At Olin-Turville Park on a sunny 84 degree-Sunday, about a dozen members of the Madison Area Ukelele Initiative played, sang and occasionally kazoo-ed to the crowd in the park shelter. On the stage with them, four kids strummed along to the best of their abilities. Those kids came to the country as refugees.
That’s what the Open Doors for Refugees annual community picnic sets out to do: provide an opportunity for refugees and native Madisonians to have fun together. Madisonians can meet refugees, refugees can meet other refugees, and everyone can savor a shared potluck meal.
“This is just an opportunity to get together. There isn’t any other agenda but to enjoy each other’s company and food that people bring,” said Ken Baun, a leader at the nonprofit Open Doors for Refugees.
Open Doors promotes awareness and builds support for refugee resettlement. Efrat Livny, herself originally from Israel, is Baun’s wife and created the nonprofit in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
“My father was a Holocaust survivor. So I am the result of the fact that the refugees from Europe, somebody took them in,” Livny told the CapTimes in 2016. “He made it to Palestine at the time and settled in Israel, and that’s how I am alive. So to me, I cannot sit back and ignore the refugees of basically a genocide.”
Open Doors volunteers don’t sit back; they put in the hours with local resettlement agencies Jewish Social Services and Lutheran Social Services. When a new refugee family is coming to town, Open Doors volunteers descend upon an empty apartment to turn it into a furnished home awaiting their arrival.
Once a refugee is here, the organization helps out with an array of services like transportation, English instruction and interpretation. Some volunteers pick up donations, volunteer to drive refugees to their necessary first appointments or greet refugees at the airport to help transport their luggage.
They also host events like Sunday’s third annual picnic, which Livny called the highlight of the year for the organization.
As attendees arrived, everyone was instructed to put on a nametag listing their name, country of origin or ancestry, and any languages they speak. There was live music all afternoon, a spate of activities for kids and tables filled with food from countries around the world. Livny welcomed the crowd.
“Find somebody you've never met and say hello to them, and see if you can make a new friend today,” Livny instructed.
It was Mike Goodman’s third picnic, and he’s done just that each time.
“I’ve met a number of people from Arab countries … the kind of people that you wouldn’t meet normally,” Goodman said. “Basically it’s this opportunity to meet people in a non-threatening and pleasant atmosphere. Definitely the food is a main attraction because there’s so much variety.”
Some attendees were longtime Open Doors volunteers, like Jane Cummings Carlson, who has been tutoring an Iraqi woman in English and brought her to the picnic to be “supported by the wider community.”
Others showed up to find out more about the organization. Mark Jenkins is a pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Madison, and was at the picnic with three or four families from his congregation. His church “stumbled across” Open Doors, found out about the picnic, and showed up to “see what the needs are, what’s going on and how we can help.”
Rasha is a refugee who moved to Madison from Iraq 18 months ago. She and her three children were all at the picnic. She bought a biryani dish to share and, with the help of an Arabic interpreter, said she came to the picnic because she “wants to get to know other families from same country and other countries too.”
The first Open Doors picnic was organized just a few months after Open Doors got started, so “we just didn’t know if anybody would come — let alone the refugees,” Livny said, but about 50 refugees showed up, mostly brought along by someone else.
The next year, about 400 people came, and about 150 of them were refugees. They came by themselves and were “the first to come and the last to leave,” Efrat said.
On Sunday, organizers estimated attendance between 300 and 350 people, but this year’s picnic had one clear advantage:
“This is the best weather,” Baun said. “In previous years, it was misting and very windy, but this is beautiful. Couldn’t ask for a nicer day.”
Kids took advantage of the weather as they played soccer and little girls hopped along in the grass in a sack race. Later, a water balloon toss and yoga were on the schedule. The kids activities were organized by Jessie Hamilton, an Epic Systems employee and Open Doors volunteer who recruited other Epic friends to the cause.
That group of Epic volunteers is also starting a monthly event for refugee kids in families, taking them on field trips to places like the zoo, botanical garden, pumpkin patch and even a tour of Epic itself.
The events target kids, Hamilton said, but “it ends up being for the parents as well, so that they can kind of have a community and talk while they entertain the kids. It works as a double win.”
Hamilton’s excited about bridging refugee kids with what she called “the Epic generation.”
“A lot of people from Epic are here without their families, so they don’t have adults and young kids in their lives. And this is where I’ve found that in Madison, and I’m so excited for them to get an introduction to that,” she said.
This year, Livny said, Open Doors is hoping to use the picnic to better communicate with refugees. The organization has a lot to offer refugees after they settle, including funds to help with skill-building programs like driver’s ed or English classes, a gardening program with free plots and help learning how to sew. But it’s sometimes hard to let refugees know these programs exist, even if they’ve helped those refugees in the past.
“One of the hardest things for us is actually to communicate with the refugees because their identity is kept confidential …. it’s not really appropriate for us to pursue them unless they actually ask us,” Livny said. “So today we’re hoping to walk around and tell people we have a lot of things to share.”
Madeline Uraneck, a volunteer on the leadership council at Open Doors, said she wanted everyone to leave with “a sense for everyone of how diverse Madison is.”
“You’re not the only one of whatever — the only old person, or the only lonely person or the only Iraqi person, or the only Arabic-speaking person.”
And, she noted, they will probably leave with food. The first year, she said, refugees brought containers so they could send everyone home with leftovers.
"So we just decided that’s one of our traditions,” she said.