Baylor Students Unite Refugees and American Families over Dinner

August 11, 2017

Follow us on Twitter: @BaylorUMedia

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, (254) 710-6275

LAKIN, Kansas (Aug. 11, 2017) – When Marley Koons decided to participate in the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" project, she wondered what her family would have in common with the Moes, the family of refugees they would host for dinner.

Her two young children, however, were just excited to make a new friend.

"By the end of the night, their son was running around with the kids, jumping on the furniture and wrestling with them," Koons said. "It was very cool to see that they don't notice differences at all."

As their children played together on that summer Sunday night, the Koonses were spellbound as they listened to the Moes tell the harrowing story of their escape from Burma down a river to Thailand and eventually to the United States.

The Koonses and the Moes were among the 20 pairs of rural southwest Kansas families and refugee families from Somalia, Uganda and Burma who shared a meal together – and broke down barriers – as part of the project, organized by Baylor University juniors Jordan Millhollin and Jacey Hilbers.

They were among 12 Baylor pre-health students staying in Kansas for a summer internship at Kearny County Hospital in Lakin, Kansas. All 12 of the interns were able to attend a dinner with a refugee family.

"There's just so much to learn from one another," Millhollin said. "We're all human and we can all get around the dinner table and start eating a meal together. The perceived differences we thought we had before are not quite as big as we thought when we're sharing a plate and serving one another."

Millhollin and Hilbers spent the summer going door-to-door to explain the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" project to families and gauge their interest.

Once families agreed to participate, the Baylor students talked to them about cultural and religious differences. They explained to Christian families that Muslim refugees may ask to use their front room to pray and prepared the Muslim families for the Christian custom of praying before a meal.

As Millhollin and Hilbers expected, they were met with some uncertainty from both refugee and Kansan families. However, Hilbers said that the initial hesitation disappeared once the families met and began asking each other questions.

"As the night went on, all the fear was gone. By the end, everyone was exchanging numbers and excited to meet up again for the next weekend and in the future," Hilbers said.

All 40 of the participating families came together in the Somali-owned African Shop last Sunday for the project's grand finale, a potluck dinner modeled after the communal meals common in Somali culture.

From Fear to Friendship

The population of refugees in southwest Kansas has grown steadily in recent years due to the proximity of a Tyson Foods plant that provides many immigrants with jobs. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, about 350 refugee families settle in the area each year.

In October 2016, three members of a Kansas militia group called the "Crusaders" were charged with plotting to bomb an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, where a large number of Somali immigrants lived and worshipped.

Benjamin Anderson, CEO of Kearny County Hospital, said the incident sparked feelings of unease among his friends in the Somali community.

"There was a question of 'Am I welcome here?'" Anderson said.

"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was Anderson's way of reassuring the refugees that for the great majority of Kansans, the answer was yes. He had the idea for the project after a Somali man insisted that Anderson join his family for a meal late one night.

"At the end of that dinner, I asked him how often he invited strangers into his home at midnight. He said in the 10 years he'd lived there, he'd never had a white person in his home," Anderson said.

Anderson traveled to Baylor last year with his longtime mentor Joel Allison, B.A. '70, former president and CEO of Baylor Scott & White Health and current chair of the Baylor Board of Regents. Anderson spoke to a group of Baylor students about the refugees at a Christian Pre-health Fellowship event, and many of them expressed interest in traveling to Kansas to help with the project.

The students knew making connections with a large number of families in only one summer would be difficult, but Hilbers said Anderson's relationship with the Somali community made it possible.

For years after moving to the area, Anderson made a point of buying his groceries at the African Shop to demonstrate that he was a friend to Somalis. Eventually, Anderson received a call from a leader in the Somali community requesting his help in clearing up misconceptions about their culture.

From that day on, Anderson became a well-known ally of the Somali community. He assisted refugees with health care needs, helped them get their driver's licenses and even traveled with one of his Somali friends to the Horn of Africa.

"Our generation will be defined by how we receive refugees in this country," Anderson said. "We have a moral responsibility to live out the life of the Gospel with these precious people."

by Kassidy Woytek , student newswriter, (254) 710-6805


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.