A dinner together brings Afghan refugees closer to Thanksgiving

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For Afghan refugees making a living in the United States, Thanksgiving isn’t a big deal.

It’s not her vacation. They don’t crave turkey or gravy or mashed potatoes. You have never heard of the pilgrims. And many of their family and friends are far away, some back in Afghanistan, making it impossible to gather on Thursday — or any other day.

And yet Thanksgiving is part of becoming an American, and one of the better parts, especially compared to what can be a desperate search for work or a frustrating quest to learn the language. Don’t know what Thanksgiving is, but overall it seems like a good idea.

That was the mood Sunday as hundreds of refugees gathered with American volunteers and others for a communal Thanksgiving meal.

“You have to be part of the culture of this country,” said Mohammad Fisih Yaqoobi, 22, who immigrated to the DC area last year and attended the Sunday lunch. “I have to learn this culture and do it.”

The group met in an Arlington community hall at the headquarters of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, one of nine US refugee resettlement agencies. Paper lanterns in the shape of spheres hung from the ceiling, and a cascade of fairy lights illuminated the back wall.

There was an American feast on the buffet tables: turkey and sweet potatoes, stuffing and gravy, pate and reddi-wip — but there were also lentils and yucca fries and injera, a traditional Ethiopian bread. It was a potluck, with offerings from Americans and newcomers side by side.

Like the vast majority of the other refugees at dinner, Yaqoobi is from Afghanistan. He came to the United States in September 2021 after living in Turkey for four years, where his family fled in the middle of the war. There he learned Turkish; Now he has learned English.

His first Thanksgiving was a year ago. An American family invited him, his mother and his brothers to dinner. It was the first time he had been invited to an American home for any reason, and it made an impression. Your host sourced a halal turkey and added rice and beans to the menu alongside potatoes.

“We didn’t have turkey in Afghanistan,” Yaqoobi said. “We have turkeys, but we don’t eat them.”

The event Sunday was so busy that two dinners were held in a row to accommodate everyone. Even so, the room was crowded.

The Trump administration has severely restricted refugee intake, and the pandemic has further slowed the resettlement program. In 2020-21, the Ethiopian Community Development Council settled only 276 people in the DC area.

When President Biden took office, he increased the number of refugees allowed into the United States. Then, in August 2021, the United States withdrew its forces and personnel from Afghanistan, and when the Taliban took control of the country, many Afghans working for and with the United States qualified for US visas.

In the fiscal year ended September 30, the agency transported 1,574 refugees to the Washington suburbs. About 95 percent of them are from Afghanistan; others are Ukrainians displaced since the Russian invasion and some are from Central America.

Biden raises the cap on accepting refugees to 125,000

The dinner, now in its 10th year, has been suspended for two years because of the pandemic. But it resumed this year to bring refugee families, volunteers, donors and community members together ahead of the holidays.

“No politics, no religion, no nothing; just people coming together,” said Sarah Zullo, director of the African Community Center, the local branch of the Ethiopian Community Development Council. “When people actually sit down to eat together, we find that we have a lot more in common than our differences.”

Halfway through the first dinner, Tsehaye Teferra stepped up to the microphone. He came to the USA from Ethiopia as a student in 1972 and stayed in his country after a military coup. He then helped other migrating refugees and founded the Ethiopian Community Development Council in 1983.

“You can’t learn the culture of a new country in a day,” Teferra warned the group. “It’s a gradual process.”

This dinner, he added in an interview, is a small step in that process.

“We want them to connect with the spirit of Thanksgiving,” he said. “We basically say to every immigrant, ‘That’s a sign of hospitality.’ Because there are times when refugees and immigrants do not feel welcome here.”

Nazifa Khaliqi, 52, said she knew nothing about last year’s Thanksgiving, which came shortly after her arrival from Afghanistan. She slowly settled in and on Sunday she celebrated the holiday.

“It’s good here,” she said through a translator. “Life is good for me.” She said she was grateful for all the help she received from Americans. One of her daughters, Rukhsar Qasemzai, 19, added: “I am grateful for my future, that I will have a future in the United States.”

Still, a heavy weight remains that makes celebration difficult. When the Taliban came to power, Khaliqi and three daughters made it to the airport. They were evacuated and ended up in the DC area. But her husband, son and a fourth daughter couldn’t make it out and they remain in Afghanistan.

“I’m so nervous that my husband and children are stuck there,” she said through a translator. “You can’t go out often. They are at home most of the time.”

And it’s not easy being a new American, even with family. Ahmadullah Noorzad, 33, worked for more than 10 years as an engineer for the US Army in Afghanistan and arrived in the United States in June with his wife and four children after their visa applications were approved. He was in danger and was dying to immigrate but found it difficult when it actually happened. His engineering certification isn’t recognized here, so he’s taking classes to get certified.

“We don’t know the company,” he said. “That’s the problem. We’re trying to adapt.”

He was happy to be with the community on Sunday, although it wasn’t quite the same as past celebrations because he missed so many family and friends.

He had heard about Thanksgiving from some Americans he worked with during the war, but was never included in the celebrations on base. So he thought very little about it.

“I hope I can search the internet and find more about this day,” he said.

Nonetheless, he attended the communal dinner in his formal attire—a long gray tunic and black waistcoat. And when his third grade son, Abozar, was asked if he knew about Thanksgiving, he nodded yes. He had learned it at school.

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