Zoe Wilkerson sees a little bit of herself in the refugees she is helping this Thanksgiving season.
The 22-year-old, who studied for a semester in Amman, Jordan, knows how it feels to find one’s way in a foreign land. She also knows the sense of relief that comes with a stranger’s welcome: Among those who showed her hospitality were her host family, a bus driver and a woman who gave her tea at a Petra religious landmark.
Wilkerson has carried those memories on recent days as she and other volunteers took Thanksgiving meals to refugee families who had fled Bhutan, Burma and Somalia and are building new lives in Fort Worth. Experts say refugees and immigrants bring their languages, religions, customs and cultural traditions to this country but also start celebrating American holidays once they arrive.
“They try to make the new nation their own and adopt their cultural practices,” said Max Krochmal, assistant professor of history at Texas Christian University.
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Thanksgiving Day, in particular, resonates with people who have fled their homelands.
“The family is together,” said Muna Nur, a 45-year-old Somali who lives in Arlington after gaining political asylum in this country. “We pray together.”
Immigrants arrive in this country searching for economic or educational opportunities. Refugees and political asylum seekers, or asylees, are displaced from their homelands by threats like civil war, ethnic cleansing or religious intolerance.
I learned from experience the importance of helping those who need help.
Denise Wilkerson, volunteer with Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth
“They came from horror. They came from hell to heaven,” said Safia Ismael, president of Awdal Charity Services, a nonprofit based in Lewisville that helps Somalian refugees who fled countries in the Horn of Africa.
The acceptance of refugees has been in the news in the past two weeks as some political leaders and others have taken a hard stance against Syrian refugees, fearing they could be ISIS terrorists. Forty-one Syrians resettled in Tarrant County in fiscal 2015.
‘A celebration of peace’
Thanksgiving Day dates to the early English settlement of Massachusetts and relations between settlers and Native Americans, Krochmal said. The holiday isn’t without controversy because it is seen by some as a symbol of conquest, but it has also come to come to represent hope and family connections, he said.
President George Washington named Nov. 26, 1789, an official day of “sincere and humble thanks,” according to the National Archives. President Abraham Lincoln made the celebration a national holiday.
“It’s a celebration of peace and breaking bread across cultural lines,” he said.
3 million the estimated number of refugees settled in the United States since 1975
American traditions become firsthand lessons for refugees when smiling strangers arrive with baskets filled with turkey fixings or when they are invited into American homes.
“I think it is important to make everybody feel welcome because that’s what our country is about — accepting people from all different backgrounds, different beliefs, and including them in our customs if they do want to take part,” said Alyssa Clayes, a volunteer with Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth.
‘Holidays were very difficult’
Among refugees, some are familiar with Thanksgiving Day, but not all, said Laila Amara, area director for Refugee Services, which works with volunteers and churches to help newly arrived refugees. This year, it partnered with First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth to provide holiday food and gift cards for groceries.
“Newly arrived refugees are always excited to learn about the holiday of thanks and gratitude when they first experience it,” Amara said. “The holiday represents their thankfulness for a chance to begin and start moving towards the future.”
The first refugee legislation was enacted by Congress in 1948 after the admission of 250,000 displaced Europeans.
In Dallas, volunteers with Gateway of Grace, a refugee outreach nonprofit, planned a Thanksgiving feast for about 250 refugees at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Thursday.
“When we came here to the United States, the holidays were very difficult for us,” said Samira Page, a refugee who fled Iran. “We had no idea what was going on.”
Page said Thanksgiving meal with refugees aims to create “a special time for refugees” while also helping refugees assimilate and become part of the community.
“We want them to know we love them and care for them,” she said.
‘Thanksgiving is good, too’
As different waves of immigrants and refugees came to the United States, they incorporated the tradition into their lives, Krochmal said. His own Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors celebrated Thanksgiving after arriving in the early 1900s.
Krochmal said people displaced from their homelands see the United States as “a land of hope and opportunity,” themes alluded to during Thanksgiving.
This is a nation of immigrants. Today, more than ever, you will see the diversity of immigration we have.
The Rev. Stephen Jasso, All Saints Catholic Church
The Rev. Stephen Jasso, who leads a congregation of mostly immigrants at All Saints Catholic Church in north Fort Worth, said Thanksgiving opens the holiday season for immigrants who come from Mexico and Central America and celebrate All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.
“Thanksgiving blends well with them,” Jasso said.
Ismael, who is from Djibouti, said many Somali, Djibouti and Ethiopian immigrants or refugees incorporate their African flavors to Thanksgiving menus. For example, goat is often on the menu because it is a food cooked by Somali people. Dishes include potatoes, carrots, coriander, turmeric and cinnamon, she said. Somali families also make meat pies, called samboosas. The French influence in Somalia is also evident on tables as they always include a baguette.
“It’s a good day to celebrate,” Ismael said. “In Islam, we celebrate every day. Every day is good. Thanksgiving is good, too.”
‘Here to celebrate’
Often, Somali family and friends will make a roasted chicken instead of a turkey.
We help them get familiar with the smells and flavors of the season. … They are different to what they are used to.
Samira Page, refugee and founder of Gateway of Grace which serves refugees in North Texas
Many Somali refugees are Muslim and Thanksgiving is reminiscent Eid al-Fitr, a festival for fast-breaking that marks the end of Ramadan, Ismael said. It also helps celebrate new American beginnings, she said.
“You are here to celebrate that you came to a safe place — that you came to a land of opportunity and someday you are going to be somebody,” Ismael said.
As Wilkerson made her rounds with other volunteers, they and the families — who are still learning about the Thanksgiving Day tradition — didn’t yet speak the same language, but they communicated with smiles.
“I want to help make people feel more comfortable, and I want to be able to use my Arabic [language] skills to help people from the Middle East feel more welcome in the United States,” Wilkerson said.