This is an opinion piece from Refugees Welcome, a coalition of humanitarian, religious, and non-profit organizations working together to create welcoming communities for refugees.
As a nation we often reflect on what it means to be an American. There's no single ethnic culture or heritage that can lay claim to owning or defining America. We are a nation of immigrants, of strangers, of diverse persons that continues to engage in the experiment of forming a more perfect union. The Fourth of July is a propitious moment to take stock of our values which more than anything define us as a nation. Freedom, toleration, acceptance and the possibility of a better life for all those fleeing persecution and other hardships are the bedrock of America. We believe in certain unalienable rights that attach to all persons – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This Independence Day, we should recognize the people who still come to our shores seeking refuge and those rights that we hold dear. We are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in decades. War and conflict have displaced tens of millions of people – more than half of them children.
But in towns and cities across the US, everyday citizens are giving us all something to cheer by hosting Refugees Welcome dinners in their local communities that welcome refugees and asylum seekers to the neighborhood. Refugees and non-refugees are coming together over food. Food is common insofar as it sustains all of us, yet food also bears the marks of cultural and culinary distinctness, thus constituting a wonderful entry into the exchange of cultures, languages, tastes and dispositions.
These large dinners have introduced possibilities that extend beyond community building.
These dinners have helped build community. Relationships have been forged, jobs found, educational opportunities secured, along with the myriad types of support that a caring community can provide – from carpooling to language tutoring.
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At a recent dinner in New York City an American woman attended with her child who instantly connected with the child of an asylum seeker from Venezuela. The American was reduced to tears when she observed "there's no difference between my kid and her [the Venezuelan woman's] kid. They're the same save for the accident of circumstance."
And it doesn't just stop at dinners: folks are organizing brunches, lunches, coffees, and teas. They're bonding over rituals such as Iftar (breaking the daily Ramadan fast) and eating bitter herbs at the Passover Seder. What started as a small-scale effort in the US has quickly grown into a global movement with dinners spreading across Canada, the UK, Germany, Norway and as far east as Hong Kong.
Will we want our story to be that we turned our backs on refugees, and cast them aside, or will we want to tell future generations that we welcomed them, broke bread together and shared in the age-old American tradition of bridging cultures and divides?
Refugees Welcome dinners have also been hosted by major U.S. companies seeking to model the best of American values. These large dinners have introduced possibilities that extend beyond community building to access to the power that comes with employment at a leading private sector enterprise. And as the appetite for such gatherings grows, the opportunities that arise with social connectivity are endless.
As a nation of foreigners, we have to ask the question: will we want our story to be that we turned our backs on refugees, and cast them aside, or will we want to tell future generations that we welcomed them, broke bread together and shared in the age-old American tradition of bridging cultures and divides?
Welcoming others lies at the core of who we are as Americans. And sometimes extending a hand is as easy as inviting someone over to dinner. This Fourth of July, why not open up your BBQ to refugees in your community?