Food around the world: History students put on potluck to support Syrian refugees

Thursday's event was planned by students of Lori Bihler's History of the Holocaust course.

Update: In an email sent out to faculty and the student body on Dec. 19, Bihler said over $1,300 in donations were collected in total.

In an effort to support Syrian refugee families who live in the MetroWest area, a group of FSU history majors have decided to give back.

On Thursday, Dec. 14 in the Forum, students from history professor Lori Bihler’s History of the Holocaust and Genocide class, hosted the “Taste of Framingham State” – a potluck benefit comprised of dishes made both by students and restaurants in the MetroWest area.

Although the event was free and open to the public, the group encouraged attendees to offer lightly used winter clothing and give monetary donations to the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest (JFS), a non-profit organization that is supporting six Syrian refugee families living in the Framingham area.

As of press time, approximately $700 was raised during the event, according to Bihler, but the group is still calculating online donations. With the collected proceeds, the class plans to buy the families laptops loaded up with English-learning software.

Senior Kieran Shakeshaft, one of the three student leaders spearheading the project, said,

“We were really concerned with having a long-term benefit for the Syrian families, versus just, ‘Here’s a fun event. Framingham State loves you. Welcome to Framingham, and goodbye. We are never going to see you again.’”                                                                                        

At its inception, the “Taste of Framingham State” potluck was a civic-engagement class project three students developed for one of course’s bigger group assignments.

All the students in the Holocaust class were tasked with devising a proposal that would aid Syrian refugees who live in the area. Before the start of the semester, Bihler was awarded a $1,000 grant from the Center for Diversity and Inclusion to fund the class project that was most feasible, both economically and logistically.

Bihler said many students often feel dejected after completing the class, due to course’s serious and somber subject matter.

“So, I thought, ‘Why don’t I get the students to do something positive for people who have just escaped mass atrocities? They would leave the class with a sense of agency or accomplishment,'” she said.

In October, Bihler asked the directors of JFS to come to one of her classes to discuss the resources the refugee families are lacking and to see how the class could provide support.

One group, comprised of Shakeshaft and seniors Alyssa Campbell and Mike Thomas, took note of the refugees’ love of food.

“[JFS] mentioned that a lot of their socializing is around food, and cooking is something they are proud of,” Bihler said.

The group started planning out their project shortly after the directors came to campus – scribbling out their ideas on the classroom’s chalkboard on a day class had been canceled.   

“All three of us were on campus that day anyway,” said Thomas. “It was just the three of us in that room and we were like, ‘OK, so what are we going to do?’ And we literally were there for the two hours.”

Shakeshaft said the group decided to offer free food early on in the planning process, as it would be a good motivator to get people to come out and donate.

The group settled on the idea of offering a potluck comprised of dishes that represented  Framingham State’s diverse population.

“My idea going into this is that students of the Framingham State campus come from all sorts of walks of life,” said Campbell. “We come from all around the world, so it’s a chance to show that even if we are part of this one centralized community at FSU, and of the greater MetroWest area, we are embodying the cultures of the world.”

After the group presented their idea to Bihler, the whole class rallied together to make it a reality – each student playing a part in planning the event.

“‘The Taste of Framingham State really encompassed everything everyone wanted to do,” said Bihler. “It allowed people to bring their own food from their home countries. It allowed everyone in the class to be involved. … [It] had the longest lasting impact with this money.”

During the event, President F. Javier Cevallos commended both the students putting on the potluck and JFS for their hard work in the Syrian Humanitarian Project – a joint coalition comprised of seventeen Boston Jewish organizations, according to the JFS website.

“Tonight, we are here together because we want to help,” he said. “We want to make sure these families succeed – that they are part of the American Dream. I really have no words to express how proud I am of this community and our campus and our students today.”

Executive Director of JFS Marc Jacobs said through the Syrian Humanitarian Project, the organization has been able to develop “an inclusive experience” for the eight families in the MetroWest area, six of which live in Framingham.

He thanked FSU for “embracing the program.

“I’m just honored to be with you tonight,” he said. “Thank you for all you’ve done.”

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