After the rushed evacuation of Afghanistan at the end of the summer, thousands of new Americans are experiencing their first Thanksgiving this week. The lingering effects of the pandemic and ongoing resettlement efforts means that HIAS affiliates around the country are not able to gather with their clients in person this holiday season, but nevertheless communities are reaching out in welcome.
In Philadelphia, the Thankful Together gathering organized annually by HIAS Pennsylvania was held virtually for the second year, but still attracted hundreds of Zoom participants who enjoyed songs, dances and heartfelt presentations. And around the country, from California to Oklahoma and from Ohio to New York, case managers are making sure their clients have a home in which to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Even if new arrivals are included in local celebrations, they might experience culture shock when presented with a menu of turkeys, gravy, tubers and cranberries. As one of the HIAS PA interpreters shared during Thankful Together, when her parents came over from Pakistan, her family didn’t initially celebrate — maybe they were distrustful of what it meant about their identity or unsure about the American food. Now though, as a parent herself, she celebrates at a table set with both turkey and biryani.
Isolation is especially a concern for recent arrivals in the country, who are living in a new area and who don’t speak fluent English. The Turkish Cultural Center in Pittsburgh is working with HIAS affiliate JFCS Pittsburgh this week to bring food to newly arrived Afghans. Executive member Serap Uzunoglu explained, “It’s hard to be a newcomer and an arrival to a new city. Especially if you don’t know the language, the first time in the US, it’s hard to do even any of the paperwork you need.”
As a former ESL teacher in Turkey, Uzunoglu is used to explaining the flavors and customs of the English-speaking world. The lesson in this case starts with her Turkish friends scouring Pittsburgh to find enough Halal turkeys to feed 11 Afghan families. Last year, because of the pandemic, Uzunoglu and friends just handed out the frozen birds, but this year because many of the families are in temporary housing without proper ovens, the group roasted them and then drove them to all parts of the city to make sure the new Afghan Americans have a taste of Thanksgiving.
Alla Shagalova, Director of HIAS New York, reiterated how much this means on a professional level, as well as for her as an immigrant herself. “It is so important for us that on Thanksgiving people are with their families and have a home… I’m not sure how much they understand this — I certainly didn’t to start with — the importance of being thankful and with family during this season.”
Cathryn Miller-Wilson, the Executive Director of HIAS Pennsylvania, was talking about her own organization’s event, but it resonated for all 20 HIAS resettlement partners when she spoke of a notable absence from the Thankful Together Zoom gathering. The refugee program staff were not able to join even an online gathering “because they are still working all the time, welcoming larger numbers than ever before in a shorter time.”
Shagalova shares Miller-Wilson’s sentiments. Her team were faced with sudden emergencies that made it look as though two families would not have housing for Thanksgiving. But it was a priority for HIAS New York to make sure that their clients “feel the welcome from the community and from Americans who want them to be here.” So the team worked around the clock, case managers and volunteer coordinators and volunteers and the finance department and more, to make sure that one family had the extra two weeks in an AirBnB until their permanent housing came through and the other family got the Fedexed check to the landlord that would secure their own permanent housing.
In her presentation at Thankful Together, Anneke Kat, HIAS Pennsylvania’s Community Engagement Specialist, noted that the iconic story of European people and Native Americans sharing a meal in peace and harmony is belied by the actual story of exploitation, warfare and population displacement. Indeed, as she said many Thanksgiving feasts now mark “the loss and displacement of indigenous people.”
Perhaps the original Pilgrims and Wampanoags actually performed a tragic story of oppression, but the spirit of togetherness that animates the original story remains a national aspiration. HIAS affiliates from coast to coast aim to foster welcome and integration so that all the inhabitants of the United States can live together in comfort and community. Because for those brought up with the message of Thanksgiving, it’s the perfect day to show hospitality and love to new Americans.