Center for Interfaith Cooperation

Hoosiers of Many Faiths in Community

A look back at 2015 — The Syrian Refugee Friendship Feast

On a snowy Saturday evening, more than 90 people came to welcome three new families of Syrian refugees to Indianapolis. The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst in the world, with nearly a quarter of the country’s pre-revolution population fleeing their homes for temporary refuge in camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq. And some of those families are being resettled in Indianapolis.

The crowd was remarkably diverse, ranging in ages from kids to seniors. Many Syrian-Hoosiers who worship at Al Huda Foundation joined the feast, as did students from SPEA at IUPUI and Butler. The food? Maqluba (meat, rice, and fried vegetables placed in a pot, which is then flipped upside down when served, hence the name maqluba, which translates literally as “upside-down”), Iraqi style biryani, humus and baba ganoush, colored rice with chicken, and much much more.

Even more than simply welcoming the three families of refugees, the feast was an invitation to all of us in Central Indiana to get involved with the Refugee Support Initiative in order to help these families … and the families who will be coming in the future.

Several IUPUI SPEA students attended the event. They share their thoughts from the experience.

Reports from the Syrian feast

Who's Harrison Bova?
harrison bovaHarrison Bova is in SPEA’s Media and Public Affairs program. He has a passion for Indianapolis. He wants to go to law school and eventually practice civil rights law locally and internationally.

You might ask yourself how to shatter the American Perception; you may not know that it even exists, by that you may be living in it. Very truly I tell you, I was born in America, but I am far from it. I exist in a distant world muffled by white noise—a nine to five, a college pursuit to professionalism—full of text messages and social media notifications.  America belongs to those who fight for her, for those who fight to be a part of her, who fights for her acceptance. I was born here but regrettably I am no American. After this story that follows, I took some time to reflect. What have I done for America? Why should I have a place in her beautiful bosom? The people I met here well, they deserve this place. The hundreds of thousands of people fighting for security in Syria, they deserve the kingdom I inherited. I have forsaken my duties as a citizen and it is our responsibility to welcome those who thirst for freedom. This is the story of the shattering of the American Perception

Four men standing tightly at an intimate distance, the stale slither of cigarette smoke cracking from their lips. The sunset behind historic trees dampening the dwindling rays of light—the men had pressed well fit clothes and were well groomed of mid-life age, speaking Arabic with pride and awareness. One gentleman stood leaning faithful to a crutch. His leg hung offset to his hip, as if it were the stem of war wound. I approached them with hesitation and acknowledgement. The three men raised low-lit eyes and mumbled a phrase from which context and body language communicated a welcoming to a fellow warrior. The bestowed respect gave me a confident entry through the parking lot of the Inner Church Center. For the first time I can remember, I felt welcome in a country full of strangers. Who was welcoming whom?

harrison jonathanI remembered my duty for the evening.  My conscience spoke in the voice of my professor’s briefings. I was here to welcome a group of Syrian Refugees new to a foreign country, in yet again one of the hundreds of foreign stops they’d made over the past few months. I grew up near the Inner Church Center, driven past it, walked its sidewalks as a kid, and here in this moment—I’d never been this far from home.

I was accompanied by a fellow classmate who in our moment of greeting exchanged apprehension for the events to follow. We shared some laughs and decided to head into the Interchurch Center. The initial entry brought smells of culture unfamiliar. It is amazing how spectacular the mind paints it’s picture in moments of discomfort. Unrecognizable sounds of Arabic, sights of women conservatively dressed with head coverings, people of another color. How distant you feel, how easy it is to accept how different we are. We were humbly greeted by our Professor, classmates and a few other organizers. The natural human intuition to stick to what we know; our Professor encouraged us to engage.  I asked a few people around my age who seemed to share some of my version of culture but obviously shared a faithful version of Middle Eastern culture, what was proper introduction. We practiced a few phrases and with clammy hands and perspiring forehead I introduced myself to one of the fathers of the Syrian families’ that had just arrived in Indianapolis. He received my attempt well, but I could tell from his smile he received my embarrassment as well.

I stepped back into the shadows of the room. My heart softened for a moment—I realized that since I entered the building I had perceived with my mind. This was a place for the heart to speak—for the mind knows nothing of the new. The warmth of children laughing with no sense for time, the man who received my discomfort with humility, men embracing one another with the most intimate of contact. In that moment, it dawned on me—maybe this was actually the first time I’d ever felt my “welcome home”.

