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A New Holiday In a New Country: Refugees Celebrate Their First Thanksgiving

Nov 24, 2020

Blog Post

Max J. Rosenthal, HIAS.org

A photo of Julio, a Salvadoran refugee who now lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and his family.

US Together

In recent weeks, as families across the country asked themselves how they would be celebrating this Thanksgiving, some of them have been wondering something more basic: What is Thanksgiving, anyway?

Sofia, a 24-year-old refugee who fled religious discrimination in Ukraine, heard a bit about this most American of holidays from her older sister, who came to the United States five years ago. But she admitted that she got most of her Thanksgiving knowledge from another source: “I saw it in the movies and TV shows, always celebrating,” she said. “Pumpkin pie, turkey, I know a little bit.”

Sofia, her parents, and her two younger sisters only arrived in the United States at the end of September, settling in Parma, Ohio with the help of HIAS affiliate US Together. The sisters, 16-year-old Anna and 11-year-old Christina, have already started school, and the family is now preparing for its first American holiday.

“I really want to know all of the traditions,” Sofia said. “I want to build my family here, and I want, for example, my kids to be following American traditions. So it’s important to know the history.”

It’s also important, she said, to get the classic Thanksgiving-dinner experience. “What I would really want is just the traditional American [meal],” Sofia said. “Of course, I want to try a traditional turkey. I’ve had it before, but not like this.”

But that’s up to her mother, who’s already taking command of the holiday cooking along with her eldest daughter’s mother-in-law. “She’s gonna do the cooking, and I don’t really know what she’s planning to cook,” admitted Sofia, laughing.

Another refugee family in the area will add a bit of home to the Thanksgiving table. Julio*, his wife, and their two daughters, fled violence in El Salvador and came to nearby Shaker Heights in May. They plan on celebrating their first Thanksgiving with another Salvadoran family, making not only turkey but also pupusas, stuffed cornmeal pockets that are hugely popular in their native country.

Julio admitted he doesn’t know much about Thanksgiving, but he’s looking forward to celebrating. “It’s a really nice opportunity to gather with family and friends. I like that idea,” he said. “I want to know a little bit more about the background and the meaning.”

Nadia Kasvin, the director and co-founder of US Together, remembered that "Thanksgiving was the first American holiday our family celebrated here when we came to the U.S. as refugees 27 years ago," she said. "Each new refugee family celebrating this American holiday for the first time adds their own gratitude, their own meaning and their own culture to this holiday, weaving this rich tapestry of what it means to be American."

*Pseudonym used for client's protection