A friendship chain reaction that started with a Welcome Dinner

In autumn 2018 Nadia Fifita hosted a Welcome Dinner for her Somali neighbor Lul and her family in their community in Willmar, Minnesota. For Nadia this one evening event was transformative and she sent us an email telling us about all the things that happened afterward that she kindly allowed us to share with you. This is such a beautiful example of the chain reaction that so often follows a rather small action taking us out of our comfort zones. 

The Welcome Dinner was an instrumental part of our introduction to a wonderful community of friends who are fast becoming like family.  In a community as small as Willmar, I am fortunate to see Lul regularly – whenever I pick up my niece from preschool and sometimes in other places – every time she greets me with such sincere warmth and love. 

I have also met friends of hers who know about me from her conversations with them about our Welcome Dinner and we feel an instant connection…a common bond of friendship.

Lul and I see one another regularly now at a monthly community event hosted by our local coffee shop “The Goodness Coffee House“. 

The event is called ‘Language and Friendship Meal’ where community members come together for dinner and conversation with people who are learning English. At one of these, I was introduced to a young Somali woman named Hamdi who is extremely dynamic and energetic and very involved in the service of the community. 

We have formed a strong friendship and together have started a few regular gatherings that bring together people of diverse backgrounds to explore our common ground.  One of these is a weekly ‘Musical Devotions’, which was inspired by experiences my eldest son had whilst serving as a community volunteer in Evanston, Illinois and as a guide at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette. There he saw how powerful it is to bring members of a community together to share in music, food, prayer and elevated conversation on the betterment of our communities, inspired by the reading of Sacred Word from the world’s many religions and spiritual traditions. 

In such a space we can find common ground, appreciate the diversity of our community and explore a shared vision for how we wish to see our community advance. We have been hosting this gathering in our home every Thursday night for a month now and the circle of friends is steadily expanding and bringing together the rich tapestry of cultures and faith traditions that make up our community – Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu, Lakota, Latina, Middle Eastern, African, Polynesian, European… 

This has led to another weekly gathering to learn more about Islam through study of the Quran. The Muslim community has been sadly stigmatized and little is known of the true nature of their Faith so I have been happy to offer my home as a venue for a weekly study group, attended mostly by young people of different faiths, to read the Quran and explore its teachings as a way of finding the similarities in our beliefs as opposed to the differences.  

I mentioned that shortly after our Welcome Dinner we had planned to have a youth gathering and that the grant funds we received for the Welcome Dinner through ChangeX would go towards funding this event.

It was a very successful gathering at the Willmar Public Library, bringing together close to 20 young people from Willmar, the Twin Cities, St Peter and even as far as Fargo/Moorhead. Together they explored the special capacity they have as young people to have a transformative influence on their own lives and on the life of their community and began the work on envisioning the kind of community they would like to create.  (I have attached some photographs from this event). 

We are now planning a follow-up Youth Gathering for March 30th and 31st and hope to bring together more youth, especially from Willmar, to carry this work further, hopefully leading to plans for specific actions that this dynamic group of young people wishes to pursue in serving their communities. These plans are being supported primarily by the Baha’i community of Willmar, but we are seeking collaboration with the Somali Muslim community and also the local community college to widen the circle of engagement. 

I have also been able to maintain contact with Lul, who had joined our Welcome Dinner as an interpreter.  Most recently, she called me to ask if she could come over and visit me and my daughter with a friend who she provides interpreter services for.  A month or so ago I bumped into Lul and her friend Ismahan at a restaurant where my family and I were also having a meal and we had a nice chat. Ismahan is deaf and so I was pleased to be able to introduce her to my youngest sister, Mina, who is also deaf. We were glad to be able to communicate in sign language which, because of my sister, my 2-year-old daughter is also able to speak.  It turns out that Ismahan was impressed by my daughter and wanted to spend more time with her, so she asked Lul to call me and see if we could meet again. 

We had a wonderful visit and it was so sweet to have Ismahan read stories to my daughter in sign language and to laugh together as she taught her new phrases.  I am hopeful that they will feel welcome to come to our home regularly not only to assist my daughter to advance in her sign language skills but to offer some much needed social interaction for my sister, Mina, who seldom has the opportunity to interact with other deaf individuals.

So…that’s a little bit of a summary of what has kept me occupied and how your Welcome Dinner idea was the spark to ignite a lot of light in my life, and hopefully in the life of my community.  

With love and light,

Nadia