On March 25th, 2017, the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations—Cultural Exchange and Support Initiative, otherwise known as NMC-CESI, hosted the Syrian Food Festival in the Cat’s Eye.

In the first half of the workshop, Rasha Elendari, NMC-CESI’s Co-Founder, paired UofT volunteers with Syrian newcomers, where the former and the latter practised English and Arabic. Later on in the event, people ate, sang, and danced together as a Syrian band played for the participants.

“There’s a lot of support in the room, and the program helps promote cultural exchange,” Felipe Fajardo, Victoria College Representative for NMC-CESI, stated. “It’s important for people to get to know others who are commonly thought of as ‘in the opposite spectrum,’ we’re more similar to newcomers than we think.”

Fajardo is a fourth year undergraduate student at Vic. He has felt impacted by the Syrian crisis due to his Colombian roots. In attempts to raise awareness for the crisis, Fajardo wanted to start a program that addressed these issues, applied for scholarships, and found the NMC-CESI initiative.

The NMC-CESI was created by a group of graduate students at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at U of T as an educational and humanitarian initiative.

In support of the organization’s weekend workshops with newcomers to Canada, the Student Projects Fund granted $5000 to NMC-CESI, and $1000 specifically to the Syrian Food Festival.  Student Projects funds Victoria College students’ events directed towards UofT and Vic students. NMC-CESI has hosted fundraising events such as Singing for Syria in the Cat’s Eye during the Victoria College Syria Awareness Week, which took place between March 13th and March 18th.

When asked about the effects of the workshops for volunteers, Fajardo commented, “I think it’s especially powerful for students, because you meet people who have so much strength and resilience and are so grateful to be here. To be working with them is amazing.”

Fajardo also stated that the community gatherings are great opportunities for students to see how they can make a difference closer to home.

“Syrian newcomers have to endure completely a different language, climate, and culture,” Fajardo said. “It is important to focus our efforts and support on those who have already arrived.”