If we want to change the environments we are in, we must first change ourselves. The differences I felt had very little to do with who I was around. I was stuck in the American Perception, one that tries to put its environment into a box  small enough to comprehend. The beautiful thing about love is that it has no comprehension. It is irrational by means of logic. The biggest lesson I learned here was that when you meet new people specifically those of another culture—one must throw logic and comprehension out the door. You have to learn to use your heart to interpret your environment.

In my moment of stillness I looked around the room and I saw something in the eyes of the people inside of the building, a flicker of light. When you see a man drunk—you see in his eyes his absence—the gloss of something else taking over. At the Syrian Friendship Feast I saw something very different. When you see people with love and unity in their hearts—you see in their eyes the absence of their ego. You see a gloss that absorbs and reflects the enlightened spirit of the room.

I removed myself from the gathering and went to the restroom. I looked in the mirror and saw a man who was shattered. The man in the mirror let loose a breath of tension with which pulled a tear from his eye. His heart was broken and disappointed with the eyes looking back at him. How could I be so foolish? In my twenty years of life, I can count on my hand the amount of selfless compassionate work I’ve done. I left the restroom and felt energized “What can I do to help?” I thought. I entered the room and sat down at a table with the people who helped me with some Arabic introductions. Dana, Danya, and Iman all first generation Syrian women raised in the United States loyal to their heritage and accommodating to my own. To my left, Jonathan Lounds a Midwestern man, world class, who served in Kuwait during the third campaign in the Middle East following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers. Jonathan is a passionate, handsome, intelligent man with a heart as big as his stature. Jonathan is a fellow classmate with a drive for knowledge of problems but more importantly the desire to find solutions. To my right Ilayda Lynch, a second-generation Turkish-American woman also a fellow classmate. Ilayda is youthful, beautiful, and a properly thoughtful speaker.  Across from me was Somer Toma, a fellow classmate, and Iraqi refugee that has lived in the states for almost two decades. Somer is very soft spoken. It took him a minute to warm up but once engaged, Somer had insight on war in the Middle East that I had never heard before. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

We had a diverse selection of Middle Eastern cuisine spread across a few tables. Somer and I had a brief conversation on his perception of issues abroad while patiently in line for a serving of food. His mother was in charge of making and dispersing the food, and I must say, she is a fantastic cook. The others indulging in the feast seemed quite excited as well, seeing as how by the time I reached the table most of the food was gone.

The seven of us sat and spoke for about an hour. Dana, Danya, and Iman were all younger and hypothetically less educated than the SPEA student’s at the table. These three girls blew me away. Two were still in high school and one a freshman at IUPUI; there understanding of our foreign policy was very comprehensive. The questions they asked Jonathan about his military service were both thought provoking and respectfully challenging. I remember in moment thinking, “wow maybe I can learn a thing or two from these girls”—We were supposed to be the quote on quote experts. I felt a strong sense of reciprocity in our ideology and again was affirmed to our similarities.

At this point I drew two conclusions. The Syrians were by far and large the most hospitable culture I’d experienced contact with and the most properly communicative people I’ve ever shared thought with. I often have those moments in conversation where I think to myself that “this person knows what there talking about”, but often times you’ve heard such decadence before. These girls illustrated questions that provoked the most humble of thoughts. Every question was not to embarrass but to empower and evoke.  What they said and how they said it—I could not help but envy how much potential lies in their future. I consider myself a rather articulate conversationalist. I was foot in mouth; these girls will change the worlds they surround themselves in. I regard Dana, Danya, and Iman as some of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever had the pleasure of picking. As a college student I have had many conversations with well-respected Ph.D.’s of philosophy, politics, and philanthropic studies; never have I ever felt so revered on the receiving end. They say the fool thinks of himself or herself as wise and the wise considers himself or herself a fool. These girls have my upmost respect.

After our conversation’s Dr. John Clark and Somer’s mother spoke sending their welcome and openness to make themselves available to the needs of those in the room. Two of the fathers from the Syrian refugee families added a few words of gratitude in Arabic and the congregation gracefully applauded. A big thanks to those who choreographed the feast, by their hard work, and the community of those who participated in the event, we successfully began the process of assimilation for three families in new world. I challenge all those who read this. Get to know your Muslim brothers and sisters in your community. Greatness lies within our ability to unify one another and shatter what we know as the American Perception.

