Walking through the emerald green doors of the University of South Florida’s Gibbons Alumni Center last Sunday, the aroma from a variety of foods greets guests from all over the world to a special dinner welcoming them to the Tampa Bay Area. Above the corridor, a sign reads, "Feels like home.''
Inside, the second annual Refugee Interfaith Thanksgiving finds 200 of Tampa’s newest refugees getting to know each other despite the challenges of communicating in a multitude of different languages and cultural traditions.
White-and-orange cloths blanket the rows of circular tables, each with a vase of bursting gold, coral, and reds with a tag sticking out naming their table number. Plastic gold utensils curve around the table at every seat atop festive Thanksgiving napkins while “Home” by Phillip Phillips repeatedly plays amid the chatter.
The event, this year celebrated on November 17th, is made possible by volunteers and local residents of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths.
It all started, explains Pastor Sally Campbell-Evans of Hyde Park United Methodist Church, when she and Pastor Will Wellman of Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church were talking one day about a time when Campbell-Evans worked in Tallahassee and the faith community there would throw a huge interfaith Thanksgiving dinner each year.
Campbell-Evans and Wellman soon started working to put something similar together in Tampa. The Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force, Lutheran Services of Florida, Radiant Hands, and Congregations Beth Am and Schaarai Zedek, and others soon stepped up and the first official welcoming Thanksgiving took place last year.
The 2019 event, according to Campbell-Evans, created what felt like “the biggest family reunion.” The goal is to let refugees know that this is their new home and that local residents want them to stay.
"We’re glad you’re here. … We want to be your neighbor,'' is the message to the newcomers.
This year's dinner and celebration offered a variety of cultural foods and entertainment along with traditional American Thanksgiving fare prepared and donated by several local chefs.
Many hands make light work
Restauranteurs Michelle and Greg Baker, former owners of The Refinery, now owners of Idyllwild (an event space, not a restaurant), brought a cabbage dish and were instrumental in getting all of the food donated. Radiant Kitchens brought butter chicken kabseh rice, chicken legs, and baklava. North Star donated chickpea marsala. Brew Bus donated mac and cheese, stewed collard greens with tomatoes, and green chilies. Beans came from Haven, sweet potato soufflé from Ella’s, quinoa arugula salad with olive, feta, sweet potato, tomato, cucumber in onion vinaigrette from Shuffle, and many more.
Guests walked away with colorful plates full of rich foods from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, and Central and South America’s traditions.
Singers, dancers, and speakers encouraged everyone to embrace their roots and appreciate each other's common bonds as well as respect their differences. Prayers were shared from each community while translators helped interpret in Swahili, Spanish, and Arabic.
The by-invitation-only event is designed to create a safe place for new residents of all cultural and religious backgrounds to feel comfortable. Guests are selected from refugees and immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years or less.
Thanksgiving was chosen as the time to have the dinner based on the American tradition of this particular holiday at which everyone is welcome around the table, breaking barriers that different languages and religions can sometimes otherwise create in our everyday lives.
Campbell-Evans was especially moved by being reunited with a woman she had met at last year’s gathering. The budding relationship is special because the woman is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, an African nation where Campbell-Evans spent four months at the age of 20.
In the Congo, she learned the local language of Tshiluba. That skill helped greatly when the Congolese guest and her family arrived at the first local interfaith Thanksgiving dinner in 2018. As Campbell-Evans was working at the check-in table, she happily greeted the family with “hello” in French, not knowing where they were from originally.
With limited French, Campbell-Evans explained that she'd love to talk more but wasn't proficient enough in the language to carry on a long conversation. But, she said, "I do know some Tshiluba.'' That's when she learned that the woman and her family lived in the same country that she worked in so long ago.
It is all in the little connections.
Songs of celebration
Jemba Mbha, another refuge from Africa came to the United States with nothing except his talent for singing, which he brought to share in a performance before those gathered at the 2019 Refugee Interfaith Thanksgiving.
"Coming to America is not easy. … What brought America to be mine was through the job I was doing, helping refugees and uniting the refugees together. This connection was brought to me when my wife got sick with Leukemia,” Mbha says. “It was when she got this sickness that the officers decided to bring me and my wife to America for better treatment in 2017.''
Mbha credits his belief in Christ and following his path through salvation for getting him to where he is today. "My wife is getting treatment, my kids are going to school, and I am getting new friends,” he says.
In singing, he is praising God with a song of celebration.
“We are living, we are breathing, and many people don’t have this privilege,” Mbha says. He wants to spread the message to everyone who is struggling to stop waiting for promises to be left unfulfilled.
“I have to keep going on until my last breath on Earth,” Mbha says. Looking forward, he wants to keep trying to educate people, especially young people, to rely on themselves for change. He knows the struggle of life never ends and he wants to continue to help others in need in any way possible, including visiting, donating, and returning with needed materials to struggling countries.
As the second Thanksgiving dinner winds to an end, Campbell-Evans says, “in the midst of this world in which we live in, deepening our understanding of each other’s faith is crucial. This way we can build friendship and community and break down barriers allowing us to create peace for all.”
For more information, get involved with your local house of worship and/or join the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force group on Facebook.