“What percentage of refugees are admitted for permanent resettlement in a third country?”
Over 50 attendees at the Trivia Night & Iftar event, organized by Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), conversed with their groups, fumbling for an educated guess to the quizmaster’s question. Once the answer was revealed later in the evening—that only 1 percent of refugees are, in fact, resettled—gasps of surprise coursed through the room.
The sold-out event was held on Saturday at Havenly, a cafe run by refugee women, and sought to raise funds for IRIS’s food pantry, which serves 502 families a week on average. Beyond successfully securing over $2,000 for the cause, the event also enriched the participants’ knowledge of Muslim life and the plight of refugees.
IRIS is a non-profit organization whose goal is to support immigrants and refugees in acclimating to life in Connecticut (read more about that work here and here). Recognizing that many refugees arrive in the United States with financial, professional and language needs, IRIS provides housing, legal services, ESL classes and English language training, and more.
“There are so many people out there who are vulnerable, and are fleeing violence and looking for safety,” said Zeenie Malik, senior communications specialist at IRIS. “We want to support these people who are here, because once they have gone through those challenges and they arrive in Connecticut, they have a whole other set of challenges.”
Rachel Peet Photos.
IRIS’s food pantry, which serves clients and non-clients alike, is one mechanism by which the organization seeks to uplift immigrants and refugees. In 2019, IRIS hosted its first Trivia Night & Iftar fundraiser during Ramadan, a month of fasting in Islam. “Ramadan is a time when Muslims really focus on charity, so that is how the idea came about,” said Malik.
Raising the funds specifically for IRIS’s food pantry felt like a natural extension of the Ramadan tradition, Malik added. “There is this connection to us as Muslims fasting and putting ourselves in the shoes of people in need. It makes us stop and think about people who don’t have the luxury of just having meals whenever they want.”
Each of the three trivia rounds was led by a different host. Sprinkled between the typical trivia questions, such as “How many hearts does an octopus have?,” hosts saw an opportunity in the game to educate participants who may still not know a lot about refugees and immigrants.
Questions such as “how many Afghans have entered the country since the US military withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2020?” and “How many years must a refugee in the US wait before they can apply for citizenship?” forced attendees to earnestly engage with the reality of US policies towards immigrants and refugees.
“Through these questions we want to raise awareness as to what the crisis is like worldwide for refugees and immigrants,” said Malik.
Mohanad Mahmood, one of the quiz hosts at Trivia Night & Iftar, arrived in the United States from Iraq in 2014, when he was ten years old.
“I remember the day I arrived in this country, and I remember coming to IRIS for the first time because they were offering me the uniform for when I first started in middle school,” Mahmood said. Now at 19 years of age, he is a university student hoping to pursue a career as a software engineer.
As he reflected on the journey that brought him to this moment, Mahmood said he is determined to continue to give back to IRIS. “This event means a lot, especially seeing everyone get together. They are like family to us… It means a lot, to still be here, to participate.”
To IRIS, such stories are indicative of the significance of their work. Malik noted that when refugees and immigrants first arrive in the U.S., they are often burdened by educational and linguistic challenges. Former clients like Mahmood illuminate how significant IRIS’s work is in allowing them to actualize their aspirations.
As the event came to its conclusion, Johanna Snyder, IRIS’s food pantry and bike program coordinator, took to the floor to thank the attendees.
“There are so many difficult things going on in this world, some of which have impacted the lives of people in this room quite profoundly, and yet beautiful things like this also exist,” she said. “We are a diverse group of people gathered here tonight, Ramadan, Passover and Holy Week are all converging, and it really strengthens my faith in our community that we can come together to make a big change through seemingly small actions.”
Besides amassing funds for IRIS’s food pantry, the event also helped immigrants in another way: by supporting Havenly. As the sun set and the trivia session came to a close, attendees were invited to take part in Iftar, the meal breaking the daily fast, with a buffet from Havenly’s kitchen—including Havenly’s home salad, falafel and tea.
Rachel Peet Photos.
Havenly was founded in 2018, with the goal of equipping refugee women in New Haven with the skills to flourish in the United States. Co-founder Nieda Abbas, a former IRIS client herself, was displaced from her native Iraq in 2005, and resettled in New Haven in 2014. Together with an IRIS student volunteer who helped tutor her daughter, Dina Tareq, Abbas began selling home-made baklava.
Now, Havenly has its own brick-and-mortar location on 25 Temple St., and offers a six-month fellowship program, providing immigrant women with employment at Havenly, English classes, and career coaching.
IRIS’s continued support to Havenly has allowed it not only to operate, but to grow. “Most of the women that we have now in the program come from IRIS,” said Tareq, currently the sales director at Havenly. In the first cohort in 2018, they had two Havenly fellows; now, they have 45 fellows each year. Tareq pointed to the way that the event helps Havenly grow its own mission to support refugee women. Currently, its fellows come from countries including Sudan, Ecuador, Syria, and Guatemala among others.
Since she began working as the Director of Global Program at Yale’s Macmillan Center, Hira Jafri became involved with many of the events that IRIS organizes, including its annual Run for Refugees. She also orders catering from Havenly often and has visited the cafe numerous times, so showing up to the event was an easy decision.
“It is one of the few avenues that I have in my life to support refugees in the community,” said Jafri. “Whenever there is a project I can support, I really want to come out for it.”
Rachel Peet Photos.
Though many of the attendees, like Jafri, frequent Havenly, it attracted many others who were not familiar with the cafe and its mission. Sumia Shaikh made the 25-minute commute from her home in Cheshire to join Trivia Night & Iftar.
“I base a lot of my Islam and my identity as a Muslim with social justice and treating people with common decency,” Shaikh said. “If I am going to be going to Iftar anyway, might as well support a good cause.”
After her experience at Havenly, she is certain that she will return. “I was sad I didn’t see this before, and I will definitely be back again.”
And Shaikh is not alone. “I have never been here before, and this is definitely not going to be the last time,” said Mahmood.
IRIS’s fundraising campaign will continue through the end of Ramadan, and can be found here.