Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new campaign is hosting dinner parties around the world to build communities and strengthen networks.
Niurka Melendez has a habit of tacking sweet diminutives onto the end of sentences, even sad ones. When I had dinner with her on a recent evening in a fluorescent-lit conference room 12 floors above the Manhattan sidewalk, those asides punctuate her story about grieving for her home back in Venezuela. The 42-year-old Melendez says she feels a tug toward her birth country, even though she can’t abide the conditions she fled when she joined her sister in the Bronx two years ago. “It’s not easy, my dear,” she tells me.
Melendez met more than a dozen others for a meal under the banner of Refugees Welcome❤, a campaign sponsored by the strategy firm Purpose in collaboration with UNICEF. Purpose has helped host more than 15 such dinners in recent weeks; by the end of March, they expect to have organized some 25 more, all with the goal of bringing immigrants together to share stories and resources. Diners have pulled up chairs in smaller towns and denser urban cores, from Boise to Houston, Raleigh, Charlottesville, Dearborn, and Provo, Utah.
To choose the initial locations, the team consulted a heat map of places Syrian refugees had been resettled. From there, they tapped into existing relationships, looking to partner with organizations or individuals active in refugee work, explains Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer who is spearheading the campaign at Purpose.
Melendez’s fellow diners arrived in the U.S. by way of Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iran, and other countries; some were still settling in, while others were second-generation residents reflecting on the their parents’ journeys. “There’s a new generation of folks living the lives our parents lived,” says Anh-Thu Nguyen, one of the hosts, whose mother left Vietnam.
In between bites of Yemini chicken and rice, Melendez describes fleeing an ever-mounting heap of challenges, including a spiraling economy and shortages of food and medicines. She remembers snuffing out the lights in her apartment and clanging spoons against metal pots in protest of the food shortages, so the sound drifted out the window and onto the street. Persecution dogged activists who pushed back, she says, and she worried that she wouldn’t be able to find work after speaking out against the government. She didn’t initially consider applying for asylum—“I thought it was just for famous politicians,” she says—but at a lawyer’s urging, she filed an application last winter and is waiting for an interview.
Beyond meals, many advocacy groups offering concrete, on-the-ground services for refugees and other undocumented immigrants have seen an infusion of resources following the Trump administration’s announcement, earlier this month, of a four-month moratorium on refugee admissions. (After the suspension is lifted, the U.S. will allow about half as many refugees as it used to, capped around 50,000.) In response, the New York Community Trust, which backs local nonprofits, recently announced plans to allocate $1 million to 21 groups. “The goal is to provide rapid response even before we know exact changes to the safety net or immigration, environment or health care policies,” the Trust’s president, Lorie Slutsky, said in a statement. “We want to address these changes from a place of strength and preparedness.”
Hollaback, an organization combating discrimination and hate crimes, received $60,000 to print 10,000 infographics and fund bystander intervention trainings. With an injection of $60,000, Make the Road New York will offer trainings about preparing immigration documents and arranging for childcare if parents are deported. A grant of $50,000 will expand Churches United for Fair Housing’s ongoing work with member congregations to provide legal advice, translation assistance, and emergency housing in Brooklyn under the umbrella of sanctuary spaces.
Operating in tandem with those other services, informal gatherings such as dinners can also expand social networks, which function as crucial resources for refugees, says Kellie Leeson, an independent consultant and former director at the International Rescue Committee. Twenty-five-year-old Mohammed, who arrived in the Bronx from Accra two months ago and came to the dinner with his case manager from Catholic Charities, hunches over his plate and doesn’t speak much, except to mumble that he is eager to make more friends. Melendez grins and tells me she makes friends wherever she goes, and I believe her. But the dinners give her a chance to practice English, she says, and to spend time with other people who recognize her situation. “It makes me feel like we’re all on the same page,” she adds.
Gatherings that cut across countries and timelines also offer an opportunity to fact-check information that can be confusing or inconsistent. Often, Leeson says, refugees look to people who arrived first to verify instructions they’re receiving from agencies or elsewhere. A gathering of advocates and other refugees can be a chance to sift out the “rubbish and scams,” Leeson adds.
While many of the attendees are refugees or advocates for them, Nia says that not all of the diners are “ambassadors for the cause.” Instead, she hopes the meals will be non-partisan venues to share human stories that make refugees feel less distant to diners who don’t necessarily feel either sympathetic or disdainful toward them.
A certain contingent of Americans already welcome asylum-seekers: In a survey conducted by the Brookings Institution last May, 59 percent of respondents indicated that they would support refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, assuming those individuals had been thoroughly screened and vetted. Another slice of the electorate, Nia says, is unlikely to be swayed in their staunchly negative views of refugees. In that same Brookings poll, 77 percent of self-identified Trump supporters opposed accepting Middle Eastern refugees. But between those poles, Nia believes there’s a “movable middle,” whose opinions about refugees might be shifted by bringing the issue out of the hypothetical, giving it a face, a name, and, maybe, a fork.
“You hear about numbers, trends, patterns, but those human stories don’t always land,” Nia says. “What is more human than having a face-to-face interaction as you share a meal of falafel and baklava?”
Refugees Welcome❤ has also assembled a downloadable toolkit for hosting a dinner—a flexible blueprint that includes conversation prompts such as “What’s your favorite joke?” and “Who’s the most interesting person you’ve shared a meal with?” Nia says plans are in the works to translate the materials into German, French, and Arabic, too.
Nia hopes that the dinners help germinate relationships that continue to root. “This is meant to be the first in a series of get-togethers,” she says. After a recent dinner San Diego, Nia recalls, the hosts—who came from refugee families themselves—started brainstorming ideas for the next gathering, maybe a hike or trip to the beach.
At the end of the meal, Melendez’s eight-year-old son, Samuel, introduces himself to me with a mitt-like, three-pump handshake. He’s wearing a vest emblazoned with the Superman logo, and he tells me he wants to be president of Venezuela someday. He still asks about Venezeula, Melendez says, wondering when the family can go home.
She hopes that day will arrive, but she doesn’t see a path emerging. “I can’t put my son in that situation,” she says. For now, she’s volunteering at a library and training as an interpreter. She switches to Spanish: No hay de otra, she adds. “There’s no other choice.”