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In Roanoke, students learn how to turn cultural differences into ... fruit salad

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ROANOKE—The ambassador of the bananas came to talk with the community of oranges to see how the two fruits could peacefully coexist on the imaginary island of Fruitopia.

Sydney Werness, 17, a junior at Patrick Henry High School, was the banana ambassador who met the oranges to discuss life on their diverse yet segregated island.

The whole exercise was part of a role-playing game among members of Roanoke’s expanding refugee and immigrant populations that taught methods for communicating across language and cultural barriers and forming communities, like a real-life Fruitopia.

Words of Dari, Swahili, Spanish and English weaved together as students talked and worked with art supplies and fruit to create personalities for their imaginary communities. A frowny face was made from pipe cleaners on a banana. Feathers popped out from the head of an orange with googly eyes.

More than 20 high school and college students gathered at Belmont Library on a Saturday afternoon in May to participate. Some were refugees, others grew up in Roanoke. Many had never met before.

Each fruit group faced challenges in their homeland, which led them to Fruitopia alongside other fruit groups that had persecuted them. The project mimicked the immigrants’ own experiences of leaving home and seeking refuge in a new country.

The activity was organized by Hardwired Global, a nonprofit organization based in Richmond that is traveling throughout the commonwealth this year, targeting areas with high refugee populations, and using their simulation workshop to support social integration of refugees and newcomers into schools and communities. They are partnering with resettlement organizations, including Commonwealth Catholic Charities in Roanoke which, as of May , has helped resettle 438 refugees to the Roanoke area since 2019.

Victoria Tiggas, outreach and development officer with Hardwired Global said the goal of the workshop is to promote pluralistic societies where people can go beyond simply coexisting with others who might be very different and engage with those people more fully.

“So for example, here [during the Roanoke workshop] we have Afghan refugees, we have some Hispanic refugees, and we also have Congolese refugees,” Tiggas said. “So, even between those refugee groups, they will have to engage with one another here in their community and in their schools, and we want them to feel comfortable doing that.”

Tiggas said fruit is used as an analogy to help students feel more comfortable discussing hard topics such as pluralism, acceptance and tolerance.

“Throughout the simulation, they work through fears and misconceptions that they have with one another, they break those down, and then they rebuild them into a more positive view or perception of the other fruit. Even the ones that persecuted them back in their home.”

Four hours later, a roomful of students that began mostly silent, erupted with excitement. Members from the different fruit groups put fears and prejudices aside to discuss attributes each group had that could help contribute to the community.

Werness, the banana ambassador, wanted to attend the workshop to learn more about the different cultures that she sees at school.

“I learned how different my life has been from the newcomers’ life,” said Werness, who was born in Roanoke. “I’ve learned their stories.”

Josette Iradukunda, 24, one of the oranges, talked about her own life, moving around for 15 years as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been ravaged with civil war for over two decades.

“Just be you and grip opportunities,” advised Iradukunda, talking to fellow oranges Negina Rasoli, 20, and Marjan Sharifi, 22, both refugees from Afghanistan.

Iradukunda came to Roanoke in March 2021.

“I understand because, in Congo, we lost a lot of people,” said Iradukunda about the ongoing civil war in her homeland.

She lost many of her own family members. “We had to split and when we are running away everyone is running for their life,” she said. “It’s so frustrating.”

“Yeah, it’s frustrating,” agreed Rasoli who said she came to Roanoke in October 2019, fleeing Afghanistan just after finishing high school in an unsafe area controlled by the Taliban, and having to leave some family members behind.

“Right now it’s going wonderful for me because it’s almost three years I’ve been here,” Rasoli said. “But the first one and a half years was too hard for all my family members.”

Rasoli currently works at a textile company and will attend Virginia Western Community College in the fall. She hopes to be a surgeon someday.

Werness said she liked the simulation because it was fun and informative.

“My high school is very diverse, but so separate,” Werness said about Patrick Henry.

She said she is not uncomfortable reaching out to students who came from other countries but that she can be hesitant because she is unsure what to ask. But she said she does try.

“I think it’s really important to understand and empathize with everyone,” she said, “to learn about different cultures and where they came from, and just to make everyone feel comfortable and accepted.

The workshop ended with the citizens of Fruitopia mingling and sharing what they learned from each other.

Tina Ramirez, executive director with Hardwired Global, concludes that all fruits have seeds on the inside and that it is not ideal to simply coexist with one another. She said she hoped the simulation taught the group that through interaction, different cultures can learn from each other and people need other people to survive.

“Does this orange have to believe the same thing that the banana believes in order to get along with the banana?” Ramirez asked.

A resounding “No,” is the response from the room.

“In your schools you have people that are different from you and not just newcomers and Americans, you have people that believe and act and have lots of different ideas from you. Is it possible to live together, is it possible to get to know them?”

“Yes,” replied the group.

Heather Rousseau, a photojournalist for The Roanoke Times since 2015, is the 2021-22 Secular Society Fellowship recipient. Her work is focused on refugees and immigrants in the Roanoke region.

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