Refugees celebrate First Thanksgiving in America

by MATT BERGSTROM

  • Virtually attend the First Thanksgiving celebration.

Each of us probably has many unique memories of Thanksgiving, but they probably all centered on turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and family. We remember the pilgrims who broke bread with their native hosts in this new land. And eventually we go around the table and take turns naming things for which we are grateful. Family, friends, freedom, the list goes on, and these are just the Fs.

But who remembers their first Thanksgiving? All the memories seem to blend together over the years, the result of too much stuffing and tryptophan-induced comas. Most of us likely can’t recall the first time we tasted cranberry sauce, or watched with trepidation as dad carved the bird; cautiously keeping his fingers clear of the blade.

For the thousands of refugees who come to this country every year, these experiences are as foreign to them as their many languages and traditions are to us.

That’s why this year the International Rescue Committee and American Express decided to hold a First Thanksgiving celebration for new refugees.

The First Thanksgiving is a new national celebration organized by the IRC’s corporate headquarters in New York. Salt Lake was one of three cities to host a dinner, along with Boston and Phoenix. American Express offered to house the Salt Lake event Thursday, Nov. 18, at its Taylorsville office.

Smiling volunteers and employees from the IRC greeted refugees arriving at their first Thanksgiving dinner. Once checked in they were ushered through the spacious lobby of American Express’ office past an 8-foot-tall Statue of Liberty. Just beyond the statue lay a long red carpet rolled out for the guests of honor.

Servers greeted guests along the red carpet and offered them drinks and appetizers as the refugee families meandered closer to the office lunchroom that had been transformed into a banquet hall for the evening.

All the while the journey down the hallway was accompanied by a Middle Eastern melody. At the end of the carpet, two men, Iraqi refugees, sang while one of them kept time on a small, Yamaha keyboard. An older Iraqi woman stopped to listen and sing along to the music as everyone else arriving followed suit.

The long hallway continued to fill with people as those arriving paused to admire the black and white photographs propped on easels along the carpet. Pictures of women and children, mothers and their newborn babies, stood single file on either side of the red carpet like members of a reception line.

This exhibit of photos was the premier of The Newest Americans series by Salt Lake-based photographer Stanna Frampton.

Frampton is a longtime friend of Patrick Poulin, the IRC’s Salt Lake resettlement director. For years she had asked Poulin if there was some way she could help him in his work. They came up with the idea of photographing the newest Americans, children born to refugee mothers. She began taking the photographs a year ago. Frampton said it was difficult at first because many of the mothers didn’t fully understand why someone wanted to take their picture.

Frampton recalls a Somali woman in particular who was so nervous to be in the studio it was all the photographer could do to get her to smile. Every time the woman would begin to laugh she would cover her face. Yet the resulting photograph is one of the most memorable of the series. The slender young woman in a long dark gown shields her smiling face from the camera as her young child lies lazily against her shoulder.

Every photograph has an interesting story, Frampton said. She asked each of the mothers a series of questions about their new life in America during the shoot. When she asked them how they felt knowing their babies were born American citizens they were unanimously overjoyed.

Frampton has found her own joy in getting to know these new mothers. “I have learned so much,” she said. “I’m still learning.”

Joy spilled over from the refugees, government officials, and refugee service providers as they all continued to spill into the banquet hall. More than 20 finely dressed tables filled the large room that usually accommodated American Expresses employees on their breaks.

The music died down as the nearly 200 guests began taking their seats.

George Biddle, executive vice-president of the IRC, emceed the evening. Biddle took a moment to thank all the participants and especially those who helped plan the event. He then introduced Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and former Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis. DePaulis, who was recently appointed director of community and culture by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., appeared behalf of the governor who was celebrating his wedding anniversary.

Corroon and DePaulis presented proclamations, one from the county and one from the state, declaring Nov. 14, through Nov. 20, Refugee Appreciation and Celebration Week.

Next, Janet Harris, vice president of development for the IRC, addressed the crowd. Harris related a story about taking a taxi from the airport to her hotel in Salt Lake. Her cab driver happened to be a Somali refugee who was resettled by the IRC a few years ago.

She asked the driver how he liked his new life here. He told her he was happy because he has three things here he did not have at home: freedom, opportunity and safety.

Harris revealed why the IRC decided to hold it’s largest event in conjunction with Thanksgiving. “All cultures have some form of harvest holiday,” she said. “So there is common ground there.”

She then reminded everyone about the pilgrim’s very first Thanksgiving; a dinner held by a group of people who had been forced to leave their homes in search of freedom, opportunity and safety.

