Refugees sit down to their first Philly Thanksgiving

At HIAS Philadelphia’s eighth annual Refugee Thanksgiving in the Pine Street Community center Sunday night, Thanksgiving greetings came in many languages — from Burmese, to Swahili, to Arabic. For hundreds of people — refugees and locals alike, it was a chance to share a meal.

Plates were crowded with rice pilaf and Burmese vegetables alongside turkey and mashed potatoes. Before filling his own, 11-year-old volunteer Damere Lassiter helped set up decorations for the event. He said this Thanksgiving is a chance for refugees build new American families.”Like even though you’re from a different country you can still come together and be a family. So we just want to greet them and tell them that America is great, like, show them Americans really do care about people,” said Lassiter

HIAS executive director Cathryn Miller-Wilson agreed. Her agency, which began as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has helped connect more than 200 refugees with housing, health insurance, and education in Philly this year. Like most resettlement agencies, HIAS has stepped up capacity in response to the growing demand to place people fleeing countries such as Syria.

miller wilsonHIAS Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

Beyond being fun, Miller-Wilson said these parties serve a purpose: celebrations actually speed up the process of integration and make new residents feel more secure.

“The arrivals that we’ve received since the election have expressed fear and concern about their well-being, about whether this is actually a safe place to land after the trauma that they’ve already escaped,” said Miller-Wilson. “And to a large extent we can only wait and see but we want to do everything we can to let our refugees know that they are welcome here, they are safe here,” she said.

Juma Kyubwa, his wife Carino, and their 5-year-old son, Daniel, arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo in June. Back home, Juma was a supervisor and Carino worked in a retail clothing shop. Both are fluent in French and Swahili, and are learning English while adjusting to life in South Philly. It’s been a lot of transitioning, but both give Thanksgiving a thumbs-up.

juma and carineJuma Kyubwa and his wife Carine Nyembo fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in June. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

“Thanksgiving is a good party. People — they stay together, eat, drinks, play, they do everything. It’s good,” said Juma Kyubwa.

For Miller-Wilson and volunteers, these gatherings are a fun way to learn more about new neighbors. Referring to the buffet, she said, “There are all kinds of dishes that I don’t know the name of but I’m excited to try out.”

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