This holiday season, New Haven’s refugees will gather at a Thanksgiving table to partake in an American tradition and add their own flavors to it.
The event is organized by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a New Haven-based nonprofit that supports the city’s refugees by helping them resettle and adapt to American customs. The annual celebration began more than a decade ago and attracts over 100 guests each year. This year, IRIS expects an even bigger turnout as the Syrian Civil War continues forcing more refugees to seek a new home in the Elm City, one of 31 sanctuary cities in the country.
“The dinner is just a time when people can come together and new people can be embraced by a community,” said Linda Bronstein, senior case manager at IRIS.
While the event is formally a Thanksgiving celebration, it will fall in the middle of the holiday season to encompass other holidays such as Hanukkah and Christmas. The dinner is tentatively set for Dec. 10.
In its early years, the dinner featured traditional American Thanksgiving dishes, from roasted turkey and stuffing to cranberry sauce. The meal was cooked by IRIS volunteers, many of whom help organize the event each year.
But after a few years, IRIS staff members noticed that the refugees did not seem to enjoy the food, leaving large amounts of it untouched. The team decided that they needed to find a way to make the event more enjoyable for the people they were trying to welcome. They began asking the refugees themselves to cook and bring their favorite dishes to the dinner, turning the event into a communal potluck, said Laurel McCormack, acculturation programs coordinator for IRIS.
“This gives them a stake in a holiday that they don’t yet know much about,” she said.
Last year’s dishes included baklava, variations on chicken and rice and cardamom-spiced curries. IRIS volunteers also included the traditional Thanksgiving fare.
While refugees cook most of the food, IRIS staff provide them with the necessary ingredients, which are donated or paid for by IRIS volunteers.
The event’s new format also makes refugees feel more welcomed by catering to their cultural beliefs, according to Executive Director Chris George. Almost all of the food at the dinner is now halal — meaning that it is in accordance with Islamic law. As a result, those dishes do not have pork, alcohol or hindquarter meat, among other prohibited items.
In addition to Syrian refugees, the event also attracts immigrants from other countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Azhar Ahmed, a Sudanese refugee who arrived in New Haven last June, said she plans to attend the celebration next month for her second time. She said the event last year was “lots of fun,” and she plans to contribute her own dish this year.
While Ahmed learned about American holidays such as Thanksgiving before she arrived in the States, most new refugees are not aware of such traditions, she said.
The annual gathering also holds meaning for IRIS staff members and volunteers. Bronstein said the event gives her the opportunity to reconnect with clients she may not have seen in a while.
While the event is not public, the Yale Refugee Project, an undergraduate organization that works with IRIS, has been invited to attend the dinner in past years.
Danilo Zak ’18, who serves as YRP’s direct assistance head, will be attending the dinner for the third year next month. He said he enjoys the event for bringing together refugees of all ages and nationalities from across the community.
“The event gives a good reminder that Thanksgiving is a time for everyone,” Zak said.
This year’s celebration will likely occur at the First Baptist Church on Edwards Street.