PUBLIC Good: Refugees Welcome to Dinner

Refugees Welcome invites communities around the world to help refugees feel more at home. By breaking bread together, refugees and their neighbours may discover that they have more in common than expected. PUBLIC hosted a refugee dinner, thanks to the help of our very own Melissa Benjamin who is one of Refugee Welcome’s Canadian leads. We sat down with Melissa to get to know more about this incredible initiative.

Outside of your work at PUBLIC, you’re very involved in activities meant to welcome the refugee community to Toronto! Can you tell us more about this initiative

Back in 2016, Purpose, a social impact agency in New York, partnered with UNICEF to attempt to de-politicize, and in turn humanize, the refugee issue. They started by building a fan movement around Team Refugees at the 2016 Olympics. After seeing the enthusiasm at the Olympics, there was an interest in continuing the effort! They initially launched the dinners as a two-week thing around Valentine’s day, which turned into a one month thing, and has now become a beautiful never-ending series of dinner events all over the world!

How did you get involved?

I moved back to Toronto spring of this year and was looking for work in the city. Purpose was serendipitously looking for a Canadian lead in that very moment! So, I took the job and a 4-week contract became a 6-month job that has quickly become one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. It was a really cool opportunity because I was able to reach out to different companies and meet new people in the city. We’ve had over 30 dinners in Toronto since I started in May. Companies like Loblaws, Uber, LinkedIn, as well as hospitals, charities, and more have all come out of the woodwork to host.

What refugee organizations work with you to put the dinners together?

One of the best parts of the work has been meeting some amazing folks that have been working in the newcomer / refugee space in Toronto for years. We’ve had two main partners in this initiative. The first is Matthew House, which is a settlement organization that offers a beautiful space for refugee claimants- who are often people who arrive in Canada alone with nowhere to go. Matthew House provides them with resettlement support and services, and the opportunity to build a new family amongst other newcomers. Our second partner is the Syrian Canadian Foundation, which was started in the wake of the wave of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada in 2016. The team there has done amazing work to assist all newcomers with employment and language services, and a host of other programs. Particularly close to my heart is the program they’re running offering mental health services to refugee women.

How did the refugee dinner at PUBLIC come about? 

The PUBLIC team is so great, that from the second I walked in the door, I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to merge my two work families together! Talking to the leadership team, we decided December and the holiday season was a great time to do it! From there, I looped in our wizardress of an Office Manager Amanda, we secured a catering duo (who are actually Syrian refugees themselves), and Amanda also had a great idea to give everyone a small gift. She put together a collection of tips and things to do in Toronto from the Publican’s as well as gloves for each attendee. It was adorable!

And how did the night go? 

It was amazing – everything I hoped for! As it goes with every dinner, the beginning was nice and awkward – people trying to figure out who to talk to and what they have in common. But since the PUBLIC team is so bubbly and chatty, it only took about 15 minutes for people to loosen up and find different niche conversations. After the dinner, I heard the amazing stories of connections Publicans made with the newcomers. I even heard from a bunch of newcomers who said the dinner at PUBLIC was their favourite dinner yet.

It’s an easy thing to forget that many refugees and newcomers are just like you and me. It would be like any one of us showing up in a completely new country and trying to figure everything out. Many newcomers have told me that one of the biggest challenges is socializing and building a new community, so these dinners aim to provide a space for people to connect, relax and have fun in a meaningful way. I also find that hosting dinners in an office space is powerful because being recognized as a working, smart, professional is something newcomers may not have experienced since fleeing their home countries. Many may not have seen spaces like this for years if they’ve been in transit, in camps, or in war torn environments.

What do you think attendees take away from being a part of these dinners?

I’ve seen dinners have a really wonderful ripple effect on all the people who attend. Sometimes it’s a big thing, but the little stuff is also amazing. From our PUBLIC dinner, Holly decided to ask people to bring $10 donations to her birthday gathering instead of something like a bottle of wine, and donate the proceeds to Matthew House. Another powerful moment from the PUBLIC dinner involved two of the happiest, most boisterous little girls from Syria, ages 3 and 5. They were running around the office and having so much fun. For a lot of the parents at our office I think to see these children live so freely was a real joy and also a powerful reminder to value the lives we’re able to offer our children in Canada.

Some examples from other dinners include the internal soccer team at UBER organizing a game to play against a team of Sudanese and Eritrean newcomers. After their dinner, the design team at HUGE has provided branding to Matthew House pro bono. To see the ripple effects and the way that something really small can actually resonate with people is great.

Lastly, how can people help aside from hosting a dinner?

Well, hosting dinners at your office is super easy – check out! Aside from hosting, I encourage anyone to look into our partners – The Syrian Canadian Foundation and the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project have a bunch of really awesome volunteering opportunities. Matthew House also has really great volunteer experiences. Finally, there’s a new app that launched called Udara, which connects you with small tasks that enable you to make an immediate impact for good in the world. But really, at risk of being super cliche, I think being kind to people and not assuming to know someone’s experience or upbringing. Being a little bit nicer goes a long way.

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