This Thanksgiving our family holiday gathering included several people I have come to know this past year who are recent refugees or asylees. This was the first Thanksgiving celebration for each of them, and it was an honor to host them in our home on this occasion.
Since earlier this year, I have been part of a group of volunteers from Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and the Rutgers Presbyterian Church, both on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who formed the Refugee Employment Task Force. We mentor recent refugees and asylees who are seeking their first (or improved) employment opportunities in the New York area. We then work to connect them with progressive employers who will appreciate and value their skills, energy and drive.
The Task Force has partnered with HIAS and other resettlement organizations to connect us with, and to collaborate in, working with these clients. Each of the guests at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner were people we have had the pleasure of working with and recently placed in new jobs.
It was our privilege to welcome Abdul and Farah*, a couple from Afghanistan who are HIAS clients. They brought their adorable sons Rafeeq and Adeeb*, ages 5 and 7. Abdul has been in the U.S. for three years and has been granted asylum. His wife and their boys were only able to join him during the last year. We were also joined by Naseem* a Christian who fled persecution in his native Pakistan, and is now seeking asylum in the U.S. We were originally introduced to him through the community at The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. Our other guest, John*, a member of the oppressed Anglophone minority in Cameroon, arrived earlier this year and was recently granted asylum after a prolonged period in detention. He is a client of Church World Service.
Our Thanksgiving gathering also included three of our son’s college friends who were also far from home for the holiday, from Korea, Oklahoma, and California. We had a truly global group.
It was a wonderful privilege for me and my wife, Marjorie, along with our children Gabriel and Rebecca, to share the holiday and our traditions with our guests. We found it enlightening and sobering to hear of the challenges and dangers at home that caused each of them to make the difficult journey to our country and heart-rending to hear of the family still left behind. While enjoying our traditional Thanksgiving turkey and side dishes, it was fascinating to hear about the traditional foods they each missed from their own homes and celebrations.
During the meal, our guests shared some details of their cultures and the lives they left behind. Hearing of their experiences brought home the many reasons we have to be truly thankful; for our freedoms, for our opportunities, for the comforts we enjoy. It also gives us perspective, at a time when it is easy to despair about the challenges we ourselves face in protecting our own freedoms.
Our experience also reminds us why it is so important to fight to keep the doors to our country open and welcoming, and to support the critical work of organizations like HIAS and others. In welcoming our guests, my wife pointed to a photo on our mantelpiece of her grandmother from Russia, herself newly arrived and attending her first English language class with other immigrant women.
For almost all of us, our people were refugees too.
Richard Fields is a descendant of Russian and German Jewish immigrants and a lifelong New Yorker and resident of the Upper West Side. His family are longtime members of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. He is a Managing Director at Allen & Company LLC.
Note: Abdul is now working at a leading educational software company. Naseem is about to start a new job as a payroll administrator at a property management company. John is about to start his new job as a supervisor in training at a leading retailer. Many thanks to their employers for recognizing the talents of these individuals and for allowing them the opportunity to contribute and learn new skills. I am confident that each of them will make their new employers pleased they did so.
*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.