Something kind of amazing happened in the last few weeks here in The Hague. Robin de Jong, who works for STEK, created a think tank to come up with ideas to welcome the refugees from Syria, Eritrea and other countries who are temporarily housed in our neighborhood through December 31st, 2015.
The think tank quickly brought together ministers from multiple churches and other organizational leaders to brainstorm on the best way to help this population within a short time frame.
Thing is, groups like this, despite their best intentions, quite often get bogged down by finding a date that works for everyone to gather, proposing ideas to church boards or government organizations, trying to get budgets approved, waiting for responses, etc. But because the 600 refugees in our neighborhood are only here for a total of 6 weeks, we had to act swiftly . . and we did!
Multiple events have been formed in the last few weeks, from concerts and high teas, to shared meals and exercise programs. But this post is mainly about a meal that changed my perspective about the refugees.
This past Monday, we organized a dinner for 30 refugees and 30 people from the neighborhood in our church with a theme of bringing people together to break bread and learn about each other as individuals, rather than as concepts.
In other words, a “refugee” and all the preconceived notions we might have formed about them via our exposure to the media, is replaced by a table mate who is a real person with a name, a history and stories to share. And “we”, their temporary neighbors or potential future countrymen, are also transformed from strangers to people who look them in the eyes and listen to them speak, whether it is about their favorite foods, a fiancé back home, or their trials in fleeing their war-torn nations and leaving loved ones behind.
The Hague branch of Vluchtelingenwerk, who helps support the refugees, found out that one of the refugees was a chef from Damascus, the capital of Syria. Before long, we had enlisted him to cook an authentic Syrian meal and recruited a few more refugees to work as translators from Arabic to English.
Friends of ours who come from Arabic nations who are fluent in Arabic and Dutch also volunteered to help cook. The Diaconie from our church, and Bezuidenhoutfonds both made financial contributions. More volunteers from the neighborhood as well as our own cook and volunteers from the weekly meal made for the elderly enlisted to help. In other words, people from five different cultures, multiple organizations and committees came together to quickly turn an idea into a reality.
As one of the organizers, I was a bit stressed, wondering if we could pull off this kind of event in one week’s time. We sent invitations around via e-mail, asking everyone to share the invitation with anyone they thought might want to register. A few days before the event, we had all 30 slots for the refugees full, but only twelve neighbors registered. A bit more recruiting and the list began to grow.
The evening of the event, we had 35 neighbors and 35 refugees turn out for the shared meal. The refugees were thankful to be outside the center, grateful for the food and all of the effort, and pleased by the chance to interact with others.
The neighbors who signed up felt thankful for the opportunity to interact and connect with this group of fellow humans who have been through such harrowing experiences, but are still surprisingly upbeat and willing to share their stories.
And Tarik the chef, who cooked from 10:00am until 6:00pm at night without stopping, did an amazing job of turning out a delectable buffet of authentic Syrian dishes.
Word must of spread, because our second planned “Maal en Verhaal” is already completely sold out!
It wasn’t until a few days after the shared meal that I realized the significance of such an event: I see with different eyes. Fears are dispelled. You read the news differently and think about “the other” differently. You realize that acts of kindness, compassion and understanding are the steps needed to understand others and create common ground across cultures and beliefs.
I hope that if I have to flee my country–whether it be from a war, extreme poverty or a country made uninhabitable by drought or flooding from climate change–I pray that others receiving me as a refugee will recognize me for what I am: a person just like you with a desire to pick up the pieces and live my life.
Not everyone is pleased that the refugees are here. However, goodwill seems to be outweighing the negativity born of fear.
Other great events are popping up all over the neighborhood, including an action to provide a Christmas dinner for all 600 refugees spread out in six different churches and businesses.