Across the US, Refugees Celebrate Their First Thanksgiving

By Rachel Nusbaum,

Across the United States, recently resettled refugees are learning the meaning of Thanksgiving at celebrations in the communities that have welcomed them. 

“Thanksgiving is a holiday when we celebrate people emigrating to America and being welcomed by the people who were already there. It is the most American of holidays,” said Daniella Scruggs, development director for HIAS Pennsylvania, who helped organize one such celebration. “What holiday could be better to welcome refugees to this country?”

At the Old Pine Community Center in Philadelphia community members came together on Sunday, November 20, to share a traditional Thanksgiving meal, complete with turkey and other customary dishes. Around 150 refugees of all ages and nationalities gathered to celebrate what for many of them was their very first Thanksgiving. They were joined by about 100 volunteers and staff members from HIAS Pennsylvania, HIAS' local resettlement partner. 

“We started this event eight years ago to give the refugees a chance to come together and feel part of the community,” said Scruggs. “This year it was even more important, as some clients have felt very alienated. We wanted to show them that the community supports them.”

“We are so excited and very thankful for America that we have a second chance,” Sam Khan, a Syrian refugee and father of three who attended the event with his family, told Fox 29. 

On the West Coast, roughly 80 refugees and volunteers gathered in San Diego, California on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The potluck event, held in a local park, provided opportunities for refugees to meet one another, as well as introduce potential volunteers to the resettled refugees in their community. 

“It’s the first time we’ve ever done something like this,” said Jessica Marin, a Refugee Americorps member and volunteer coordinator at HIAS affiliate Jewish Family Service of San Diego

In addition to bringing a dish to share, attendees each received a slip of paper to write down what they were grateful for. ‘Family’ and ‘safety’ were common answers. “Someone even wrote down the name of one of our case managers,” Marin said. 

“It's important to involve the refugees in what we do in America at Thanksgiving time: get together with family and friends and share food,” said Mary Moore, a volunteer with JFS-San Diego’s Family Match program. Moore was recently matched with a newly-arrived Syrian refugee family through the program, and she now spends several hours a week with them. “I am so thankful to have something positive in my life amid all the negativity in the news,” she said of the pairing. 

In New York City, Adam Greene and his daughter walked from Prospect heights to Midwood to help a newly arrived refugee family from Ukraine prepare for the upcoming holiday. Iosif and Tamara Levin, and their son Mikhail, have only been in the U.S. for about 6 weeks, so this will be their first Thanksgiving.

Greene is on the Refugee Task Force at Congregation Beth Elohim which, along with more than 220 other U.S. synagogues, has signed on to the HIAS Welcome Campaign

The ShopRite supermarket near the family’s apartment was packed with holiday shoppers, but they managed to find what they needed: turkey breast, cranberries, pumpkin pie puree, spices, maple syrup, a pie plate and a meat thermometer, among other essentials.

“The whole project was fun and a bit of an adventure,” said Greene. “I have enormous respect for what they did and the challenges they are encountering, travelling thousands of miles to a new country without speaking the language and trying to establish a new life here.” 

“While we only met them for a short time, I have no doubt the family will be a great addition to the country.”

Congregation Beth Elohim is one of more than 220 synagogues who have already joined the HIAS Welcome Campaign. Click here to learn more, and to see if your synagogue is on the list. 


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