Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Walla Walla parish hosts dinner for relief of displaced Syrians
the Inland Register
(From the March 20, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)
Volunteers serve a fundraising dinner at St. Patrick Parish, Walla Walla, earlier this year. (IR photo by Kim Miner)
Elyse Semerdjian, a professor of Middle East history at Whitman College, and her husband, Gibran Shamoun, are members of St. Patrick Parish in Walla Walla. As Syrian-Americans originating from Syria’s ancient Christian communities, they have been troubled by the humanitarian crisis in Syria and worried for their family overseas and for the fate of Syria’s minority Christian community.
Semerdjian’s family hails from Aleppo in the north, while Shamoun was born and raised on Ananias Street (Straight Street), the baptismal place of St. Paul. Due to three years of uprising turned civil war, over six million Syrians are displaced. More than half of those displaced persons are children, and of those, 75 are under the age of 12. Many, without food and shelter in freezing winter weather, have faced starvation. Elyse and Gibran, feeling paralyzed so far away from relatives, wondered what they could do from 7,000 miles away.
Elyse approached Father Pedro Bautista Peraza, pastor of the parishes in Walla Walla, and members of the Catholic Social Concerns Committee with a plan to host a Syrian dinner, with all proceeds used to help displaced Syrians. Save the Children could provide a 2-to-1 match from USAID. Father Pedro offered Blanchet Hall at St. Patrick Church on Jan. 18 and suggested that Elyse give a pre-event talk on Jan. 5 to provide background information about the history of Syria and events leading up to the present conflict. The talk attracted nearly 50 audience members. Refreshments were prepared by Colville Patisserie.
The event created great sympathy for the plight of the innocent victims of the Syrian conflict. Tickets began to fly out the door for the follow-up Jan. 18 event. Hopes were that 200 might attend. The event pre-sold 325 tickets, with nearly 350 in attendance.
Syria-born local caterer Antoinette LaRondelle of LeSac, along with Elyse, Gibran, and a steady flow of volunteers, prepared the authentic Syrian cuisine for over two days. The meal consisted of a lamb and rice dish called “ouzi,” yogurt and cucumber dip, hummus, Greek salad, and pita bread. Colville Patisserie provided fig and apricot tarts for the event, and John’s Wheatland bakery prepared Syrian butter cookies called “ghurayba.” Classical guitarist Michael LeFevre performed variations on Turkish and Armenian music, while musical group Piled High and Deep, featuring Whitman professors Paul Apostolidis, Dan Vernon, and Jeanne Morefield, sang rock tunes. Rogue Lobster, led by Whitman College spiritual advisor and First Congregational minister Adam Kirtley, provided rousing Bluegrass music.
Elyse, herself a shy musician, brought out her ‘oud, a Middle Eastern lute and ancestor to the modern guitar, and played three Middle Eastern songs. Caterer Antoinette offered a personal testimonial of what it was like to be a poor child in Aleppo and recalled her experience of receiving bowls of food from UNICEF in the 1950s, thus explaining in part her passion for feeding a crowded room.
The event hosted a silent auction that featured items donated by numerous local businesses. Community members Bryan Lubbers and Becci Moore solicited donations from Feryl Designs, Inland Octopus, Door Number 2, and Allegro Cyclery. The silent auction also featured a hand-embroidered jacket from Syria and inlaid mother of pearl boxes made by Gibran who owns a wood handicraft factory in Damascus on Ananias Street.
The event would not have been possible without the generosity of a coalition of donors and volunteers. Mary Jane Fehrenbacher and Dry Creek Ranch donated a combined 75 pounds of lamb for the main dish. Local vintners, including Doucett Family Wines, Charles Smith Wines, and DaMa, contributed wines for the event. Walla Walla Roastery donated coffee for the event. Local merchants, including Albertsons, donated ingredients. Blue Mountain Seed, Inc. donated locally grown chickpeas for the hummus. John Sasser of Integrity Design donated posters and programs for the event, and members of the Social Concerns Committee, St. Patrick Parish, Whitman College, and Americorps provided many hours of service.
The event raised over $28,600 for Save the Children in Syria.
Just as important was the strengthened sense of community, as members of different faith communities, Whitman College, and unaffiliated Walla Wallans, joined together to reach out to their brothers and sisters in Syria.
Nearly 350 people participating in a fund-raising dinner for relief for displaced Syrian refugees at St. Patrick Parish, Walla Walla. (IR photo by Kim Miner)
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