Serving up dinner for refugees

By  Dylan Robertson, Youth Speak News
  • December 17, 2007

RefugeeDinner.jpgMISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Students, newly arrived refugees and guests chatted over platefuls of chicken, lasagna and vegetables inside St. Marcellinus Secondary School’s dimly lit auditorium while live piano music floated through the air. This was the scene during the fifth annual Christmas Refugee Dinner held Nov. 29.

The event, organized by 250 student volunteers, offered a full dinner for two at a ticket price of $30 with all proceeds going to Sojourn House, a refugee shelter in Toronto.

“I think it’s important to make (refugees) feel welcome in this country and make them feel safe,” said Grade 12 volunteer Ashley Gerrie, 16.

Two bus loads of refugees staying at Sojourn House attended the dinner.

“The quality is superior; the way they treat you, it makes you feel like you are at home. The way it’s organized makes you feel like you belong, despite the different languages and different nationalities,” said Simba, who asked that his full name not be used for safety reasons. He has spent two months at Sojourn House since arriving from Zimbabwe.

“It’s a time to reflect, to think and review what happened in your home country. But it’s just like an umbrella. When it’s raining, you go for shelter under the umbrella, but when the rain is over you’re ready to go on. It’s a short period until you can fit into your community.”

During the dinner, Everton Gordan, manager of the shelter program at Sojourn House, thanked the community for its goodwill and spoke about how the funds would be used, as well as the history of the shelter.

“It all started as a working group that was looking at refugees who came to Canada and ended up in regular shelters and horrible conditions,” said Gordan, himself an immigrant from Jamaica. “So what we do is support them through a safe haven with integrative model of counselling and a transitional housing program. It’s the best opportunity to get refugees on their feet and to make them become contributing citizens.”

The dinner featured plenty of performances with a wide variety of student talent. Hawaiian hula dancers amazed the crowd and showed some volunteers how to move their hips; numerous singers and musicians performed music; and one guest from the house was inspired enough to give an impromptu song from his homeland.

 “It’s really become a tradition in our school,” said principal John McAllister. “I sat with a couple from Russia who came here two weeks ago and they were really impressed. It was a great evening.”

The event is described by some as a cross between a fund-raiser, awareness dinner and Christmas talent show. Santa Claus even paid a visit.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, I’m so in awe of the way the school has come together as one big family,” said Maggie DaCosta, a mother of one student who helped with the event.

Her husband, Mario, agreed. “I think it’s part of the whole education experience; we wanted to show our support for our son who has been helping out, but it’s a good experience for us as well to appreciate the work of the students.”

“This event really shows how we have a different school system than the public one,” said Shane Byrne, the school’s chaplain. “There’s a real sense of connection between school, parish and community… we’re reminded that Jesus too was a refugee; He was moved out of His place when there was a census. This calls us to help those in need.”

More than 600 students attended the dinner out of a student body of 1,180. The teens had a chance to speak with refugees of different races, religions and cultures.

 “I thought it was a great way to earn community service hours and a great thing for all the refugees who came,” said Grade 11 student Jenna Furgiuele, 15. “I think it went really well and that it’s the best way to welcome these refugees to Canada.”

Grade 9 student Rocco Martino, 14, agreed.

“I like helping people, and I was glad to be a part of such a success.”

(Robertson, 16, is a Grade 12 student at All Saints Catholic School in Whitby, Ont.)

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