Celebrating a Refugee's First Thanksgiving

Posted by Simon Henshaw
November 25, 2015
People hold hands at a Refugee Center in Rome

During this holiday season, as millions of Americans gather with their families and friends in living rooms and at dinner tables across the nation, we often ask ourselves why we’re thankful. It’s an important part of our holiday and our traditions. This question reminds us of our blessings, our hopes, and our dreams, and makes us grateful for our family and friends.

When we ask ourselves why we’re thankful, it also helps us to reflect on the amazing legacy we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America: freedom and liberty; an enduring democracy; and citizenship in a nation that has time and again been on the right side of history, protecting the lives of others and preserving our legacy as a beacon of hope for the world — including through the safe resettlement of more than three million refugees from around the world since 1975.

Thanks to the American people, those refugees have an incredible reason to give thanks in their new home.

After two and a half years working for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, I have visited many refugees sites overseas. I have met Syrian refugees in small Turkish cities not far from the border of their homeland, Congolese and Sudanese refugees in a giant refugee camp in northern Kenya, and Burmese refugees in the booming city of Kuala Lumpur. I have also been privileged to be able to meet the few refugees who we resettle in the United States, in cities from Buffalo to Atlanta to Chicago. I’ve met refugees from all over the world who are working, sometimes struggling, to build new lives in America.

So it was with particular pleasure that last week I attended the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s annual “Refugees’ First Thanksgiving Dinner,” where we welcomed new refugees representing over 10 different nationalities into our community with this very American celebration. I joined my colleagues from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services in breaking bread with refugees from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and many other areas of the world. We helped serve food, spoke with the community members and newly-arrived refugees, and enjoyed the celebration of diversity and joy among those who have reason to be the most thankful among us during this holiday season.

I was fortunate myself to have the chance to share dinner at the event with a group of Sudanese and Afghan refugees. A Sudanese new-comer who, along with his extended family, has only been in the United States for two months, talked of their arduous journey to escape his country and marveled at all the different types of food at our Thanksgiving meal. A newly arrived Afghan refugee, who had once worked for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, proudly explained how this was his very first Thanksgiving and noted how traditional food (turkey, stuffing, and gravy) was served alongside food from other nations (including Ethiopian specialties).

These refugees and so many more can now enjoy a new life and a new beginning in the United States, thanks to the continuing leadership of our nation in providing a new home for the world’s most vulnerable people — many of whom are female-headed households, children, survivors of torture, and individuals with severe medical conditions.

Less than one percent of all refugees around the world are permanently resettled. Only the most vulnerable refugees are resettled to the United States. We have a proud tradition of welcoming those who need protection, care, and security. We have been doing so for decades in a way that ensures both the safety of the American public, and the protection of the world’s most vulnerable people.

As the President said recently, “We have shown that we can welcome refugees and ensure our security, that there’s no contradiction. And as long as I’m President, we’re going to keep on stepping up and making sure that America remains as it has always been, a place where people who, in other parts of the world, are subject to discrimination or violence, that they have in America a friend and a place of refuge.”

So as you ask yourself why you’re thankful this holiday season, you can count among your many blessings your pride in helping protect the innocent victims of violence and persecution find new beginnings in a new home. And you can be thankful for your place among a nation that protects the less fortunate when they are in the most need.

About the Author: Simon Henshaw is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration.

Editor's Note: This blog entry also appears on Medium.com.

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