I was pleased to have gone to a dinner hosted by the lovely Center for Interfaith that welcomed the three Syrian refugee families here in Indianapolis. All three families have been here for less than a year and they are quickly getting used to the American lifestyle. The goal of the dinner was to introduce the Syrian refugee families to some of the people living in Indianapolis.

The small room was packed with a very diverse group of people, ages ranging from little children to old people. At some point, I could not hear myself talk because it was so loud. But that is a good thing because that meant that everyone was having a good time.

samir sara ilayda

I sat on a table with my mother, a beautiful Lebanese woman, and Alfan Abdulahad. I enjoyed the multiple conversations that I had with the three beautiful women. I loved meeting Alfan and I enjoyed our conversation together. Alfan is office manager for the Center for Interfaith. She is Iraqi and her and her family came as refugees to Indianapolis in 2008. I always love hearing people talk about how they came to the United States and although they are never happy stories, there is always a lot of commonality between people’s different stories and the struggles they went through when they first arrived in the United States.

I talked with the Syrian refugee families after the event and they were very grateful and honored to be there. They had a great night seeing old friends and meeting new ones. They mentioned that they would love to interact with Americans more so that they can represent Islam in the best way possible and to shatter the stereotypes that are being said about Arabs/Muslims. The families are aware that Muslims are portrayed negatively on the media, and they do not want Americans to get the wrong idea about Arabs/Muslims. They want Americans to understand that they came to Indianapolis for a better opportunity and for their children to grow up in a diverse country. At the end of the day, we are all human and we have more similarities than differences, but people constantly want to talk about the differences and have it separate us all.

The best way to shatter stereotypes and get Americans learning more about different cultures is through food. Food is an essential part of every culture and it is a way that connects people and makes us realize our similarities. If this event did not occur then people like my classmate, Harrison Bova would not have had an amazing experience with Muslim-Americans and not only learning more about a different culture, but also learning more about himself as well. I wish my classmates and a lot of people in the room, who do not know the three Syrian refugee families at all, interacted more with them and got to listen to their stories.

Who's Jonathan Lounds?
jonathan loundsJonathan Lounds is in SPEA’s Civic Leadership program with a concentration in nonprofits. He works in the IUPUI Office for Veterans and Military Personnel, and is secretary/treasurer of the local Veterans for Peace chapter.

The Syrian Revolution, otherwise known as the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011 has created one of the largest humanitarian crises in recent history. It has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the largest forced migrations of people since World War II.” The UN Refugee Agency estimates that over 3.8 million Syrians seeking refuge in other countries. There has been a global response to this humanitarian crisis and Indianapolis is not an exception. The Exodus Refugee Center in Indianapolis has helped three Syrian refugee families resettle in the community. Other community organizations such as the Center for Interfaith Cooperation have supported the effort through programs such as Refugee Support Initiative.

The Syrian Friendship Dinner on February 28th, 2015 was an opportunity for the community to welcome and support the new refugee families to Indianapolis and the event did just that. Around 90 people attended the event and a delicious middle eastern dinner was served to the guests. The evening was filled with stimulating conversation ranging from local issues facing the community to global issues and the intersection between the two. At a dinner table filled with students and young professionals, the conversation focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, recent terrorist attacks in Europe, and discrimination against Muslims. These topics brought up interesting discussion on how governments should respond to these issues and how we as individual citizens can make a difference in our own communities to help the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.

syrian-dinner-1The increase in terrorist attacks in the West has raised concerns among many European countries, especially those with large Muslim populations, about immigration policy. The threat of terrorism is giving rise to an increasingly hostile right wing groups in Europe. The surge in radical terrorists and extreme right wing groups has put Muslims in Western society in a quandary. The overwhelming majority of Muslims denounce the terrorist attacks, but they are increasingly facing discrimination. Although the process of radicalization is multifaceted and very complex, the alienation and discrimination Muslims face in the West is a contributing factor according to some. It is a natural human instinct that when we don’t find acceptance in the cultural or social setting we find ourselves in, we will inevitably seek it out somewhere else. This is why it is so important to fight back against the marginalization of Muslims in the West and to welcome them into society and help assimilate them to our culture. Fostering a more welcoming society to diverse people groups is more than a strategy to fight radicalization but is a way of practicing basic human decency.  As Americans, we need to embrace the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty that state, “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe” especially as it relates to refugees.

