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Cela Nodjigoto's older brothers and sisters crowded the front door of their small Rose Park home Saturday as Pam and Stan Herskovitz delivered a holiday greeting to her parents. In tow was a trunkful of toys, food, clothes and household items for a family that recently fled its central African homeland with little besides one another.
At 6, Cela may be the smallest in her big family, but she stood out in her cottony white floral dress, braided hair and welcoming smile, so eager to learn about the strangers at the door.
The Nodjigotos were among 102 Salt Lake City refugee families to receive Christmas deliveries Saturday, compliments of an interfaith group led by the National Council of Jewish Women. For nearly 20 years, Eileen Hallet Stone has run what has come to be called Shalom, Salaam, Tikkun Olam Christmas Volunteer Service Project.
"Muslims and Jews have been working on this project for years without giving it a name," said Stone, the chairwoman for the council's Utah chapter.
The project started as a way to support St. Vincent de Paul's work ministering to the homeless and low-income families, the goal being to allow the Catholic charity's workers time off to spend Christmas with their families. But as more groups began helping the homeless, Stone's project turned to another group.
"There was a need to serve refugees," she said. "As well as serve a need, let's welcome them. Our whole philosophy is to welcome."
In recent years, the effort relocated to West High School because so many Utah refugee families send their teenage children there, according to Sami Safiullah, a recent West graduate who hails from a Muslim family from Bangladesh.
"It's really rewarding. It's not about charity. It's about building self-sustaining community," said Safiullah, now a sophomore biology major at Vanderbilt University. "They are welcomed here. They're not just guests. This makes our society a better place. Bridging our community is the biggest part of our program."
Safiullah and his sister Samah helped out Saturday. Their father, Safi, a librarian who immigrated to America to get his doctorate at the University of Utah, has been on the project's planning committee for about a decade.
All day Friday, 150 volunteers toiled in the West High cafeteria, preparing meals and assembling packages of gifts, food and household items for the refugee families, representing 665 people, as well as meals for 350 homebound seniors. The final touches were completed Saturday and then the packages were delivered.
Each family got a custom-assembled assortment, but most packages included a gallon of cooking oil, baked goods, bag of rice and cleaning products. All the goods are either donated by participating retailers, like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target, or purchased with donated money. Families with babies got diapers and those with young children got age- and gender-appropriate toys and clothes. Teenagers received gift certificates, giving them the power to pick what they need.
For most it will be clothing. And that's something any teen should pick out himself or herself, Stone said.
She said many of the children have witnessed terrible violence and endured real hardship in their homelands, but their resiliency always amazes her.
The families served in the project come from conflicts zones across Africa and Asia, displaced from countries like Burundi, Iraq, Somalia and now Bhutan, the Himalayan nation often seen as an island of stability tucked against the Himalayas. In the past few years, ethnic Nepalese who have been expelled from Bhutan have been pouring into the United States, with hundreds landing in Utah.
The Nodjigotos fled political violence in the Central African Republic. The family used to raise corn and mangos in a border region before they left last year for America, going first to Providence, R.I., , according to the oldest of seven children, Grace a Dieu, a 22-year-old Salt Lake Community College student, who answered the door wearing sandals and a tank top.
On Saturday, Cela's curiosity was on full display as she inquired in French about a visitor's daughter, asking to see her picture. Cela looked into Herskovitz's car and pulled an owl plushy and other toys out of the boxes they brought. The Jackson Elementary first-grader tried on her new hat and coat with a broad smile, but what she really seemed to want was a playmate her age.
Shalom, Salaam, Tikkun Olam
P This interfaith program provides meals, gifts, gift certificates and household goods to dozens of refugee families and hundreds of homebound seniors every Christmas. Shalom and salaam are Hebrew and Arabic, respectively for "peace," and tikkun olam means "repairing the world."