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Refugee Story Night Unites Community



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More than a hundred people came out in support of the Refugee Story Night at Trinity Episcopal Church on November 9. The three-part event began at 5:30 pm and included a dinner prepared by Greenleaf Catering, a screening of the film Soufra, and an hour-long panel discussion.

The night was organized by Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Resettlement (IPRR) in Newtown and was sponsored by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), based out of New Haven. All proceeds from the Refugee Story Night went to IRIS, a nonprofit, to help support refugees and immigrants throughout Connecticut.

Warm Hearts, Warm Stomachs

People of all different backgrounds and ages gathered together to share a meal with one another at the start of Refugee Story Night. Those in attendance included First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, local Newtown families, and refugees.

Greenleaf Catering, a food truck business owned and operated by an Iranian refugee family living in Connecticut, prepared a variety of Persian food for guests to enjoy. Some of the options included a tray of zereshk polo (chicken cooked in vegetable sauce, rice with saffron and barberries, and salad) and a tray of pan kebab (ground beef with onions and bell pepper, rice pilaf with lentils and tomato sauce, and salad).

“Every Refugee Has A Dream”

A screening of the 2017 movie Soufra was played during Refugee Story Night. The film documents the story of a refugee woman, Mariam Shaar, who has spent her whole life in the Burj El Barajneh refugee camp just south of Beirut, Lebanon.

It showcases her journey as she launches a catering company called Soufra and — despite many obstacles — turns it into a successful food truck business with other refugee women.

“Every refugee has a dream. A dream of a better life,” Ms Shaar shared in the movie.

Panel Discussion

An hour-long panel discussion to raise awareness about the worldwide refugee crisis took place after the film and was moderated by Soufra Organizing Committee member Mary Ann Jacob.

Panelists were Chris George, executive director of IRIS; Sam Rose, CEO and co-founder of Greenleaf Catering; Cynthia Dunn, vice president of IPRR; and Maryyam Ali, social activist and member of the Soufra Organizing Committee. The four members told their unique experiences with refugees — or as a refugee — and answered audience members’ questions.

Mr George began the talk by thanking Trinity Episcopal Church for hosting the event and for community members, like Newtown resident Sabeena Ali, for organizing it with such a great turnout.

“Connecticut has made a name for itself around the world, believe it or not, as a state that has set new standards for welcoming refugees… [and as] a state where refugees are welcomed with open arms and supported by the community, and tonight is an example of that,” he said looking out at the crowd.

Mr George explained how, historically, the United States had the largest refugee program in the world but has now been surpassed by Germany and Canada.

The dropping number can be seen in the statistics he shared: in 2016, the United States accepted 85,000 refugees (530 of which were resettled by IRIS); in 2017, the United States accepted roughly 50,000; but by 2018, the number had dropped to having accepted 23,000 refugees into the United States.

When an audience member inquired what the future number of refugees IRIS is expected to aid will be, Ann O’Brien, Director of Community Engagement for IRIS, who was seated in the audience, said, “For 2019 and 2020, it’s really up to how many [refugees] the federal government is going to allow in.

“They have set a cap, or a goal, depending on how you view it, at 30,000 for the nation, but this past year, they set that at 45,000 and only brought in 21,000; so we don’t know if 30,000 as a goal means 15,000. So our numbers may be cut in half.”

Currently, Ms O’Brien said, IRIS has resettled about 182 refugees in 2018.

Panel member Mr Rose was actually a recipient of IRIS’s support when his family legally moved to Cheshire in 2010 from Iran.

He discussed what it was like transitioning to life in America — everything from his first experience at Costco to pursuing business at Central Connecticut State University to help start up his family-run restaurant.

“This process started with a dream of our family to be able to sustain ourselves and for my father — who prepared all the food tonight — to be able to cook for himself in his own kitchen,” Mr Rose said.

Mr George added to Mr Rose’s story by saying, “Sam exemplifies the determination, the entrepreneurial spirit, the courage, [and] the great cooking that made the success story that you saw in the film and has made Greenleaf [Catering] a success story here. So many refugees come with this spirit.”

Panelist Ms Dunn, who has lived in Newtown for 25 years, sees that spirit with the families she works with in IPRR, having helped resettle two families from the Congo in Africa.

She explained that IPRR is a community organization, established in 2016, that consists of different local faith groups that work with IRIS.

“The work that I’ve done through IRIS has been a highlight of my life,” Ms Dunn said.

IPRR, she explained, handles acclimating refugees to life in the United States with everything from transportation, finances, and education to finding employment.

When IPRR helps refugees, a typical first day includes picking the family up from the airport, bringing them to their new apartment, and having a home-cooked meal (of their country’s cuisine) prepared for them for when they get there. The members of IPRR stay to teach the individuals everything from how to use the appliances in the home to, sometimes, how to use running water.

“The next day, we go back and start helping them build a new life,” Ms Dunn said.

The youngest member of the panel, Maryyam Ali, a student at the University of Connecticut, has been volunteering with IRIS co-sponsorship groups since 2015.

This past August, she visited the country of Jordan with the organization Helping Hand For Relief and Development to visit Palestinian and Syrian refugees and orphans.

“We raised over $20,000 while we were there through social media to help buy a microhome, that is like a trailer home, for a specific Syrian refugee family…” she explained. The remaining money after the sale of the microhome will go towards buying more microhomes for other refugee families in need.

Since refugees are not citizens, she explained, they cannot have an established home. The microhome gives them a better quality of life and sense of comfort compared to living in a tent, Maryyam said.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, Sabeena Ali, head of the Soufra Organizing Committee and employment chair of IPRR, spoke to everyone about how appreciative she was for the community support for Refugee Story Night, saying,”Thank you everyone for coming; this really warms my heart… you have no idea — this was a dream.”

To learn more about Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) and find out how to donate, volunteer, or sponsor a family, visit irisct.org or call 203-562-2095.

Pictured from left at the Refugee Story Night on November 9 is Cynthia Dunn, panelist and vice president of Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Resettlement (IPRR), a co-sponsorship group of IRIS in Newtown; Sue Roman, member of Soufra Organizing Committee; Sam Rose, panelist and CEO of Greenleaf Catering; Jenny Montgomery, pastor at Trinity Church and member of Soufra Organizing Committee; Iftikhar Ali, volunteer; Chris George, panelist and executive director of IRIS; Mary Ann Jacob, event moderator and member of Soufra Organizing Committee; Maryyam Ali, panelist, social activist, and member of Soufra Organizing Committee; Ayesha Ali, member of Soufra Organizing Committee; Sabeena Ali, head of Soufra Organizing Committee and employment chair of IPRR; Maleeha Ali, volunteer; and Hope Johnson, member of Soufra Organizing Committee. —Bee Photos, Silber
Chris George, holding mic, discusses the work that Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) conducts, while fellow panelists Sam Rose, Cynthia Dunn, and Maryyam Ali look on, during the Refugee Story Night at Trinity Episcopal Church on November 9.
Refugee Story Night panelist Maryyam Ali speaks to the crowd about her work as a social activist.
Mary Ann Jacob, standing left, moderated the Refugee Story Night at Trinity Episcopal Church on November 9 with panelists Chris George, Sam Rose, Cynthia Dunn, and Maryyam Ali, all seat from left.
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