The Syrian Friendship dinner accomplished its goal of welcoming the new Syrian refugee families to Indianapolis. At the end of the evening, individual members of the families spoke and expressed gratitude on behalf of their families for the event. They not only expressed gratitude but also were visibly joyful to have such a warm welcome to the community. To see refugee families, who have experienced so much loss and tragedy over the last few years, smile was very moving to everyone at the event. Being a welcoming place for diverse groups of people is something Indianapolis needs to continue to strive to do because in the end it will strengthen and enrich our city.

Who's Samer Toma?
samer tomaSamer Toma is in SPEA’s Public safety management program, and is in the Army National Guard. He hopes to become an officer in the armed forces or a law enforcement official. Samer was born and raised In Iraq, then moved to Syria with his family, from there he came to America in 2008 as a refugee

On February 28th, Saturday evening, Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC) held a reception event for the Syrian refugee families who arrived newly to Indianapolis through the United Nations and the sponsorship of Exoduses refugee immigrant organization. The event was like a carnival and social gathering, Hoosiers from Arabic community, John Clark’s SPEA students and many others attended this event to welcome and support them to overcome the trauma and the fear of war thorough engaging them in programs and support network.

The aim of those programs and networks is to introduce them to the life and the culture in Indianapolis, make them feel like that they are not alone, help them to start a new life, adapt to the culture of the new community, learn to speak English, and teach them the financial and bank system in order to enable them to pay the bills and to build a good credit.

alfan syrian refugeeThose three families were living in a nice country, everything was calm and safe. People used to go out, do some shopping, hangout and practice their normal lives activities knowing that their lives are not in danger but now after the revolution; everything has changed. People are afraid of the thought that they might not come back after they leave home due to the war experiences such as killing, kidnapping and explosions. A family of a parent and two daughters were kidnapped for six days by members of the Islamic States of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), the daughters were raped in front of their parents just because the fact that they were Christians. Religious persecution did not exist in al-Assad regime, many churches were blown up, Christian villages were invaded by ISIS terrorist group; women were raped, kids were shot in the head, men were beheaded just because they practice Christianity.

Not only Christians were targeted by ISIS terrorist group, other minorities in Syria also suffered from ISIS and they had no choice but to leave Syria and go somewhere else, if they were lucky they would be accepted to come to the United States through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Every Syrian and Iraqi has a dream to come and live in the land of opportunities, the place where there is freedom of speech, and the country that you may practice any religion you desire without anyone judging you. This country is America; at the event I saw the happiness on the faces of the refugee families, they had no fear anymore on the lives of their children from explosions and kidnapping. In the end we all should work together to support them emotionally, give them hope to start a new life, have a new beginning. Make people aware of their suffering, because we are all humans living in the same planet, we feel and support each other.

Who's Guadalupe Pimentel-Solano?
guadalupeGuadalupe Pimentel Solano is in SPEA’s Media and Public Affairs program. She is a Receptionist/Legal Assistant at the Law Office of Kevin Muñoz.

On February 28th, 2015 I attended the Syrian Refugee Friendship Feast.  When I first heard about this event I was extremely excited.  My family and I immigrated to the United States in the year 1999.  I remember it was such a drastic change.  We did not speak English and we did not know our way around.  We also did not have many friends.  My father had a few roommates but that was about it.  Not being able to speak the language and not having friends were the hardest things for me.  This is one of the reasons I was anticipating attending the Syrian dinner.  I invited my best friend, Alexis, to join me.  I let her know the event was child friendly, therefore she brought along her daughter.  When we arrived I saw a room full of energy and children.  The energy in the room was incredible.  Alexis and I proceeded to look for a table where we could all sit.  John Clark sat down with us and we had meaningful conversations.  John Clark introduced us to Soulaf Abas and we spoke about her work.  John Clark pitched the idea of a potential collaboration between the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance and Soulaf.  I believe this would be a great idea.  Overall the energy was great, but I had different expectations for this event.  I had envisioned an event where communities came together and learned about each other over dinner.  In class it was mentioned we would ask the families what would make their transition better.  I was anticipating the answer to that question.  I was yearning learning how to make the transition better for the families.  I understand making this happen can be difficult by having one event.  There are a lot of barriers, like the language barrier.  I hoped we would have interacted more.  Next time I think there should be next steps.  I know a lot of community members that were in attendance know each other, but what about the people that don’t.  We have to keep people engaged and not let the momentum die down.   I think having the dinner was a great idea.  I am thankful because thanks to the dinner I was able to meet Soulaf and the families.  I am anticipating more events with the families and I look forward to building meaningful relationships.