Celebrating a Refugee Thanksgiving

By Sharon Samber, HIAS.org

It’s pretty easy to come up with things about Thanksgiving: family, food, turkey, etc. But what if it’s your first Thanksgiving? What do you do?

For 10 years HIAS Pennsylvania has hosted a Refugee Thanksgiving, inviting asylees, refugees, asylum seekers, staff, board, volunteers, and local government to celebrate the holiday. This year on November 18, over 100 clients celebrated the American holiday for the first time.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” said Rona Buchalter, HIAS Pennsylvania’s Director of Refugee Programming and Planning. “It always is.”

The mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, came to speak about the important role that immigrants play in Philadelphia’s history and today, and spoke of his family’s immigrant experience. There was traditional American food and food from other countries, as well as plenty of dance, art, and music.

Volunteers were happy to sit and talk with clients and share the spirit of the holiday, Buchalter said. There were donated scarves and gloves for people to take home and one volunteer had a surprise: handmade paintings for refugees to take home and put on their walls if they wished.

A Syrian refugee wrote a personalized verse to “This Land Is Your Land,” referencing Philly places, Roosevelt Boulevard, and the subway. Everyone in the room joined in for the rest of the song.


In Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) held a Fall Holiday party on November 11 at the South Hills JCC for the refugee families in the after school club. The party included activities and games based on Halloween and Thanksgiving, gathering about 30 clients from Syria and Congo and volunteer mentors and AmeriCorps volunteers. Children decorated pumpkins, made Pilgrim puppets, played corn hole toss, and enjoyed American treats.

“The new families are grateful for their new American home and for the warm welcome they are receiving from their new American friends,” said JFCS Volunteer Coordinator Andrew Van Treeck.

On November 29th, US Together in Columbus, Ohio, will be partnering with a student group from The Ohio State University, a local church, and a local café to put on a dinner for single and newly arrived clients as they may not have as any family members or friends to be with around the holiday.

HIAS has been invited to join in the Refugees for Dinner project--and that’s not just for Thanksgiving, as the project operates year-round.

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