Restaurant owner Vimala Rajendran would like the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be known as “Global Neighborhood Day,” with communities joining together to break bread and celebrate the many cultures from around the world that make America a special place.
To get it started, she offered a free buffet Sunday at her Chapel Hill restaurant – Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe – with a special invite to the refugee community that includes many families from war-torn parts of the world. By 5:30 p.m., 20 families had arrived to take in the traditional turkey dinner as well as several international dishes.
Rajendran said she was inspired by the goodwill Americans showed her when she emigrated 36 years ago from Bombay, India, to Ann Arbor, Mich. She’s made Chapel Hill her home since 1985, but came up with the idea only three months ago, during walks with a good friend and neighbor, Amy Odom.
“I feel like this is a great way to close out the Thanksgiving weekend,” she said.
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For Satam Alhmidi, 36, and his family, it was their first opportunity to sample the Thanksgiving fare. They are Syrian refugees who fled the country two years into a brutal civil war that has yet to end. They spent three years in a Jordanian refugee camp before coming to the United States two months ago.
Alhmidi gave a smile and a thumbs up as he finished his plate. Through a translator, Alhmidi said his family has been treated well since coming to Durham. He and his wife, Zakiah, have four young children ages 9, 5, 3 and 1. They sorted through coats, blankets and other donated goods that were also made available at the dinner.
“The American people, they love to see our children happy,” Almidi said.
Rajendran reached out to Church World Services to invite refugees to the dinner. The nonprofit helps them find jobs, educational opportunities, medical assistance and social service benefits. The Church World Services opened a Durham office in 2009 and provides resettlement services for roughly 250 to 300 people.
It has been sponsoring community dinners for several years to help bond refugees with their new neighbors. The weekend before Thanksgiving, the nonprofit held a potluck dinner at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham.
Jourdi Bosley said the dinners give the refugees a way to “share culturally significant meals with local residents, and build relationships through food.”
Rajendran said the tenor of the presidential election was also heavy on her mind when she came up with the buffet. Some of President-elect Donald Trump’s speeches on the campaign trail regarding immigration and terrorism have been criticized for their broad swipes on ethnic and religious groups.
“I think the climate in this country just naturally led us to this day,” she said.
Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, and his wife, Lisa, were among the locals who turned out to welcome the refugees. He said the dinner shows there are plenty of Americans who have not forgotten the country’s melting pot heritage.
“It underscores the kind of community we want to be,” he told the crowd.