CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) — Dozens of newly arrived refugees in Chapel Hill enjoyed their first community Thanksgiving dinner Sunday.
Chef Vimala Rajendran hosted the Welcome Home-themed meal at her restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe. She immigrated from India 36 years ago and said she felt acceptance and affirmation which led to her becoming a business owner and a valued member of the community.
The meal included traditional American dishes such as turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and pumpkin pie. But there were also some Middle Eastern staples as well as some of Rajendran’s specialties from India.
She said she wants the refugees to feel safe and supported.
“We have declared this to be Global Neighborhood Day. It’s on Thanksgiving and we think about the United States being a country of immigrants,” Rajendran said.
“Greater is the onus on us to say welcome home, this is your neighborhood, we are your villagers. Let’s break bread together, and we are trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.”
She said people do not individually have much power to do things like stop war in other countries, but collectively they have control to make peaceful, safe communities. She said everyone in Chapel Hill and across the area can coexist by bringing love to the table and building relationships.
“Perfect love casts out all fear, so we want people to be fearless and feel that they are loved,” Rajendran said.
About a dozen people from First United Methodist Church in Elon came to the dinner to help set up tables and chairs as well as offer welcome and assistance to the refugees.
The church’s pastor, Keith Sexton, said people in America should not fear the immigrants and to remember that they are likely scared after traveling around the world to start a new life.
“Fear is the best way to break down human relationships. Maybe our worst fear is what we know that keeps us from breaking down those barriers and getting to know people,” Sexton said.
“That’s what this is about, getting to know people who’ve come here under circumstances we can’t imagine and to offer them a different vision of what they’ve heard out on the street. That we truly do want to welcome them and bring them into this country as a neighbor and a friend,” Sexton added.
Sexton said the Bible is full of stories of welcoming immigrants. He encourages others to follow the teachings of the holy book and of Jesus, whom Sexton said was also an immigrant.
He said the issue needs to put in the context of welcoming and hospitality
“We need to first begin with why are they refugees. When we ask that question, it makes welcoming a lot easier. As long as we keep it on the political level and not the human level, it makes the conversation easy to dismiss,” he said.
“But when you hear the stories of the torture they’ve come from, the oppression, the war that they’ve come from, then you begin to recognize what if that was my child, my sister, my brother. It changes the story.”
Berthe Mairounga shared her story with the foreign and American attendees. She fled civil war in Chad, escaping first to Cameroon, and then to the United States.
Mairounga lost her husband and use of her hands during the war. He deserted the army, and when soldiers came looking for him, they tied her arms together and pushed her hands into a fire.
“When they burned me, I thanked God because I don’t die. They killed a lot of people I know, my family, they killed them a lot,” Mairounga said.
“But the good thing was they don’t kill me, they just burned my hands and let me live, and that gives me a lot of joy.”
She said she struggled when she first got to the United States, as she didn’t know English, or even where to go to get food for her children.
Mairounga said she hopes to help the new refugees as they get settled.
Congressman David Price also spoke at the dinner. He praised Rajendran’s idea for the community event to welcome recent arrivals, and particularly noted a number of Syrian refugees.
“We need to understand that these people are in our midst, and let them know that we are a welcoming community,” Price said.
“We stand ready to help them navigate whatever they need to do to get their families safe and secure, and get working and get their life established in this community. I think it’s important to be a part of that,” Price added.
Price said we must remember that the United States is a nation of immigrants.
Another American speaker at the dinner shared with the crowd that her ancestors immigrated from Scotland in the 1700s, so that made her a descendant of immigrants, too.
Rajendran said she plans to have another community dinner for the newly arrived refugees to ring in the new year.