Fostering Friendships over Food

IINE-Lowell and local community groups unite residents and newcomers at shared dinners.

On Jan. 24, 2017, Lowell community members and three newly- arrived Congolese families gathered for a meal at IINE-Lowell’s site office. The potluck meal was hosted by the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

On Jan. 24, 2017, Lowell community members and three newly- arrived Congolese families gathered for a meal at IINE-Lowell’s site office. The potluck meal was hosted by the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Khalil Abdo’s smile disguises the difficult journey that brought his family from Syria to Lowell, Massachusetts. In 2013, war and violence forced them to leave their homeland, and in 2016 they became some of the few Syrians granted resettlement in the U.S. When the family of seven arrived, Khalil knew little English and relied on interpreters to navigate his new surroundings. In Lowell he faced challenges as he adjusted to a new community, addressed urgent medical issues, and searched for employment. The first months for any refugee in the United States are challenging, yet can be eased by a warm welcome from new neighbors. Last summer, IINE-Lowell staff worked with community and faith groups to organize a series of welcome dinners for newly arrived refugees. Since the launch, 12 refugee families have participated in a welcome dinner, including the Abdo family who attended one hosted by IINE supporters in Andover, Mass.

Held in a local hall, the space was brightly decorated and an array of ethnic and traditional American foods was available for all to enjoy. The dynamic at each welcome dinner is slightly different. When a group of professors hosted Congolese families recently, the hosts and their guests spontaneously broke out in African dancing. At another dinner, the group discussed shared interests and cultural traditions. In Andover, Khalil and his wife and children practiced English and Arabic words with their new friends over chocolate cake.

Welcome dinners are easy to organize, and their impact is enduring. Through the relationships formed, refugees secure play dates for their children, learn about job opportunities, and get insights on the American healthcare system and culture. At the same time, families such as Khalil’s share the experience of their journey with their hosts. This gives American families an intimate perspective on the global refugee crisis. At the end of dinner in Andover, Khalil surprised the organizers by sharing that the evening was his sixth-month anniversary in the U.S. Smiling, he told the group, “This is the first night in the country where I only feel joy, only joy. Thank you.”

Many of these welcome dinners are hosted by Resettle Together volunteers, a growing network of community partners who help refugee families rebuild their lives in New England.  They also provide immediate and long-term support to refugees and immigrants on the road to self-sufficiency. If you’re interested in becoming a Resettle Together partner, contact Cheryl Hamilton at chamilton@iine.org.