A Very Refugee Thanksgiving - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Very Refugee Thanksgiving

A Very Refugee Thanksgiving

By Taylor Mayol


It may well be the original refugee holiday. 

By Taylor Mayol

It’s a bright, crisp day in Oakland, Calif., and inside a sunlit classroom in the English Center, Jackie McNabb has a question for her charges: “Who knows what Thanksgiving is?”

Her 15 adult students — a close-knit and usually boisterous group of recent arrivals from El Salvador, Yemen and practically everywhere in between — are stumped. A tiny Chinese woman in the back thrusts her hand in the air and shouts, “Black Friday!”

McNabb laughs but moves quickly. She pulls down her projector screen, Googles “Thanksgiving” and starts on a host of holiday-related images. The Norman Rockwell painting of the feast-laden table. Photos of turkeys — here, McNabb notes that the butcher down the street sells a halal version. And, of course, images of the original Pilgrims, in their tall black hats and buckled shoes, who feasted to express thankfulness for new lives in a new land. Later, when the students go to the whiteboard to write down what they’re thankful for, many will cite their families or their teacher. One of them, from Colombia, will write: “For living in the beautiful world full of possibilities.”

For many of McNabb’s students, life in America does seem full of possibilities. They’ve fled wars, gang violence, poverty, persecution, even slavery. The nearly 70,000 refugees that made it to the United States last year are among the lucky few. But adjusting to their new homes, not surprisingly, can be a struggle too. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, American attitudes toward immigration and refugees have become even more polarized, and many of the new arrivals have walked, unwittingly, into a political minefield, a nation that is not sure it wants them. Even if the newcomers were checking into the Ritz-Carlton instead, they’d still have to learn English, find jobs, make new friends and cope with homesickness and absent loved ones.

And yes, they have to figure out what to do for Thanksgiving dinner. Indeed while 88 percent of Americans are celebrating with the usual — a carefully basted turkey, pumpkin pie and let’s not forget the gluten-free stuffing and non-GMO green beans over in Berkeley — just down the street in Oakland, refugees from around the world will gather for their first taste of what is arguably the most uniquely American holiday of them all. Some will be welcomed into the homes of new friends, while others will attend community Thanksgiving dinners hosted by resettlement agencies, like the International Rescue Committee. But wherever they land, the repast will come complete with tryptophan, pies and a side of complications, past and future.


Many Americans are feeling queasy about immigrants these days. The reasons run the gamut, including worries that outsiders will steal their jobs and depress wages and fears that suicide bombers and other terrorists will sneak through borders in sheep’s clothing. In the wake of the Islamic State attacks on Paris, less than two weeks before Thanksgiving, a White House plan to up the number of Syrian refugees in the United States — to 10,000 next year and 85,000 after — may be derailed. Some 31 governors have refused to admit Syrian refugees to their state, while polls last week showed most Americans oppose taking in refugees. With a “failed state like Syria,” there’s “absolutely no way of vetting people who come in,” argues Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Mehlman’s organization is one of many players, including nearly the entire Republican presidential slate, urging the United States to at least rethink Syrian resettlement here, if not completely halt it. 

As of now, fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States since 2013. Among them is Hanan Rawoas, a 21-year-old who came to California in the spring. Self-possessed and eager, she sits in the front row of her advanced writing class and is often the first to hazard an answer to the teacher’s question. Dressed in black ballet flats, a fuzzy gray sweater and a bubblegum-pink hijab, or headscarf, Rawoas is undeniably chic.

But it hasn’t been an easy time for her. A few weeks ago, thieves broke into her family’s wooden bungalow, in a rough-and-tumble East Oakland neighborhood, smashing the window. They carted off her laptop and $1,000 in cash, which her father had earned as a CVS deliveryman — a far cry from the CEO title he held at a factory back home. And last weekend, her fiancé, Anas, still in Syria, was plucked off the street by the police and conscripted into the army of dictator Bashar al-Assad — at least that is what Rawoas has heard from his family. If that’s true, he’ll be helping fight a civil war that began in 2011 and, with the entry of the Islamic State, has only become more gruesome. Rawoas holds up her iPhone and scrolls through pages and pages of WhatsApp messages in Arabic she’s written to him. None are marked “read.”

All of which will make Rawoas’s first Thanksgiving dinner a kind of reprieve. She plans to go to the house of an American Muslim friend — who’s married to an Egyptian Christian — and enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving potluck, including drumsticks and pumpkin pie. Her contribution will be one of her favorite foods: Syrian kubba, fried patties of spiced mincemeat.

Many of Rawoas’s classmates have harrowing tales too. Mauricio Acosta, a lanky, emotional El Salvadoran with a precisely gelled fauxhawk, tells of fleeing MS-13, a dangerous gang, in the middle of the night. He left behind his family and a job making piñatas. Acosta now lives in Oakland with his brother but hasn’t found a job yet; unlike Rawoas and others with refugee status, he does not benefit from employment counseling or stipends for food and housing. Acosta is on his own.

Except for Bill Torbor, a short, round-faced Liberian whom Acosta calls “brother.” Torbor is popular at the English Center, with a kind of preacher swagger: new looking Nikes, a button-down, white cordless headphones. His memories are not lighthearted. During the Liberian civil war, Torbor says, he was separated from his mother — he was 10 years old at the time — and wound up as a “slave” on a rubber and coffee plantation in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. At times, he says, “I was suffering, and thought, “It’s better to kill myself.”

Finally reunited with his mom in Oakland — as of last year — Torbor says they’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with a big turkey. Also? Liberian side dishes like hot pepper soup, cassava leaves and cabbage.

Even if Thanksgiving is the most “American” of holidays, it is, at its heart, a pretty universal idea: Gather for a feast with your loved ones and be grateful for it. “It’s the holiday we have that’s the closest to the holidays they have,” says Stephen Rodgers of Chicago’s Heartland Alliance, a resettlement organization. “It reminds them of when they were back home.” Last week, the organization hosted a traditional Thanksgiving meal for 130 refugees in the area — from places like Myanmar, Congo and Iraq — complete with crepe-paper turkey centerpieces, streamers, cornucopias and pumpkins.


About half a century ago, John F. Kennedy famously called the United States a nation of immigrants. The moment we’re living in seems to be testing the proposition. How many refugees should the United States accept? Where should they come from? Should we deport the 11.3 million illegal immigrants estimated to live in the United States? The debate will only heat up in the coming months, perhaps with a curious reminder: Resistance to newcomers is as American a tradition as Thanksgiving itself. Back in the early 1960s President Kennedy wrote of them: “The same things are said today of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans that were once said of Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews: ‘They’ll never adjust; they can’t learn the language; they won’t be absorbed.’ ”

Back at the English Center, though, America’s newest immigrants are anything but outsiders; they’re here for a Thanksgiving meal. “This is the first time I’ve tasted delicious food in America,” says Sarah Dammag, a 24-year-old from Yemen — she was especially keen on the turkey and pumpkin pie. Bill Torbor is eating turkey next to a Ukrainian man and a young Peruvian couple. A Colombian woman takes a selfie with an Afghan guy from Jackie McNabb’s class.

And since no party is complete without karaoke, there’s also an enthusiastic, if awkward, rendition of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” Bill seizes the moment, and the mic, and the room loses it. “Bill! Bill! Bill” All the newcomers are clapping their hands and shouting; for a minute, Bill is utterly transported. Today, he says, he “gets to forget about my problems.” It’s a very happy Thanksgiving indeed.

Video By Charlotte Buchen

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