It was a bit early for Thanksgiving dinner — being only Nov. 11 — but no one at Old Pine Community Center in Society Hill seemed to mind. It did, all things considered, compare favorably to fleeing for your life.
The guests were about 180 refugees from some of the more war-torn parts of the world, like Sudan, and from places where human rights are not to be taken for granted, like Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. The community center, in collaboration with immigrant service organization HIAS Pennsylvania and the Society Hill Synagogue, had invited them for the customary holiday meal. For many, it was their first Thanksgiving.
Asadick Emo, for one, was ready to embrace the tradition. A 22-year-old refugee from Sudan who lived in a camp in Kenya for six years, he’s more than ready to leave the past behind. “You don’t feel free there,” he said of his time in the camp. “You feel like someone’s always going to attack you. … It is not a good place.” Emo, who has been in the U.S. since February, prefers to think of his future: He’s finishing high school and hopes to become a doctor.
Halfway through the dinner, one of the coordinators called for a moment of silence and gratitude. “We have each other. … Many of you have new lives.” While some in the room did not understand her speech — about half the guests spoke no English — the sentiment was widely shared. “All people will be your friends here,” said Bsakta Gurung, a refugee from Nepal who immigrated with his wife, daughters and grandchildren five years ago.
But for others, this optimism is tempered by the restrictions that come with living in a new country. “We have a saying about the U.S.A.: ‘U Start Again,’” said Madhav Sherma, a refugee from Bhutan who spent 20 years in a camp in Nepal. He left behind a job as a professor. It will be five years before he can become a citizen in America; he can never return to Bhutan, where his citizenship was stripped and he is now considered an “anti-national.”
“Not having a citizenship right is, I think, as bad as death,” Sherma said. “That’s why we are hopeful that, after five years in America, our people will be able to get their citizenship, will be able to exercise their freedom and liberty and right.”