Welcoming new immigrants to Minnesota, one meal at a time

The two couples share a laugh and a meal.
Diana Otongo, Jonas Mphiri, Marina Aleixo and Umar Choudry share a laugh and a meal inside Aleixo and Choudry's Minneapolis home Sunday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Jonas Mphiri was a Pentecostal pastor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He used to be a headmaster at a school.

But all of that quickly changed when he became a victim of the civil war and was forced to flee.

"Let me tell you a little bit what happened," Mphiri tells Umar Choudry. "It was a certain Friday, I was going to church. Things started from there."

"I find my house was burned," Mphiri recalled. "And I went back to church, my church was under fire as well."

"And who did this?" asked Choudry.

"This is the problem," Mphiri answered. "Up until now I don't know exactly."

Mphiri shared the tragic events that made him and his family refugees during a recent dinner at Choudry's house in Minneapolis.

The two families enjoy dinner together.
Marina Aleixo, far left, tends to the kids' table as Diana Otongo, Umar Choudry and Jonas Mphiri serve themselves a meal.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Choudry and his wife Marina Aleixo invited Mphiri and his family to their home as a way to welcome the new immigrants to the community. Aleixo is leading a new initiative called "Dinners Together Minneapolis" where locals seek out newly resettled refugees and immigrants for private dinners at home.

Aleixo knows from her own experience immigrating to the U.S. from Brazil 20 years ago how hard it is for immigrants to make friends with non-immigrant families, and Caucasians, which is part of the reason she decided to take this on.

"Unless you create a larger effort to have deeper, and meaningful relationships," Aleixo said, "people are not going feel welcomed and there is going to be this animosity of us versus them."

The night began with the host family picking up Mphiri and his family of five. Since they've been living in the United States for just four months, transportation is still an issue.

The two families met in the parking lot of an apartment building in St. Paul. Aleixo excitedly greeted the energetic elementary school-aged children. Mphiri was sharply dressed in a black blazer. His wife Diane Otongo wore a bright pink dress. The parents greeted and hugged the host family.

They arrived at Aleixo and Choudry's where the children hurried downstairs to kick the soccer ball around. The parents stayed upstairs to chat.

Mphiri, Otongo and their three children moved to Minnesota after spending 10 years in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. They're from Kinshasa, a region that has been torn by civil wars since 1996. Millions died and others fled.

"We are saved," Mphiri told Choudry.

"What about your family?" Choudry asked.

"That is a long story my brother."

The Mphiri children serve themselves dinner.
Siblings six-year-old Esther, left, seven-year-old Alex and eleven-year-old Joe Mphiri help themselves to dinner.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Congolese refugee community in Minnesota is fairly new and small. Mphiri and Otongo haven't met other Congolese families here so far. A total of 193 Congolese refugees arrived in Minnesota over the past five years, according to the U.S. State Department's Refugee Processing Center.

The majority of them, 102 refugees, settled just last year. The Trump administration's temporary travel ban on all refugees includes those from that region.

But Mphiri is still optimistic. He hopes to someday help his extended family still in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other parts of Africa. For now, his family is focusing on starting their new life.

"We have restarted everything from zero," he said. "High hope. In two years, three years, things will be very excellent."

Mphiri got a job at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport preparing food to serve on flights. The couple attends English language classes on the weekends. Mphiri has preached at a local church. He said he hopes someday to use his degree in psychology.

Around the dinner table, the families' conversations took all kinds of turns — from the mild winter to politics. They talked about what the hosts do for a living and favorite hobbies.

Mphiri was pleasantly surprised to learn that Aleixo is also in the field of education as an International Programs Coordinator at the University of Minnesota. And she was surprised to hear he was familiar with current Brazilian politics. He asked her how he could get his doctorate back. She told him "nobody can take away your PhD."

They disagreed a little on recent Brazilian government leadership. But they agreed the Brazilian soccer team is probably the best out there.

"OK, then you can stay," Aleixo joked.

Aleixo said it's much more impactful to host one-on-one dinners than big group meetings at churches or community centers.

Luca Choudry and Esther Mphiri build a block tower together.
Three-year-old Luca Choudry and six-year-old Esther Mphiri build a block tower together in the basement of Luca's parents' Minneapolis home Sunday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"These kinds of initiatives can help people gain a better understanding of each other," Aleixo said. "There is something happening in this community that at the surface level is very welcoming, but is not willing to create those deep meaningful relationships that make people feel like they belong here and that we want them to be here."

As the host family cleaned up after dinner, Choudry reflected on his experience. He learned a lot, he said, but one welcome dinner isn't going to solve all problems or help new immigrants feel at home.

"The kids are going to learn a lot as well," Choudry, said. "Someone of his age group growing up in a refugee camp and the difficulties little Alex or little Joe went through, that will be impactful than us as parents telling them 'there are kids out there who don't get a meal at night or don't get a present for a birthday.'"

The group "Dinners Together Minneapolis" has slowly grown to 86 members. So far, two dinners have been held. The next dinner this weekend introduces a Minnesotan family to an Iraqi family.

But resettlement workers with the Minnesota Council of Churches, who helped connect the hosts with their guests, said they have to be careful not to let it grow so big that it's opened up to exploitation.

"We don't want there to be any sort of tokenization of refugees, like come get your refugee experience type feeling," said Melody Ward, volunteer and outreach specialist with MCC. "Our refugee clients are too precious and they're a vulnerable population. They need to be protected and they need to be valued."

There are also people interested in hosting, but hesitant for various reasons including the fear of bringing a stranger to their home. When she began organizing, Aleixo noticed that not everyone was as comfortable as she was hosting people they've never met.

"There is 'I don't know these people, how am I going to share where I live, or welcome them into my home and what does that mean and what is the larger impact of that,'" Aleixo said.

But not everyone gave her that impression either.

On the same night Aleixo had her dinner, Meaghan Gerhart, a 25-year-old California transplant living in Minneapolis, hosted a dinner for Kismat, a 21-year-old recently resettled Bhutanese refugee. They bonded over millennial commonalities like iPhones, Instagram, soccer and dating.

Like others willing to host, Gerhart was tempted to serve Minnesota food. A tater tot hotdish, wild rice or meatloaf. But she ended up making something more familiar to her guest: chicken, rice, roasted veggies and chocolate chip cookies in the shape of Minnesota.

"Kismat asked for the recipe to the spice cake that I made and I didn't quite have the heart to tell him that it was a cake mix," Gerhart said laughing.

All jokes aside, Gerhart said the opportunity to meet someone from a whole new world opened her eyes about things she said she hadn't thought about before. She saw such enthusiasm and optimism in Kismat that she wasn't expecting.

"I walked away from it feeling like perhaps I'm more jaded or more cynical than I realized," Gerhart said. "That I also take a lot of my freedoms for granted ... to hear him be so excited to work and go to school and participate in modern American life was really refreshing."

At the end of the night, both hosts made plans to hang out with the new immigrants again.

Aleixo and her family plan to take Mphiri and his family to see popular Minneapolis sites, especially the Stone Arch Bridge. Gerhart said they're going to take Kismat to a Twins game.

Everyone decided food will bring them together again. Next time, it's African Fufu and Nepalese spicy noodles.

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