If you ever need to re-affirm your faith in humanity, stop by a Thanksgiving meal for refugees.
When you walk in the door of your local resettlement office, it will likely be chaotic. If it is anything like my office, 300 people will be funneling in and out all day. Big families from places like Afghanistan, Congo, Burma and Iraq will be talking to case managers, playing in a children's area, and enjoying a multicultural feast in the boardrooms. You will see every age group, and overhear dozens of languages. Many will want to practice their English and resettlement staff will be talking with them slowly, welcoming each to their first Thanksgiving. You will hear the staff trying to explain a holiday about being thankful to a room full of people who are there because of war, persecution or natural disaster.
Of the world's 50 million displaced persons, the refugees in the room are part of the .5 percent that have been invited by the U.S. government to rebuild their lives in the United States. Many have gone through years of waiting in camps or cities before being given permission to resettle here in Montgomery County, Maryland. On the wall there will be a piece of paper taped up that says: "Write What You Are Thankful For!" As the day goes on, it will be filled with: safety, clean water, freedom of speech, keeping my family together.
The meal is great, but if you really want to have your faith restored, you should also come to the office the day before the event. Interns will be coming in with turkeys their parents helped them make, while staff and volunteers will fill the office refrigerator with stuffing or casseroles they want to share. The owner of a local café will bring by dozens of pies. Out of all the restaurants nearby, he has the smallest café and was the first to say yes to donating.
It won't just be food. In our office, we also give out winter clothing to refugees experiencing their first winter in the states. Parents from local elementary schools know this and will drop off clothing they have just spent the last month collecting. Church groups will bring by coats with handwritten labels and pieces of ribbon on each bag indicating size and age. They will include a special bag of handmade hats and scarves knitted by their "Compassion Committee." Art students will be setting up the children's corner. They have spent some time thinking of the perfect craft and decided on pinecone turkeys with googly eyes and feathers. Someone will donate flowers for the middle of the table. Everyone will stay late to set up.
The night before the event is great but if you absolutely want to have your faith in humanity restored you should really come to the office on a regular day out of the year. You can sit in on classes about how to use the bus, watch refugees preparing for job interviews, or see them learning how to enroll their children in school. You will watch them talking to service staff and interpreters -- many themselves former refugees. You might hear "inkuwan desaleh!" and ask what is happening (it means congratulations). An Ethiopian client is about to be reunited with his family. Someone else just got their first job.
The successes will be there but so will the challenges. The longer you stay, the more you will hear in their voices that they are truly thankful but also scared and far from home. They are part of a resettlement program that makes a real difference but would be better with more funding and support.
There is so much wrong in our world today. There have never been this many simultaneous conflicts or so many reasons for people to seek refuge away from home. There are more refugees since World War II and the number is only growing. Soon, we may have Syrians in our office's waiting room. As we watch the news and see millions uprooted, we wonder which few we will work with in the coming years, and what will happen to the rest.
In a time where the world continues to be wrought with nonstop upheaval, there are not many moments to stop and give thanks. It is something though, to be in a room with people directly affected by these issues. They have lost loved ones -- mostly to preventable conflicts or turmoil -- and will still find ways to see what is good. They are kind and resilient. They try again and again.
Go to a Thanksgiving meal for refugees. Or go bigger: support your local resettlement office throughout the year. You will never be prouder to be part of a country that has a history of offering refuge. You will never feel more human. And I promise, you will never feel more thankful.
*To donate to the International Rescue Committee's resettlement work in Silver Spring Maryland, click here.
* To learn about the International Rescue Committee's work worldwide, click here.