With the speeches done it was time for the entertainment.

A group of women and young girls from Burundi and Rwanda performed rollicking native dances in traditional costumes.

They were followed by a quartet of young Burundian men in green and white robes, each with a tall drum. The men set up their instruments on stage and began a 20-minute marathon of intense drumming and call-and-response shouts. By the time they were done they were drenched with sweat and the audience was as excited from their robust meal and lively entertainment.

As the evening wound down the attendees discussed their new memories. Their reveries were filled with hope of future events and newborn traditions. This Thanksgiving dinner was a bit different from the traditional memories of the holiday so many have, but the new memories it provided for it’s guests, both the refugee families and the others there, will surely be no less poignant and no less meaningful.

The smiling faces leaving the American Express building that evening may have seemed foreign and each was unquestionably different, but as Patrick Poulin pointed out earlier that evening, whether you say markozy, banyaba, or ji shu tin baday, it still just means thanks.

Refugee caseworkers work long hours in Salt Lake City

by MICHAEL OLSON

Originally from Rwanda, Africa, Valentine Mukundente and her parents were relocated to Salt Lake City as refugees. Before they came to America, however, Mukundente and her family were sent to a refugee camp in Zambia where she spent her high school years. In Zambia, Mukundente worked as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees while her family waited to be relocated to America. She had learned French and Swahili as a child in Rwanda and English while in high school.

Mukundente is a resettlement caseworker at the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. She has worked there for more than a year.

“I love working with refugees because I used to be one,” said Mukundente. Armed with experience as a refugee she is able to keep from getting burned out from the extreme demands on her time as a caseworker. Instead, she finds it easy to relate to the refugees she helps because she was a refugee herself.

Life as a refugee caseworker is not easy on family life. Mukundente recently married a man she knew from Rwanda. He came here as a refugee and now they have a 6-month-old baby boy.

“It’s difficult because we don’t have time to go home,” Mukundente said about their schedules. Sometimes they have to pick up a refugee family from the Salt Lake International Airport in the middle of the night.

Caseworkers take them to their new house and show them how to use the stove and other appliances. This is the first time most Africans and Burmese have seen a stove or a light switch, Mukundente said.

Sometimes refugees will visit the IRC’s downtown office on 400 South to ask questions or for help reading their mail, often just as Mukundente is on her way out the door to go home to her family. But she gladly stays late to help them. After all, she used to be a refugee herself.

Seven caseworkers are currently employed at the IRC. Mukundente is responsible for 30 cases, but some caseworkers handle as many as 70 cases at a time.

“That’s too much,” she said. If she were to focus on one of her 30 cases a day, it would take a month to get through them all.

A case may consist of a single refugee, or it could be an entire family, some with as many as 11 members.

Caseworkers at the Asian Association of Utah are just as busy. Lina Smith, the director of Utah Refugee Employment and the Community Center at the Asian Association, supervises six caseworkers, who handle between 50 and 70 cases each.

Smith has been with the Asian Association for eight years. Five of the six caseworkers she employs are currently or were at one time refugees.

“I find the refugees don’t get as burned out,” Smith said. “They have been through what the people in their cases are going through.” That motivates them to get the refugees through the difficult process of adjusting to life in Utah.

Of all the places for refugees to be resettled, Utah is one of the best locations in the nation, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“People here tend to be willing to help,” Brown said. Some social workers have a tendency to become jaded, but that seems to happen less in Utah.

Brown said that the perfect workload would be 20 cases for every caseworker. Because of the shortage of caseworkers it is very important that they set boundaries to avoid getting burned out.

For example, caseworkers decide whether to give out their personal contact information.

“I have some caseworkers that give out their cell phone numbers and then they have to choose whether to answer it or not,” Smith said.

The IRC’s Mukundente usually chooses not to give out her cell phone number, but some refugees still find it out from friends who know their number.

When they call they usually just have a question that can be taken care of later. Mukundente asks the refugee if it can wait until during work hours when they can talk about it. If it is a genuine emergency, such as when a child falls and breaks his arm, Mukundente directs the family to call 911 or a person at the IRC who handles emergency situations and can translate for the refugees.

“We tell them when they first get here to call 911 in an emergency, but they forget,” Mukundente said. “The first person on their minds is their caseworker.”

Despite the stress and the long hours, Mukundente loves her job.

“People have something in their blood, something they like to do,” she said. “This is not a job you do for money. You do it because you love it.”