Refugees celebrate First Thanksgiving in America

by MATT BERGSTROM

  • Virtually attend the First Thanksgiving celebration.

Each of us probably has many unique memories of Thanksgiving, but they probably all centered on turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and family. We remember the pilgrims who broke bread with their native hosts in this new land. And eventually we go around the table and take turns naming things for which we are grateful. Family, friends, freedom, the list goes on, and these are just the Fs.

But who remembers their first Thanksgiving? All the memories seem to blend together over the years, the result of too much stuffing and tryptophan-induced comas. Most of us likely can’t recall the first time we tasted cranberry sauce, or watched with trepidation as dad carved the bird; cautiously keeping his fingers clear of the blade.

For the thousands of refugees who come to this country every year, these experiences are as foreign to them as their many languages and traditions are to us.

That’s why this year the International Rescue Committee and American Express decided to hold a First Thanksgiving celebration for new refugees.

The First Thanksgiving is a new national celebration organized by the IRC’s corporate headquarters in New York. Salt Lake was one of three cities to host a dinner, along with Boston and Phoenix. American Express offered to house the Salt Lake event Thursday, Nov. 18, at its Taylorsville office.

Smiling volunteers and employees from the IRC greeted refugees arriving at their first Thanksgiving dinner. Once checked in they were ushered through the spacious lobby of American Express’ office past an 8-foot-tall Statue of Liberty. Just beyond the statue lay a long red carpet rolled out for the guests of honor.

Servers greeted guests along the red carpet and offered them drinks and appetizers as the refugee families meandered closer to the office lunchroom that had been transformed into a banquet hall for the evening.

All the while the journey down the hallway was accompanied by a Middle Eastern melody. At the end of the carpet, two men, Iraqi refugees, sang while one of them kept time on a small, Yamaha keyboard. An older Iraqi woman stopped to listen and sing along to the music as everyone else arriving followed suit.

The long hallway continued to fill with people as those arriving paused to admire the black and white photographs propped on easels along the carpet. Pictures of women and children, mothers and their newborn babies, stood single file on either side of the red carpet like members of a reception line.

This exhibit of photos was the premier of The Newest Americans series by Salt Lake-based photographer Stanna Frampton.

Frampton is a longtime friend of Patrick Poulin, the IRC’s Salt Lake resettlement director. For years she had asked Poulin if there was some way she could help him in his work. They came up with the idea of photographing the newest Americans, children born to refugee mothers. She began taking the photographs a year ago. Frampton said it was difficult at first because many of the mothers didn’t fully understand why someone wanted to take their picture.

Frampton recalls a Somali woman in particular who was so nervous to be in the studio it was all the photographer could do to get her to smile. Every time the woman would begin to laugh she would cover her face. Yet the resulting photograph is one of the most memorable of the series. The slender young woman in a long dark gown shields her smiling face from the camera as her young child lies lazily against her shoulder.

Every photograph has an interesting story, Frampton said. She asked each of the mothers a series of questions about their new life in America during the shoot. When she asked them how they felt knowing their babies were born American citizens they were unanimously overjoyed.

Frampton has found her own joy in getting to know these new mothers. “I have learned so much,” she said. “I’m still learning.”

Joy spilled over from the refugees, government officials, and refugee service providers as they all continued to spill into the banquet hall. More than 20 finely dressed tables filled the large room that usually accommodated American Expresses employees on their breaks.

The music died down as the nearly 200 guests began taking their seats.

George Biddle, executive vice-president of the IRC, emceed the evening. Biddle took a moment to thank all the participants and especially those who helped plan the event. He then introduced Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and former Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis. DePaulis, who was recently appointed director of community and culture by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., appeared behalf of the governor who was celebrating his wedding anniversary.

Corroon and DePaulis presented proclamations, one from the county and one from the state, declaring Nov. 14, through Nov. 20, Refugee Appreciation and Celebration Week.

Next, Janet Harris, vice president of development for the IRC, addressed the crowd. Harris related a story about taking a taxi from the airport to her hotel in Salt Lake. Her cab driver happened to be a Somali refugee who was resettled by the IRC a few years ago.

She asked the driver how he liked his new life here. He told her he was happy because he has three things here he did not have at home: freedom, opportunity and safety.

Harris revealed why the IRC decided to hold it’s largest event in conjunction with Thanksgiving. “All cultures have some form of harvest holiday,” she said. “So there is common ground there.”

She then reminded everyone about the pilgrim’s very first Thanksgiving; a dinner held by a group of people who had been forced to leave their homes in search of freedom, opportunity and safety.

With the speeches done it was time for the entertainment.

A group of women and young girls from Burundi and Rwanda performed rollicking native dances in traditional costumes.

They were followed by a quartet of young Burundian men in green and white robes, each with a tall drum. The men set up their instruments on stage and began a 20-minute marathon of intense drumming and call-and-response shouts. By the time they were done they were drenched with sweat and the audience was as excited from their robust meal and lively entertainment.

As the evening wound down the attendees discussed their new memories. Their reveries were filled with hope of future events and newborn traditions. This Thanksgiving dinner was a bit different from the traditional memories of the holiday so many have, but the new memories it provided for it’s guests, both the refugee families and the others there, will surely be no less poignant and no less meaningful.

The smiling faces leaving the American Express building that evening may have seemed foreign and each was unquestionably different, but as Patrick Poulin pointed out earlier that evening, whether you say markozy, banyaba, or ji shu tin baday, it still just means thanks.

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