This Isn’t an Ordinary Dinner Party — It’s a Way to Help Refugees

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.”

People gather around dinner tables telling stories and sharing experiences.

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.

Interested in hosting a dinner? Sign up for a toolkit here. The Office of Refugee Resettlement offers a great set of resources that can connect you with refugees in your area.

Meet the Restauranteur Who Pays Her Employees a True Living Wage

Now this is a true example of thinking globally and acting locally.
A recent broadcast from NPR’s “All Things Considered” tells the story of Srirupa Dasgupta, a woman who came to America in the 1980s from India, built a thriving career in the tech industry and then left it all behind for something very different.
In 2010, inspired to give back to Lancaster, Penn.’s large refugee community, she started a catering service called Upohar to help her neighbors find work and get ahead. In April, she expanded Upohar into a restaurant. Dasgupta hired workers from from Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, paying them twice the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
MORE: The Restaurant That Serves a Second Chance to Kids Who Need It Most
In the video below, Dasgupta explains how the name for the restaurant (which means “gift” in Bengali) came about. “I conceived it as a gift for the employees, as they get an opportunity to work, do something they enjoy, and earn living wages,” she says. “[It’s] a gift to the community…all this unusual food from different parts of the world that’s not available anywhere else but here.” (The eatery’s rotating buffet features vegan and vegetarian food from South Asia, Middle East, North and Central Africa, the restaurant says.)
She adds, quite poignantly, “It also has turned out to be a gift to myself.” Dasgupta’s employees — people who have had to rebuild their lives from scratch and leave loved ones behind — have helped her gain a different perspective on life. As Dasgupta says, when she compares her problems to her employees’, “suddenly your problems just don’t seem that big anymore.”
If only all restaurant owners could be like this.

With the Number of Farmers in the U.S. Dropping, This Program is Helping Refugees Take Their Place

More important that putting gasoline in our cars, we need food to survive, and our farmers are the ones who keep us fed. A single U.S. farmer produces enough food to feed 155 people.
Worryingly, the population of American farmers is only getting older. According to the last census, the average age was 58.3 years and a third of farmers were older than 65 in 2012, the Associated Press writes.
Even though there’s been a small uptick of younger farmers between the ages of 25 and 34 (due to government support and increased interest in locally-grown foods) there’s still a big void that will need to get filled.
Thankfully, our newest Americans could play a big part in the country’s agricultural future.
MORE: Ask the Experts: Why Should Americans Care About Employing Immigrants?

In central Maine, the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) is presenting immigrant families with an opportunity to break into farming and help feed the country. Not only does the program also give them a chance to escape poverty and debt, but it also provides a shot at a college education, the Christian Science Monitor reports.
A large number participating in NASAP are refugees from civil war-torn Somalia, South Sudan, and the Congo. (Modern Farmer reports that Maine is home to roughly 5,000 Somalis.)
According to their website, NASAP provides training, on-farm workshops and one-on-one consultation to recently resettled refugee and immigrant farmers living in the greater Lewiston and Portland areas.
By working in NASAP and selling their crops to restaurants, farmers markets and grocers, an enrollee can bring in about $2,000 to $4,000 a year in supplemental income and up to $20,000 yearly, the Christian Science Monitor states.
“We’re so proud to be here,” Somali participants said via translator to Modern Farmer. “We couldn’t have this opportunity without your support, and we appreciate it.”
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