As many of you will remember, an executive order was signed in late January that halted all refugee resettlement in the United States, effective immediately. In short order, confusion, chaos, and outrage erupted. We were as flummoxed as anyone else, but as an organization serving refugees, watched as our inboxes filled with messages from people wanting to help in some way. This outpouring of caring and hope and the urge of so many to "do something" was touching, but we did not know what to do with it. We make welcome bags, and there were no more refugees to welcome. What good were these backpacks stuffed with essentials and comfort items if there was no one to receive them? What is Butterfly Boxes without the "boxes"?
Over the next few weeks, as this initial executive order was deemed unconstitutional and we watched new travel bans pop up in its place, we puzzled through what our role might be in this changing landscape. We began with the simple idea to welcome refugees to their new home in Oregon. Perhaps there was a way to expand that beyond our airport arrival bags. And perhaps there was a way to invite others to do the work of welcoming as well.
But here's the thing with welcoming. It's not as easy as it sounds. There are language barriers. And cultural differences. There's fear of the unknown, social anxiety. There are travel considerations, and privacy issues. It's a hard thing to ask a group of people to stretch beyond their comfort level, and we struggled with how to make an ask like that successful. And then we found the answer where answers are often found...
...in a plate of food.
Something happens when you share a meal with someone. The food and drink in front of you gives you something to do with your hands, allows silences to not be immediately filled, and gives a place for conversation to begin.
"Have you tried the pasta salad?"
"Does the rice have nuts?"
"Do you have Doritos where you come from?"
It was this thought, the thought of a shared meal, of a room full of people coming together for food and conversation that led us to our Community Dinners, to what our role could be as the future of refugee resettlement continues in uncertainty. Once a month, we invite established community members and newly arrived refugees to come together in the offices of Catholic Charities of Oregon for a meal. We ask community members to bring the food, and were able to schedule the dinners to begin immediately following the cultural orientation classes put on by Catholic Charities. There is no program to the evening, no ask of those who are coming (other than bringing food to share). It is simply a chance to eat incredible food and meet new people and to say welcome to our newest community members.
We hosted our first dinner in March, in partnership with Catholic Charities. In the weeks leading up to the dinner, we worried about everything. Would community members come? Would refugees come? Would people bring food? Would people talk to each other? Would this work? Were we crazy?
200 people came. Community members. Refugees, both recently arrived and those who've come to the US in every decade since 1960. Folks from refugee resettlement. Police officers. Friends and friends of friends and people we had never met before. Every time the elevator door opened, at least a dozen people got off. And the food. There was so much food. Amazing food. We had to scramble to find more tables to put the food on. We fed 200 people and sent mass amounts of leftovers home with families. It was a whirlwind of "hellos" and "nice to meet yous" and "welcomes" and when it was over, we could hardly believe it had worked.
Would it work again? April, May, and - just last week - July. Three more dinners. Three more successes. There are familiar faces every month, but there continue to be new faces as well. And to those new faces, as long as we see them, we will say, "Welcome".
Familiar face or new, please consider joining us at our next Community Dinner. Check here for more information.