On Sunday around 2 p.m., in the hall outside Old Pine Community Center’s gymnasium, the murmurs of about 100 people mixed with the sound of bluegrass music from a band in the corner. This is hardly what you’d expect, but exactly what you get from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s (HIAS) 5th Annual Refugee Thanksgiving Dinner.
“We’re here to get people to come together,” said HIAS board president Linda Harker.
Giving thanks is at the heart of this uniquely American holiday, and HIAS executive director Judith Bernstein-Baker started her speech to those gathered in the room on that theme. “Thank you for letting us bring you to America,” she said.
Hailing from Bhutan, Sudan, Iraq, Myanmar and elsewhere, about 200 refugees attended the dinner over the course of the afternoon — sitting at tables set up in the gym, coming and going, mixing and mingling despite the language barriers.
Many of the refugees have been in the United States for less than a year, and some of the children had spent their entire lives in refugee camps before coming to the United States. American volunteers served the traditional standards of turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, plus many refugees brought foods from their native cultures to share. It wasn’t uncommon to see sel roti, a fried-dough dish from Nepal and Bhutan, on the same plate as mashed potatoes and stuffing.
Mostly, the children were the first to reach out to people from other cultures. As youngsters from all sorts of different backgrounds colored in Thanksgiving-themed pictures of gourds and turkeys, their parents smiled at seeing their children playing together and introduced themselves.
HIAS, a Jewish organization founded in Manhattan in 1881, initially provided aid to Jewish immigrants, but since then has expanded to help refugees from all over the world. Ashok Rai, from Bhutan, works for HAIS as a translator, aiding refugees in the same way the organization once helped him. “I work with the community,” said Rai, “so I love what I do.”
When Bernstein-Baker asked the room, “How many people have never been to a Thanksgiving before?” the question was translated into four languages. Nearly everyone’s hand rose into the air.
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