A former gender-based violence attorney, fast-food restaurant manager, police officer and other migrants joined churchgoers at basement tables Wednesday night.

For most of these migrants, this is the first time they eat a Thanksgiving meal.

After a bilingual service, New Life Community Church in Little Village hosted a Christmas dinner for the congregation and a group of about 10 migrants – mostly asylum seekers from Venezuela – from two different shelters in the city.

“I forgot to thank God for the turkey because I had never eaten turkey before. I ate a sliced ​​turkey, but a whole turkey, right? No,” said Jose Luis Cordero Arismendi, 49, in Spanish between giggles.

He was wearing a brown velvet suit for a special dinner where there was lively conversation and children running around.

New Life Community Church and its nonprofit New Life Centers have found food as a community building tool. This isn’t really a surprise, given New Life Centers’ experience working on a large-scale food distribution operation that feeds thousands a week in Chicagoland. The non-profit organization also offers violence prevention services to the Little Village community, including street assistance, after-school care, tutoring, and sports activities.

New Life Centers Executive Director Matt DeMateo said the non-profit organization welcomes migrant families from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Colombia who currently reside in the south and west of the city and gathers them on Sundays for a service in Spanish and for then a meal.

One time a lady brought a huge bowl pose, Mexican soup, said DeMateo. It was enough to feed over 150 people.

“For us, it’s not about food. The food is the hook. Food is an entrance, something like a door,” he said. “But for us, it’s about relationships and connecting them to the community.”

Occasionally, after Sunday service, Pastor Chris Ophus notices migrants going out to lunch with local families, some of whom are Hispanic or Latino. He said migrants are able to connect with each other and with these families through similar experiences of coming to the United States in hopes of a better life.

“The cool thing is that there are so many people who are at different points in the immigrant story: people who arrived 20 years ago and whose kids are now going to college; people who are quite recent but have settled down; and other people who have just arrived here,” Ophus said. “I think we are able to give hope to the people who are coming.”

Sitting at a table with a handful of other migrants on Wednesday, Cordero Arismendi shared a little about his life. Before moving to Colombia in 2014, he was a lawyer in Venezuela. This year he immigrated to the United States, crossing the borders of seven countries and arriving in Chicago two months ago by bus from Texas.

He survived disease-carrying mosquitoes, contaminated drinking water, armed robbery, heat and scorching sun, and many other challenges on his way north.

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“Chicago is a city that has opened its doors to me – and it’s a city I don’t want to leave,” he said.

Cordero Arismendi said he had much to be grateful for: he had just learned that Loyola University would certify his law degree if he met certain requirements, such as reaching a certain level of proficiency in English.

The Venezuelans at the table next to Cordero Arismendi are a former policeman, mechanic and machine operator. Some of them wanted to settle in Chicago, some wanted to finally return home. But they all had one thing in common: they came to the United States in the hope of getting honest work.

“I like the city,” said Jhean Carlos Paez, 25, a Venezuelan who initially moved to Colombia where he was a manager at a place that sold hamburgers and hot dogs. He said he wanted to stay in Chicago and hoped to study business administration. “I come with this goal of improving myself,” he added in Spanish.

At the end of the dinner, Pastor Francisco “Paco” Amador led a prayer with a group of men, asking God to help them make Chicago a better place.

“These are displaced people who are suffering… They’ve been through a lot, but they’re driven to a better life,” Mark Jobe, founding pastor of New Life Community Church and president of the Moody Bible Institute, told the Tribune. “These are people who are really trying to survive.”

adperez@chicagotribune.com

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