Organizers of a lunch to welcome refugees who recently arrived in the Triangle said the event Sunday afternoon wasn’t designed as a rebuke of President Donald Trump’s order to temporarily bar entry of travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries and refugees from anywhere in the world. But that order wasn’t far from people’s minds.
Zeed Al-Zoubi, a Syrian refugee who traveled from a refugee camp in Jordan to Carrboro with his wife and six sons four months ago, was one of more than 200 refugees and volunteers who attended the buffet lunch at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, an Indian restaurant off Franklin Street. Al-Zoubi’s brother had hoped to join him in North Carolina, but Trump’s policy makes it feel like “that hope is lost,” he said.
Asked what message he would share with Trump if given the opportunity, Al-Zoubi, speaking through an interpreter, responded with one sentence: “Hate won’t bring peace.”
The refugees, many of who were from countries in the Middle East, mingled in the courtyard off Franklin Street with volunteers from Love Chapel Hill, a church dedicated to loving Chapel Hill “with the heart of Jesus,” and Refugee Community Partnership, a community-driven organization that helps build support systems for relocated families. Both organizations partnered with the restaurant’s owner, Vimala Rajendran, to host the lunch, which was free for all who attended.
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Rajendran – who was born in Canada and raised in Bombay before moving to Chapel Hill 32 years ago – called America “the land of immigrants” and encouraged attendees to ask each other about their different homes, cultures and families.
“I know what it is to be an ‘other’ and a foreigner,” said Rajendran, 58. “We are doing this because we are neighbors and we love our neighbors.”
The lunch drew people of all ages, some who sported pins that read “Make America kind again” and shirts that declared “Chapel Hill is for lovers.”
Rajendran said she crafted the menu – spiced basmati rice, lentils, Halal chicken and Halal beef curry – to reflect the Arab cuisine with which many of the refugees are most familiar.
“I have the confidence that it will say ‘welcome food,’ ” she said. “Because soul food is made with love.”
She noted that the restaurant also has hosted events for refugees the Sunday after Thanksgiving and on Jan. 1 to celebrate the new year. The lunch Sunday was named “Love your neighbor” in honor of Valentine’s Day.
Rajendran said the lunch was “not a response to any political action or policy,” choosing not to mention Trump’s controversial immigration ban, the enforcement of which has been halted by a ruling from a federal judge.
Al-Zoubi, 42, says that despite uncertainty about Trump’s policies toward refugees, he and his family are “very, very pleased” with their new home and community.
“I love it here,” said Al-Zoubi, “I came to America because there is no oppression, because there is freedom and there is dignity. It has become my adopted home.”
Ismail Suayah, who translated for Al-Zoubi, also spoke about the potential impact the ban has on him – even though it has been more than 35 years since he immigrated from Libya.
“The whole immigration issue impacts me directly,” said Suayah, who works in the software industry and recently began volunteering with local refugee organizations. “My family wouldn’t be able to visit – my mother wouldn’t be able to visit.”
Rachel Chason: 919-829-4629