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Syrian refugee dinner builds bridges on campus

On Monday Oct. 29, the Syrian Supper Club held an event called “Breaking Bread and Building Bridges” that hosted recently settled Syrian refugees. [caption id="attachment_24819" align="aligncenter" width="838"] Photo via Flickr[/caption] The event was part of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) week at Seton Hall University. The week’s events were organized by the Middle Eastern Studies Interdisciplinary Program. It was sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences in cooperation with the Departments of History and Languages, Literatures and Cultures and Dean Peter Shoemaker sponsored the activities and events held throughout the week. Dr. Youssef Yacoubi, assistant professor of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, the director of the Arabic Studies Program, co-director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program and co-organizer of MENA week, along with Professor Golbarg Rekabtalaei from the History Department, commented on the week’s twofold aim. “In line with Seton Hall University’s commitment to build bridges across cultures, faiths and traditions, MENA week aims to give visibility to the importance of studying the Middle East,” Yacoubi said. “By organizing several events, we hope to expand opportunities for students to learn about the diversity of the Middle East and North Africa and to explore the possibilities in minoring in this area of study. Of greater significance, events are organized with the hope that participants will engage in fostering dialogue between the United States and the Middle East region.” According to Yacoubi, the title for the week is the Middle East and North Africa in motion. It is meant to highlight the idea of movement, change and transformation of perspective on a rapidly changing region of the world with its uncompromising interconnectedness with the US and Europe. “It also means that this week aims to present work of young and up and coming scholars whose work is not only compelling for what it tells us about its particular area of study, but for implementing or developing new methodologies for scholarly work in area studies,” Yacoubi said. The Syrian Supper Club event, “Breaking Bread and Building Bridges,” was one of many events held during the week. Other events included guest speaker Laura Robson from Portland State University hosting a talk called, “American Dreamers? The United States and Middle Eastern Refugees in the 20th Century,” lectures on Muslim minorities in South East Asia, film screenings and opportunities for the Seton Hall community to get together, share, and enjoy Middle Eastern food and music. Dr. Widian Nicola, the assistant professor of graduate social work, helped spearhead and execute the Syrian Supper Club event along with several other faculty members on campus. Nicola described the process of planning for the event. “We reached out to the co-founders of the SSC and learned more about their mission and how we could host a dinner at SHU. Once we knew what resources we needed, we reached out to several department chairs and administrators on campus to ask for funding,” Nicola said. “11 departments, including the Dean’s office of the College of Arts and Sciences contributed. We rallied students, met to envision what the evening would look like, and executed our vision based on that vision.” While the expected turnout was 150 attendees for the events, 300 people were in attendance. The program for the event included a speech by one of the founders of the Syrian Supper Club, a speech by Abdul Alargha, a Syrian refugee and a short presentation by students. Dr. Golbarg Rekabtalaei, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern history in the Department of History and co-organizer of MENA week, commented on the event’s aims. “A lot of us are interested in doing something about the current refugee crisis, but we just don’t know how we can help. This is a great chance to empower our community to get involved and engage in local activities that could have an impact globally,” Rekabtalaei said. “This is in line with the university’s mission to advance academic and ethical development in a diverse and collaborative environment. This event would contribute to our students’ journey to becoming great leaders in their professional and community lives in a global society.” According to Rekabtalaei, the event was meant to bring Seton Hall students, faculty and staff together to meet with resettled Syrian refugees who have prepared a Syrian meal meant to be shared with friends and strangers. It is also meant to educate the community and raise awareness about the current and previous refugee crises and its global impacts. Ella Small, a sophomore with a major in diplomacy and social work, helped and spoke at the event. “SHU should absolutely host more of these kinds of events. There is no better way for us to understand people different from ourselves than interacting with them and coming together in everyday ways, such as eating dinner together,” Small said. “This event showed that students are interested in learning more about refugees and hearing their stories, and we should celebrate this aura of inclusion that is developing on campus.” Taina Vasquez, a junior criminal justice major, commented on the event and what she learned from it. “I thought that it was a great event that was filled with great food. I enjoyed going to this event and would definitely go to another one like it. This was fun and educational, and we were able to hear a Syrian refugee speak about his experience,” Vasquez said. “The event taught me about Syrian cuisine and about the struggles that refugees have to go through. He described his journey and talked about a lot of things we may take for granted.” “Refugees are real people with skills, ideas, and education,” Rekabtalaei said. “They, too, have hopes and aspirations for better lives. Refugees have contributed greatly to their host countries throughout history; we can see that with other migrant communities in the U.S. including, the Irish, Italian, Jewish, Latinx communities, etc. That’s the message we want our attendees to take away from this evening.” Rhania Kamel can be reached at


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