Refugee Outreach Kalamazoo (ROK) co-hosted an event at the Arcus Center on Monday that celebrated Kalamazoo’s refugee residents.
The event, the fourth in the series of five cooking classes put on by ROK in conjunction with community partners Welcoming Michigan and Thrive: A Refugee Support Program, allowed two women from Syria to teach the preparation of a chicken dish commonly eaten in their home country.
Participants were able to help them cook the meal as well as gather at a table to eat the completed dinner.
There was also a brief presentation prior to the cooks’ arrival, which defined “refugee” as “a person who has been forced to leave their home country in order to escape persecution or natural disaster.”
There are currently 21.5 million refugees worldwide, with over 250 being settled in Kalamazoo.
“You hear ‘refugee’ and you don’t necessarily think of a person you could build a relationship with,” ROK president and founder Emily Worline said, speaking on the tendency to “other” or categorize refugees only by that particular facet of their identities.
Meagan Roche, Community Coordinator at Welcoming Michigan, emphasized that native-born residents need to “recognize that refugees are people with identities other than ‘refugee.’”
She and Worline believe that sharing a meal is a great way to fight this tendency even by the most well-meaning people to be intimidated by their refugee neighbors.
Aided by a translator, this forum was the perfect way for participants to learn from, and converse with women excited to share an aspect of their culture with the group. It was designed so that they could shape the course of the event and received compensation for doing so.
Worline explained that in experimenting with the format of the event, its structure was initially a bit more hesitant and instructional, but the atmosphere quickly relaxed. “It turned into everyone cooking a meal together,” she said.
She plans to continue the series next year and hopes to continue reaching out to people more on the fence regarding immigration issues, as she believes in the power of a meal as a way to foster thought and discussion on this topic.