by PETER DORFMAN
Even as America struggles with national immigration policy and animosity toward immigrants runs high in some places, two young social entrepreneurs from Indiana University have developed a novel way to make Bloomington a welcoming place for immigrants who choose to settle here.
Starting this fall, a program called Room at the Table will put immigrant families together with local families for monthly dinners in the hosts’ homes. An interpreter will also be invited when one is needed. The dinners will enable new English speakers to practice their language skills in a safe, nonjudgmental setting and allow host families to pick up some of their guests’ language, culture, and viewpoints.
“Immigrant support organizations focus heavily on basic needs—housing, food, clothing, medical care, jobs,” says Savannah Powell, one of the program’s founders. “What they don’t focus on is loneliness. New immigrants spend time with people from their own countries, but they don’t feel part of the community.”
A fourth-year nursing student, Powell, 21, knows chronic loneliness is not trivial—it’s considered a clinical health risk. A fluent Spanish speaker and translator, Powell has been working with asylum-seekers from Venezuela and Cuba in Bloomington and Indianapolis, her hometown.
She launched the program with Morgan Hoffman, 20, an international studies major. Hoffman is president of Seeking Refuge, an immigration-focused IU club formerly called Amal Outreach for Displaced People.
Powell and Hoffman stress the shared meal doesn’t need to be lavish. The guests may even share in the cooking. “I know people from Venezuela or Cuba for whom cooking with an American family would be incredibly exciting,” Powell says.
Powell and Hoffman will draw on resources from Seeking Refuge and the Bloomington Refugee Support Network (where Powell is a volunteer) for help with translation and other needs. They also are reaching out to local religious groups and campus organizations.
“We’re trying to frame it so that each family offers something to the other,” Hoffman says. “The host families help the immigrant families feel more connected to the community in Bloomington; the guest families give back by teaching something about themselves.”