A first Thanksgiving for some new Philadelphia residents

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Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, a time to gather family and friends and give thanks for what we have. It’s also a time that reminds us of another staple of life in the U.S.: the American Dream.

New arrivals to the U.S. come from many countries and cultures, and they all can appreciate a warm welcome, plus a little help learning what this country and our city are all about. For nearly a hundred years, the Nationalities Service Center (NSC) in Philadelphia has been helping immigrants and refugees navigate their new home as they seek that American dream.

“We welcome the world to Philadelphia,” said Executive Director Margaret O’Sullivan. “We serve over 5,000 immigrants and refugees a year from over 120 countries, everything from refugee resettlement to legal services to ESL to a wide range of health and wellness programming for immigrants and refugees.”

Beyond those practicalities, for the past decade or so, NSC staff have hosted a Thanksgiving celebration for their clients.

“It’s a way to memorialize their journey and to welcome them formally to this incredible American tradition,” O’Sullivan explained.

Last Saturday, about 200 refugees and volunteers gathered at the Arch Street Methodist Church to enjoy a day of music, dancing, and socializing. When they sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner, the table included some foods familiar to them, like samosas and falafel, but many of the diners were eager to try some new things.

“The food is very nice. I especially liked turkey,” says Pascal Bandu Lubira, who came to Philadelphia earlier this year from the Democratic Republic of Congo, by way of Uganda.

As they celebrate side by side with other refugees and longtime city residents, the newcomers seem to overcome some of the isolation immigrants can experience. Fouad Sakhnini came to the U.S. in July from his native Syria, after spending four years in Thailand, and said he looks forward to assimilating into American life.

“It’s very important to have friends who are American, not only Arab. So I’m trying to adapt with the culture, the attitude of people here,” he said.

To stretch its resources, the non-profit NSC relies on partners in the business sector, companies looking for ways to give back and provide volunteer opportunities for their staff. The servers at the Thanksgiving celebration came from Weblinc, a Philadelphia-based tech company.

“We’ve fundraised for NSC to be able to present the meal,” said Stacy Wyn Sarno, Weblinc’s director of community engagement. “We help the caterer cook, we help provide entertainment, whatever we can to make it a special event for all the newly-arrived refugees.”

The NSC clients come from a long roster of countries and cultures and with a wide range of backgrounds. They belie the image of the “tired, poor, huddled masses” welcomed by the Statue of Liberty. O’Sullivan want employers to know about the skill sets many refugees bring with them. “We have many who are coming with higher level skills. You know, war and conflict and ethnic strife really have no barriers in terms of the people that they impact.”

To connect these skills with jobs, NSC has gathered a cadre of employers who, over time have worked with them on hiring refugees. In the midst of their volunteer work for the organization, Weblinc became one of those employers. Through NSC, they found Abdul Bundu Kamara. He left his native Sierra Leone, spent time in Ghana, and then arrived in Philadelphia earlier this year. He now plies his tech skills at Weblinc as a front-end developer.

Having shared the joys of an American Thanksgiving with their clients, perhaps the next item NSC needs to tackle is to introduce them to a real Philadelphia winter. Kamara said they’ve taken care of that, too.

“I was given a lot of gifts with coats and now that I’m feeling the cold, I realize why the gifts were coming on with jackets, and I’ve got a lot of jackets,” she said. “So it’s good, I’m prepared.”

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