January 31 was a stressful day for Syrian immigrants living in the United States. Four days earlier, President Donald Trump had signed an executive order banning people from Syria and six other Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S.
But that night, the Penn Project for Civic Engagement (PPCE) helped create a welcoming environment with a dinner at the Reading Terminal Market that brought together recent Syrian immigrants and long-term residents of Northeast Philadelphia. Part of the “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers” series, the dinner left some of the Syrians saying they felt more welcomed in the country, said PPCE director and co-founder Harris Sokoloff. A faculty member at Penn GSE, Sokoloff is known for his work with community engagement projects ranging locally, nationally, and internationally.
The dinner with the Syrian immigrants was scheduled before Trump signed the travel ban, which has since been struck down in court. But Sokoloff said the series, which is funded by the Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge, provides a chance for people to connect with their neighbors in an important way.
At each dinner in the series, chefs prepare food—and provide a cooking lesson—from two cultures, and guests enjoy the food together. The Reading Terminal Market could handle the food, but the partners in the project asked PPCE to create a framework to ease the guests into a deeper conversation.
Usually, we’re structuring conversations around public policy problems, or giving advice to policymakers based on public input. This was more of a human interaction challenge, providing participants with the opportunity to get to know each other as people, not just 'the other’. -Harris Sokoloff
“Usually, we’re structuring conversations around public policy problems, or giving advice to policymakers based on public input,” Sokoloff explained. “This was more of a human interaction challenge, providing participants with the opportunity to get to know each other as people, not just 'the other’.”
The project, spearheaded by Reading Terminal Market general manager Anuj Gupta, was inspired in part by The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life by sociologist Elijah Anderson. PPCE has been structuring dialogues since 1995. For the Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers series, PPCE partnered with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations and HIAS Pennsylvania, an immigrant and refugee community organization. PPCE trained facilitators and staff from the Commission to help guide the dinner conversations.
As Sokoloff explained, the Reading Terminal Market is a prime example of a place where different ethnicities come together. The first dinner brought together Korean and African American Philadelphians. At the second, West Africans and African Americans broke bread.
By chance, the third dinner offered a timely opportunity to communicate across differences as the country was having a public conversation about immigration and refugee policies. One of the Syrian diners told Newsworks she came to the U.S. on a student visa four years ago and was now hoping to be granted asylum, since her family’s home was destroyed in the civil war.
These are hard topics to discuss, Sokoloff said. Having a structure for a conversation—a plan that can keep people moving in the same direction—makes it easier. Once people start talking, and listening, Sokoloff said, it’s amazing how quickly they begin to identify with those sharing the meal.
“The vision and mission of PPCE is bringing people together to identify and talk through issues they are facing,” Sokoloff said. “This work in bringing ethnic groups with a history of misunderstanding together is central to our mission of finding ways to talk across differences in constructive ways.”