The 200 new refugees enjoying an early Thanksgiving feast in Buffalo on Saturday may not have understood all the nuances of the holiday – the turkey, the cranberry sauce, the pumpkin pie.
But arguably no one can relate more to Thanksgiving than these modern-day pilgrims.
Persecuted in their own country.
A long, hard journey to a strange new land.
Adjusting to life in a new home.
“If any of our traditions in this country relates to the refugee, it’s Thanksgiving,” said Molly Short Carr, executive director of Journey’s End Refugee Services.
“Even if they don’t know the actual story, they know the concept and they know it establishes who we are as a people,” she said. “They know this was a country of refugees.”
Central Park United Methodist Church on Beard Avenue hosted Saturday’s dinner for more than 200 refugees. Most of them were celebrating their first Thanksgiving since being resettled in Buffalo from some of the most troubled, war-torn spots in the world.
As many as 20 countries were represented around the dining tables, including Somalia, Burma, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Nepal and Congo-Brazzaville, which Charles Kayi and his wife, Marguerite, once called home.
The couple had a pleasant dinner but were curious about this Thanksgiving tradition.
“We want to know more about why this happens and does this happen in other places,” she said through a French interpreter.
This is the 11th year Journey’s End has sponsored the First Thanksgiving, partnering with the Central Park and North Presbyterian churches, Congregation Shir Shalom, Temple Beth Zion and Erie I BOCES to provide Saturday’s meal.
The story of Thanksgiving was explained to the refugees by the children enrolled in the Refugee School Impact Program. The kids – each a different nationality – stood on stage, where they spoke a few words and held up large letters to spell out Thanksgiving.
Baidaa Ahmed attended with her two boys, Yousif and Ehab.
She is an Iraqi who lived in Syria for several years before being resettled in Buffalo eight months ago. She likes it here because her boys are safe.
They’re still getting used to American food, but along with the stuffing and mashed potatoes Saturday’s spread included rice and beans and turkey basted with Ethiopian berbere spice.
And by the end of the meal, these newcomers to the United States seemed to have a pretty good hang of this holiday tradition.
Kids were running around playing, and diners, like Mohammad Amin, departed with cartons of leftovers for home.
Amin has come a long way since fleeing Afghanistan.
He met his wife, Takhmina, in Kazakhstan and the couple lived in Russia, before finally being resettled here with their three little girls.
After all they’ve been through, they’re thankful to be in Buffalo.
“I like Buffalo,” Mohammad said. “I love America.”