Citizenship means different things to all people depending on their background and upbringing. For this Kentucky Kitchen Table project, my friend Kenoa and I were able to have dinner around a kitchen table which held people from all different walks of life. The hosts were Dick and Cindy, an older couple, in their eighties, that attend that same church as Kenoa and me. Dick and Cindy are American but spent most of their lives serving Christ overseas, Dick in Pakistan and Cindy in different countries in Africa. They now live in Bowling Green serving international populations here. Also at the table was Jessie, one of Dick and Cindy’s neighbors. Joel, Jessie’s husband is currently in Turkey at a conference. Joel and Jessie are preparing to move to Turkey to do missions. Because of this and because of Dick and Cindy’s extensive overseas experience, they had the idea to have Turkish breakfast for our dinner. Since most of us had no knowledge of authentic Turkish food, Dick and Cindy told us a list of things we could bring (bread, eggs, butter, olives, feta cheese, etc.) and we all chose something from the list and brought it.
Another guest at the table was Douda, a student at WKU and the son of two Liberian refugees. He is a friend of Joel and Jessie’s. His experiences with citizenship were enlightening and very different from everyone else’s at the table. He brought to the table very diverse experiences with culture and upbringing. Mary Lou, a WKU faculty member, was also an attendee at the dinner. She works at the International Enrollment Office on campus where she assists our very large number of international students. She has lived in America for almost her entire life but is originally Colombian. Mary Lou and Douda had very interesting cultural experiences. Mary Lou feels that her job really does a lot in serving a greater purpose in the world because she helps international students get involved on campus which is often difficult for them to do. Mary Lou defines citizenship as being involved in a community, and that is exactly what she helps international students do.
Other students who attended include Macy, a student worker in the international enrollment office and Kathleen, a graduate student at WKU studying math. They had very interesting perspectives to bring to the table. Macy spent this past summer volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece. Through this, she gained insight into what life is like for people who don’t have a place they feel they belong. Citizenship and democracy feel very different to someone who spent their whole summer in a place absent of these two concepts. Alex, another resident of Bowling Green and friend of Dick and Cindy’s also attended the dinner. He was born in a small town in Lexington, KY where he was homeschooled before coming to college. This caused him to have an interesting concept of citizenship and inclusion.
Citizenship took on very different meanings to everyone around the table: safety, community, inclusion. Dick and Cindy spoke of their time serving on mission overseas and the way the community was different in the places they served. Cindy expressed that while serving in Africa, she felt like more of a “true citizen” than she does sometimes in America. She believes this is because of the closeness of community in the small villages in which she served. Dick thinks that citizenship represents being there for one another and helping each other out. He stated, sadly, that he feels Americans sometimes forget that as the meaning of citizenship. We focus too much on our responsibilities as citizens instead of what we can do to make each other’s lives better.
Douda and Mary Lou had similar definitions of citizenship, as far as what it’s like coming from a different country or gaining American citizenship. Coming from an oppressed family, Douda equated citizenship with safety. Douda and Mary Lou emphasized the importance of the people in America who reached out to their families and made them feel welcome. They found that reaching out to people and making their transitions easier is a big part of what makes a community. Macy agreed wholeheartedly with what they were saying, especially considering her heart for refugees. She believes it is a gift and a passion of hers to make refugees feel that they are at home in America. To them, this doesn’t necessarily mean just gaining American citizenship and the rights to do things most citizens can, but it means being included by Americans and being shown different American customs and ways of life. Dick and Cindy were those people for Mary Lou and Joel and Jessie were those people for Douda so it was a great experience to be able to see those relationships come full circle.
Coming from a white, middle class family who has been exposed to very little oppression and exclusion, it was a very eye-opening experience to be able to see the way people go through the journey of feeling like a citizen in America. I have only had one experience overseas and that was last December when I went to Haiti. During that week, I experienced more feelings of not belonging than I ever have before and got to understand a little bit of how it feels to know you don’t fit in culturally or racially. Now, hearing Douda and Mary Lou’s stories, I think back on the kids in Haiti yelling “Blanc, blanc!” as we drove by and do not by any means equate those stories because the minimal exclusion I felt is monumentally smaller than anything they and their families have felt. However, I am glad I got the opportunity to hear their stories and hear everyone else describe their experience with citizenship. Because of this experience, I believe I am more educated and aware of ways I can become a better citizen here in Bowling Green. By going out of my way to be inclusive and empathetic toward those around me, I will be bettering the community by creating a more loving environment in which we can all live better together in unity.