Share your Thanksgiving table with refugees
It may be awkward, but prepare to have your heart wrung, says Nancy Lovell
If you can mentally steer past adult-sibling dynamics, televised-game schedules, and meal prep (not that they don’t matter) this Thanksgiving, consider a U-turn to 1621 to also share your day with a few recent arrivals.
I mean to say that what Pilgrims were to the Plymouth-area Wampanoags, refugees are to Dallasites: survivors of a rough voyage, strangers in an unfamiliar and often harsh environment. And in Texas, hospitality trumps politics.
If you do it, if you add the extra place settings, expect some discomfort. Expect language troubles. And brace to have your heart wrung.
I’ve seen a rancher’s wife cry with worry for the safety of a young Iranian man, one of three brothers she once reflexively feared and now unabashedly mothers. I’ve seen Highland Park friends helping a Syrian mother of six promote her textile work online. Another group won’t miss a birthday or a surgery for “their” Afghan family of two parents and two disabled kids.
Right now, 68.5 million people in the world are displaced, unable to be home; 28 million are refugees or asylum seekers. Of the fraction of them who get to the U.S., for reasons that include weather and the economy, our part of Texas gets the most, and this is our call to action.
Check with your kids’ schools or any school. Call your church or a refugee service like Gateway of Grace or Catholic Charities or Jewish Family Services. Google “Dallas Immigration and Refugee Resources.” If your gathering will have school-age kids, ask for a family with similar ages. If you’re older, invite a young family. If you’re former military, invite someone who got here by helping our military over there. Ask about seniors living alone. And send someone to pick up your guests.
A few other guidelines.
1. Try to imagine. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, Gateway of Grace throws a big party for the refugees it serves, because the first U.S. holidays for its founder, Samira Page, were crushingly lonely. Ignorant of the holiday or its meaning, she watched as America blew it out to celebrate without her and her family.
2. Ask a few basic questions. Ask the refugee service for cultural ground rules. For example: You may want to avoid taking photos. And, are you sitting down? Most non-americans dislike turkey. So you may wish to:
3. Add a turkey alternative. As I think about it, in Europe or the Middle East, I’ve never seen turkey on a menu. Pick up a rotisserie chicken to add to the table.
4. Download Google Translator. Your communication issue is clarity, not volume. Speak normally, and slow down and enunciate. Keep a cellphone or laptop close for Google Translator, which ensures nothing in terms of accuracy, but serves as a potentially wicked icebreaker. As with auto correct at its most outrageous, speakers of both languages may fall out laughing.
5. Be ready to explain Thanksgiving. Do not mention massacres from the dark side of early Thanksgiving histories. Do recap the grateful spirits of the surviving Pilgrims in Plymouth, Mass., and the Wampanoag Indians sharing harvest festival bounty. Abraham Lincoln made it official.
6. As you can, help network. One Thanksgiving at a Gateway of Grace event serving chicken and dressing, I met a Central American political refugee whose daughter had Down syndrome, as does my neighbor’s daughter. With one call to my neighbor, I learned of a Spanish-speaking association for mothers of Down kids, and I got the group’s number. One call.
7. From time to time, check in. Show a refugee family the Dallas Zoo, an American home, a chance to practice English, a picnic in spring at a city park. As needed, donate furniture still in good shape, or a used car.
New faces across the table will be awkward, especially at first, and the day might end without a single soft-focus Hallmark moment. Someone may miss part of a game. It’s possible your guests will pick at your mother’s salad. Do it anyway.
Your dinner guests will leave you with a fresh perspective, and you’ll likely have a wobbly new friendship. And you’ll feel grateful.