybe these are people who were fashion designers back in Iraq or ran restaurants in Syria,” Nia said. “They are interested in connecting with people from their industries.”
Refugees Welcome technically bills itself as a social gathering, but the events can progress into much more. Refugees have found employment opportunities, business partners, investors and, critically, a community. For example, a Yemen refugee won a scholarship through a New York dinner connection and two other guests started a pop-up restaurant.
Niurka Melendez and her family fled their native Venezuela in 2015, but two years later, she said, she still felt like a newcomer. So she signed up to attend a Refugees Welcome dinner in New York City at Civic Hall in 2017. She’s since shared more than 20 meals with fellow refugees, who represent nearly all corners of the globe, from South America to Syria.
Melendez has fond memories of that first dinner. She recalls exiting the elevator and being amazed by the beautiful white office building. “The people and the atmosphere were so welcoming,” she told NationSwell.
The events have been invaluable community builders for her and her family. Her grade-school-age son, Samuel, has met friends through the dinners. Melendez’s husband, Hector Arguinaones, has learned new dishes to cook at home. Arguinaones described how Venezuelans have a meat-heavy diet and these dinners have helped his family incorporate new vegetarian recipes in their daily life. And Melendez has made connections that have strengthened the nonprofit she and Arguinaones founded, called Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid, which connects Venezuelan refugees to resources in New York. Through her work, her family has brought other asylum seekers to dinners.
“It is the perfect place, the perfect moment, to see new people [connect with] local people who are willing to have conversations and share with the newcomers,” Arguinaones said.
Like their son, both Melendez and Arguinaones are still in contact with the people they’ve met through years of attending Refugee Welcome dinners. “This city is very big, and it’s so special when you meet familiar faces,” Arguinaones said.
For co-founder Nia, her favorite moments don’t come from the dinners themselves, but rather when she learns a previous dinner guest has been legally granted asylum.
“For the people who attend these dinners — yes, it’s a fun social moment, but they’re waiting on a really critical life decision,” she said.
Refugees Welcome has created a toolkit for anyone looking to host a dinner, complete with a checklist, ice-breaker prompts, catering advice and FAQs. In the end, a successful dinner isn’t just a one-off event, but rather a catalyst for forging an ongoing, supportive network.