PERSPECTIVE: What I learned about the world from my neighbors

In my early 20s, I had an identity crisis. I could not find a hobby. I was a total artist wannabe, with no talent. I have no musical abilities. I am un-coordinated and un-athletic. What the heck was I going to do? Then it dawned on me — I love people. So, if people can be a hobby, I found mine.

In 1996, I moved to New York City. This is where I realized, God created me to live in cities. I loved walking outside my front door and being surrounded by millions of people. From there, I moved to Shanghai, China — twice the population of NYC. I came alive. This is where I met my husband, Steve.

In 2003, we moved to Dayton. I have to admit, I came here kicking and screaming. I wondered, “Where the heck are all of the people?” I didn’t know how I was going to live out my purpose in life in such a small city.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I became a mom that I found out who my people are and what my purpose is. Eight years ago, when my daughter, Olivia, started school, I dug my heels into the school community. That was when I found that the true Gems of Dayton are its people.

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My kids attend River’s Edge Montessori near downtown — part of Dayton Public Schools. We absolutely adore this school. About five years ago, River’s Edge became a hub for immigrant and refugee families in our city. Because of my love for people and my fascination with culture, I had a strong desire to see an event where the American-born families and immigrant families sit down and build relationships.

It was about this time that Welcome Dayton began its initiative around the city called “Voices of the Immigrant.” At this event, immigrants are invited to sit on a panel where they share their stories and experiences. When the panel is over, the audience is broken into small groups, so they can share their own stories and grow in understanding of one another.

We decided to model our event after this. We call our evening “Voices of River’s Edge.” In our context, we invite parents from our school to sit on the panel and share their stories. We provide free dinner and free childcare. After the panel, we move the parents in attendance into small groups where they can share and begin to build friendships.

It was at one of these first events that I met two of my dear friends. They are from Iraq and came to the United States for safety reasons because one of them worked as a translator for the U.S. Army. Never in a million years would I have thought that an American Christian family and an Iraqi Muslim family would sit down around a dinner table (sometimes at their house and sometimes at ours) and build a friendship. That is exactly what happened as we shared deep matters of the heart. We laughed together, we cried together but all the while we were becoming friends. As we did so, I saw the walls of fear and suspicion on both sides crumble.

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At another one of our events, I met a family from Somalia. A single mom of nine kids had just arrived at our school and they wanted to come to the event, but they didn’t have a ride. Through a series of charades and translations, I was able to give them a ride to the school.

For the first time ever, this mom sat around a table and talked with other moms from the school and she had a blast. I somehow convinced her to allow her kids to come to my house the next week to bake cookies. I then took them to the store to buy their mom her first ever Mother’s Day gift. I was so sad when they moved to Minnesota to be around other Somali families, because they had become my friends.

In the last four years, we have hosted seven different Voices of River’s Edge events. I can honestly say that of all the people who have come and gone through these evenings, I have been the most changed. I now have friends who lived in a refugee camp. I have dear friends who are undocumented citizens. My view of the world and of God has increased.

My politics have changed. There are news stations that I can no longer tolerate. They drive me bananas. I have learned how to ask better questions. I have learned how to enter into other peoples’ stories better. I think, generally, I have a greater awareness of injustices and lacks of freedom around the world and here in our own city.

We come to these events to learn about our differences. What brings us together and unifies us is what we share in common; and that is our kids. We all want the same things for our children. We want them to have a good education, a bright future and safety. These are the true unifying gems of our city.

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I have met families from all over the world. They have all expressed a thankfulness to be in the U.S. and in Dayton. But it’s not without a sense of loss. Each of these people has left something very dear behind. Perhaps it was family, a home or a business. They miss their food, traditions and communicating in their heart languages. There is a general grief over these losses.

That is why these events are special. They offer these families a chance to celebrate their unique culture. They come dressed in their traditional outfits. They share their food, their music and most importantly, they share their stories. As they do, they feel honored and celebrated. We the American-born families become even richer as they share these gems with us.

Our kids do this on a daily basis. The kids at our school do an awesome job of crossing culture and welcoming the newcomer. In fact, they do a better job of this than most adults in our community. These events offer the parents this same opportunity that the kids have on a daily basis.

It is my hope that every family at our school — whether they are from Iraq, Nepal, Sudan, if they are African-American, East-Siders or West-Siders — will take a few minutes, sit across the table from someone who is different from them and get to know them. As we celebrate each other’s differences, Dayton becomes all the more beautiful.

If you are interested in hosting one of these events, you can contact Welcome Dayton. I know they would be thrilled to help you host one of these Voices of the Immigrant in your own personal context. If I can do it, anyone can. Let’s keep finding the Gems of Dayton together.

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Elizabeth Koproski is a writer and mom who lives in Dayton. She gave this talk at a recent Pecha Kucha Dayton event.

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