November 10 – Welcoming Strangers Summary

       On Friday, November 10, the Desmond Tutu Center hosted a screening of the documentary Welcoming Strangers, Finding Brothers and Sisters at Butler University’s Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall. Tutu Fellows, Dr. Susan Adams and Dr. Brooke Kandel-Cisco introduced themselves and started the screening of Welcoming Strangers. The recital hall went silent as the audience was entranced with the story of friendship and camaraderie in the face of adversity. After the screening was over, moderator Charlie Geiger invited the panelists onto the stage: the two Tutu Fellows,  Reverend Evan Bever, ENL teacher Traci Vermillion, and Burmese refugee and high school senior Easter Day.

        Geiger started by asking the audience to look around and introduce themselves to someone they do not know. The recital hall was filled with noise as people greeted each other and had casual conversations. Geiger then explained that he made the audience do the activity because that is what the documentary is about: engaging in conversation with those who you are not familiar with. Geiger then asked the panelists what some things are that people can do in order to make immigrants and refugees feel welcomed. Vermillion answered by saying that while it may be difficult to interact with those from different cultures, it is important to show support and show immigrants that you care about them and their culture. She gave the example of the time she went to her Kareni student’s wedding – the ceremony was entirely in Karen and she could not understand a word they were saying, but she still chose to go in order to show her student that she was there for him.

        Geiger followed his last question by asking the panelists how things have changed since the filming of the documentary. Reverend Bever answered the question, and explained that there is now a better relationship between both congregations, and that he makes it a practice to sit down once a month with Burmese leaders to talk. Worshipping together is now much more common than it was during the filming, which has been effective at breaking down walls. Dr. Adams added to Bever’s answer by explaining that now there are plenty of different refugee groups from different parts of the world arriving, which presents brand new challenges.

        Attendees were then allowed to ask the panel questions. A woman asked them what their most awkward moments were due to differences in culture. Vermillion gave the example of when she was orienting a student from Burma, but he was walking behind her and would not look at her in the eye. She kept pressing him to catch up with her, and only later realized that the reason he was doing so was not out of shyness but rather because it is a way to show respect to teachers in his culture. Easter Day had a similar experience – when she was younger, she had a meeting with a teacher, in which she did not make eye contact out of respect. The teacher kept repeating herself over and over while being louder each time, thinking Easter was not paying attention. At the time, Easter was not sure why was getting louder as she could clearly hear her. Reverend Bever followed Easter’s story by sharing how he tried to hug a Burmese woman when greeting her, and was met with a look of horror and shock. He explained: “The Burmese are not big huggers.” The next person to share her story was Dr. Adams, who laughed as she told the audience about when she tried to help a Burmese boy give his mother a Mother’s Day gift. She recommended that he clean his house as a nice gesture, but this angered the boy as he thought she was implying that his mom keeps the house dirty. Dr. Adams explained how these awkward moments are necessary in order to understand each other’s culture.

        Another member of the audience asked the panel what teachers should do in order to be more respectful towards immigrant and refugee students. Dr. Kandel-Cisco explained how teachers must smile and go out of their way to get to know refugee and immigrant kids. They may often feel completely isolated due to cultural or language barriers, and it would be beneficial for the teacher to show them that they are there for them when they need support. Geiger said that for him, he makes “damn sure” he gets the name of each student right on the first time. People’s names are part of their identity, and it is only respectful to call them by their name.

        Geiger then moved on to the final question: what is each of the panelists’ hope moving forward? The panelists all agreed that their hope is that people will become advocates and reach out to provide support to immigrants and refugees around them. Easter Day explained that she dreams of a more open minded and understanding world. Dr. Adams followed her by saying that people like Easter Day gives her hope as well – she believes in the strength of refugee and immigrant leaders. Dr. Kandel-Cisco followed up by explaining that there is a rich diversity in Indiana, but we often are not interested in other people’s culture and languages. She encouraged the audience to learn about the cultures of others in order to bring positive change and acceptance. Geiger then finished the conversation by saying that he hopes that we all see the power of community and convergence, and that he hopes that we all will engage with each other.As the event wrapped up, the attendees were greeted with a surprise outside the recital hall doors- Easter Day had made a traditional Burmese meal for people to try. A delicious closing to the evening.

The event was made possible due to funding from Indiana Humanities and the Indianapolis Foundation.

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