How to host a refugee welcome dinner

Since the first plane of Syrian refugees landed in Canada, people from coast to coast have welcomed them with open arms. We’ve donated furniture and clothing, raised money to sponsor families and introduced them to this country we all call home. But one of the most popular (and fun!) ways to lend support is to host a refugee welcome dinner, where newcomers are invited to share a meal with Canadian hosts at their home or community centre.

Curious about how to host a dinner of your own? While these meals are just like any other dinner party in many ways, there are some important things you should keep in mind.

1. Canadians old and new

When it comes to inviting guests, make sure there’s a diverse group. Sara Shahsiah, who works with settlement agencies in her role as project coordinator at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, a United Way agency, suggests inviting not only newcomers but established Canadians, too.

It would be even better if some of the established Canadians have a newcomer background, as well. Many refugees arrive without family members or friends, which can be very isolating. Ensuring that there are Canadians present who have gone through similar experiences not only gives the group things to bond over, but also shows newcomers that there is hope for getting settled in a new country.

2. Don’t assume anything

Refugees have diverse backgrounds and customs. For example, while some Syrians are Muslim and follow certain religious customs, it’s wrong to expect all Syrians to share this identity. “Just as Canadians are such a diverse people, Syrians, and other newcomers, are also very diverse,” says Shahsiah.

Regardless of where the newcomers you’re hosting hail from, Shahsiah recommends asking guests if they have any dietary preferences or allergies. In the case of customs, such as shaking hands or saying a prayer before the meal, follow your guests’ lead. And when in doubt, just ask!

3. Ask before snapping

Many Canadians might not think twice about taking photos and sharing them on social media, but Shahsiah advises asking guests if they’re comfortable with that beforehand, and sharing those preferences with all dinner guests.

“Some refugees still have family back home. Pictures on social media spread quickly, and, if a person is identified, it could put others at risk,” she explains. “Don’t just assume taking pictures is OK.”

4. Keep conversation light

In addition to thinking of some icebreakers or activities, Shahsiah recommends steering all conversations toward cultural commonalities, the future in Canada and fun topics like music, pop culture or hobbies. Avoid asking refugees about their past or experiences in war, no matter how well-intentioned your questions might be.

“We don’t know how much trauma the newcomers who are invited have experienced,” she says. “Those questions can trigger people or cause a situation that the host is not equipped to deal with.”

Instead, show interest in the newcomers’ culture, such as their favourite foods or types of entertainment, rather than their lived experiences as refugees.

Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll pull off a special and welcoming event—and one that benefits all your guests. For refugees who arrive in Canada alone, a welcome dinner can signal a fresh start in their new home. And for established Canadians, a meal shared can help build lasting friendships.

Learn more about how to host a refugee welcome dinner on the Refugees Welcome to Dinner website or connect with an OCASI staff member to discover other volunteer opportunities.

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