Immigrants, refugees in Philadelphia get first taste of Thanksgiving

PHILADELPHIA — Abdullah Amarkhail left everything behind in his home country of Afghanistan — his family, his friends, his career.

“Even my hope,” the 31-year-old said.

For six months, he’s been living in South Philadelphia, helped by HIAS Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that provides legal and social services and other support to new immigrants and refugees. On Sunday, the organization hosted a potluck Thanksgiving dinner at the Old Pine Community Center in the Society Hill neighborhood for its clients who have come to the United States in the last year.

For many, including Amarkhail, who was enjoying a plate of turkey and fixings, it’s their first Thanksgiving in the United States.

“This is my family now,” Amarkhail said, waving his hand at the dozens of workers and volunteers who were there to celebrate the upcoming holiday with him and others like him. “This is my country. These are my people.”

HIAS Pennsylvania has been hosting the Thanksgiving dinners for close to two decades, said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, the group’s executive director. But Sunday’s event was the first time since before the pandemic that HIAS has held the event in person. The last two years it just offered virtual programming.

That was nice, Miller-Wilson said, but nothing like being together.

“It’s this great kind of final step in the journey to integrating into the United States.” Miller-Wilson said of the event. “Everyone that came in the last year comes, breaks bread, learns about this uniquely American holiday, and officially begins their lives in America.”

Part of the learning included literature on the painful past that Indigenous people had to endure, too.

The dinner came amid two of the biggest immigration events in Philadelphia since the Vietnam War: the permanent resettlement of about 5,000 Afghan evacuees in the region following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the arrival in the last nine months of at least 10,000 Ukrainians who have fled the war in their homeland.

Philadelphia also was in the immigration spotlight last week when a bus of 28 migrants arrived from Texas, sent by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to bring what he said was “much-needed relief to Texas’ overwhelmed border communities,” a move that local advocates criticized as unfair to families who are in the country legally.

About 100 HIAS Pennsylvania clients and 50 staff and volunteers attended the Thanksgiving dinner event that ran from 3 to 5 p.m.

Among them were Shammas Shamaun, 52, who came to the United States from Pakistan in 2017 and hadn’t seen his wife and sons in that time until they were able to get into the country two months ago. Their arrival was delayed in part by the pandemic, he said.

“When I left them,” he said of his sons, “they were so small.”

For the first time, Shamaun, was enjoying Thanksgiving dinner together with his wife, Sittara, 51, and sons Seth, 18, and Shobal, 17.

“This is the meaning of Thanksgiving for me,” said Shamaun, who works in information technology and lives in Northeast Philadelphia. “My family is here. I thank God for that.”

He said he left Pakistan because he and his family are Christian, a religious minority there, and their lives were in danger.

On Sunday, they were all smiling and just happy to be together. It was also the first time his wife and sons ever had turkey.

“It’s good. It’s like chicken,” said Shobal, who along with his brother plans to attend Fels High School.

Amarkhail liked the turkey, too. The dinner brought welcomed relief from the hard, lonely road that he has chosen by coming to a new country.

He said he worked in the presidential administration in Pakistan on higher education issues but left the country because he wanted to live in a democracy.

Amarkhail plans to pursue a degree in business administration and build a life for himself. He has a new hope.

“I want to be a good citizen,” he said.