Ethnic Families Celebrate First Thanksgiving
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Celebration at Arlington Mill Community Center
Twenty-seven families from different ethnic backgrounds, all residents of Arlington County, Virginia, and preparing for their U.S. citizenship exam, will celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time in their life. Along with 25 of their children, they will flock to the multi-purpose room of the Arlington Mill Community Center November 21 for a day of American cultural activities and turkey. They came from Albania, Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Erithrea, Ethiopa, Guatemala, Iran, Sudan and Vietnam.
A coalition of state and local agencies — the Cultural Affairs Division of the Department of Parks Recreation and Community Resources, the Family and Consumer Sciences of the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Community Outreach Program of the Department of Human Services, and the Community Resilience Project of the Department of Human Resources — joined forces to organize the event. Agency staffers Mary Briggs, Jennifer Abel, Sowatha Kong Chea, and Essey Workie, with the help of volunteers and other staffers, will coordinate a two-hour program for these families. The objectives are to introduce Thanksgiving as a part of American culture, to present “attitudes-of-gratitude” as a cognitive tool in building resilience, to provide practical safety tips for food preparation, to celebrate diversity of the American heritage, and lastly, to strengthen family and community bonds.
One planned activity involves educational quizzes on food safety and nutrition and on coping with stress. The exercise intends to prevent food poisoning and to encourage stress management. For the children, exercises will include drawing and coloring pictures of turkeys and flowers to decorate the buffet table. Other games will aim at exposing children to activities that are typically American.
Gifts, door prizes, and food are being donated by generous sponsors, such as Safeway, Giant, Whole Food Market, and Urban Alternatives. To enhance the atmosphere, Wes Mantooth will play American folk music for the immigrants.
Asked why they are coming to the Thanksgiving dinner, Luis Morales, 74, from Ecuador said, “I was a lawyer in my country, and came here in the late 1970s as a diplomat for the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington. I fell in love with a nation whose people were very warm and generous. I live here now with my wife and five grown children, two married to Americans. I feel at home in this country. I can express my opinions freely, with no fear of reprisals.”
Tsigie Gebru, a 65 year old Ethiopian who came to the U.S five years ago, said, “Back home, I worked as an engineer at the Ministry of Community Development, building houses in rural areas. After I retired, I applied to migrate to the U.S., a more peaceful country than Ethiopia. Part of my country was separated and became Erithrea after a civil war broke out. I thank God that I was lucky enough to have my name drawn from the immigration lottery list and was chosen to come here. Then I was lucky again: I found work as a parking attendant in the capital. I live now with my son, 29, who earns good money driving a taxi. I am very content with my life and cannot ask for anything more. I am so grateful to America.”
There is an Erithrean among the group as well. Amet Ahmed, 35, came here in 1989 with her husband and her one year-old son, and has had two more boys in her new country. “I was happy to find a good place to live with no trace of violence or war. Even after the 9-11 attacks, although I was scared, I did not want to go home and live with my parents. Back there, women are oppressed and cannot even drive a car. They are supposed to stay home, do low-level jobs, or work in factories. I never saw any women doctors, or lawyers, or government officials. If they were educated, they could teach, but their rights were very restricted. Therefore, I want to stay here and become a citizen, with all the rights men, women and even children enjoy. Here my husband and children and I can fulfill our dreams.”
Lyn Min’s parents fled Cambodia during the genocidal Pol Pot regime and took refuge in the U.S. in 1980. Lyn said, “I was two when I came here with my mother. I did not know the whereabouts of my father. I thank my mother for having brought me here and taking good care of me. I also thank God for being alive. I am studying at NOVA Community College and work as an assistant teacher, tutoring children after school at Arlington Mill. I thank America for the bright future ahead of me.”