Refugees First Thanksgiving
Refugees First Thanksgiving

On November 24th, our family had a beautiful early Thanksgiving meal with a group of newcomers to our area, which provided new insight into this annual holiday that made it mean so much more. This year was the 8th year that the Ethiopian Community Development Council in Arlington, VA hosted this annual feast, inviting newly resettled refugees to join in this feast with other families in their community.

A young Afghani family, wife in her hijab and their two boys ages 1 and 5 adorned in USA attire, had arrived in the U.S. just 15 days before. Beyond it being an American holiday, it seemed that the guests struggled to grasp the significance of the Refugees’ First Thanksgiving celebration and why an American family would also be seated with them.

To be honest, the correlation of this meal to the first feast shared between our Native American and Pilgrim forefathers hadn’t occurred to me either until recounting for our new friends the familiar story of a people escaping persecution, a harsh winter, help being offered, and a shared celebratory meal. It is a story that our school children learn, yet told in this setting to this audience, it clearly mirrored the resettlement story of refugees and welcomers, and instantly validated why we both had come.

Although we may know the original story of Thanksgiving, for me and many Americans the holiday has come to be more synonymous with coming home. My family drove over 13 hours to share this year’s feast with extended family in Florida, adding another thread of memories to those from previous gatherings. In fact, so intertwined are our memories of past festivities that we take great lengths to gather and ensure our favorite traditional dishes—rarely eaten outside of the season—will be on the table. Sometimes we even get rather passionate about which kind of pie “must” be served, not altogether conscious that our favorite flavors are connected with a particular feeling. I believe that feeling is Belonging.

Having a sense of belonging is a common human need, equal to the need of food and shelter. When our Native American friends generously helped the Pilgrims plant crops and build homes, they weren’t only helping them to survive, they were accepting their new neighbors into their tribe, and enabling them to make this land “home.” That first shared harvest and feast consummated successful integration. Today, by extending a welcoming hand or offering a little help to succeed, we too can say to newcomers “you belong here.” In fact, in attending the Refugees’ First Thanksgiving event our family was expressing, “you belong with us: at our table and in our homeland.”

Tradition suggests Thanksgiving is a meal that is shared. Even when circumstances may prevent us at times from being with family, we frequently opt for gathering with friends over celebrating alone. Similarly, the story of resettlement is a shared experience of belonging.

As true today as it was for our forefathers: Their story IS our story.

When newcomers feel like they belong, we all thrive.