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The first Thanksgiving comes every year for new immigrants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 28, 2013 - Typically, the concept of the first Thanksgiving conjures images of Pilgrims and Native Americans, turkeys and pumpkin pie.

For “Mina” Zahra Abdollahi, it is about all that and so much more, as she explained before an early Thanksgiving at the International Institute.

Originally from Iran, the 39-year-old former journalist said she left her homeland after repeated incidents of discrimination in the work place. During her career, Abdollahi said she worked for a newspaper and two news agencies.

Abdollahi said she left Iran because she was repeatedly fired for not wearing traditional attire, for joining a pro-women’s rights organization and for simply being female. She said she had concerns when friends were arrested.

“In my country, there was no cultural freedom,” she said. Even social relationships were scrutinized, she said.

She escaped to Turkey two years ago, where she taught computer science to other refugees. Last August, she arrived here in St. Louis to be close to her brother.

“I’m free here to believe what I want, to think what I want,” she said.

And she thinks that St. Louis is a welcoming community, but often too hot and humid. The colder weather, however, is not all she likes about winter. Now that she is here in the U.S., she likes the tradition of Thanksgiving and the melding of different cultures.

“I like the ceremony, the people coming together,” Abdollahi said. “It is a good feeling being here.”

Weam Alga, 25, and her friend, Basmah Alsaad, 28, share Abdollahi’s feelings.

They came here from Iraq with their husbands, and the Alsaads have their two young sons. This will be Alga’s first Thanksgiving.  

“My husband worked with the Americans in Iraq, helped them,” Alga said. “And so we needed to leave.”

As she spoke in Arabic, she would smile broadly and turn to Alsaad, who would translate for her.

The pair found each other here and soon discovered they have quite a bit in common: their struggle to learn English, their husbands’ job searches and their clear delight at being in America, St. Louis and most especially, at the International Institute.

Within the walls of this organization, the women and their families have found community. The Institute focuses on educating adult foreign newcomers to the city. All three women, Alga’s and Alsaad's husbands and countless others have developed their lofty dreams of what it is to be American into tangible aspirations and understanding of our culture.

Although she has not been in the country long, Alsaad’s spoken English is impressive. Her husband too worked for the American army as a translator in Iraq, and eventually they were forced to flee.

Wearing colorful traditional headscarves and attire, both women embrace their Iraqi culture but focus squarely on their future and their present.

On Tuesday, the three women and about 300 other immigrants joined Mayor Francis Slay to share their first Thanksgiving meal at the International Institute of St. Louis on South Grand.

The International Institute offers immigrants and refugees who come to St. Louis from all over the world a wide range of services to help them become acclimated to their new city and country, as well as prepare them to become U.S. citizens.

With the assistance of Alsaad, Alga said she would like to learn enough English to earn a high school diploma and then attend college. She said she has hopes of becoming an engineer or a dentist. In the short term, she would like to see her husband find work. He, too, attends classes and is learning about America, our culture and our language.

Alga, Alsaad and Abdollahi participated in a special assembly program before sitting down to Thanksgiving lunch. During the program, Slay expressed empathy for their situation.

“I know it cannot be easy to be uprooted from the land from which you came,” he said. Slay recalled his grandparents and their stories of coming to America.

He stressed that all of the newcomers are welcome here and that they add to the culture of our city and the surrounding metropolitan community.

“This is the land of opportunity,” he said. “We appreciate people who come into our city.”

After he spoke, the Institute leaders gave out chicken dinners to six individuals who had successfully determined measurements and amounts based on elements traditional for the holiday.

Before the event, students were shown a table laden with produce and grain commonly consumed at Thanksgiving. Each made educated guesses about how many pounds of potatoes were on the table, how large the circumference of a pumpkin they presented was. The participants also had the chance to consider how many cups of rice they provided and how many nuts were in a vase.

The program concluded with the group singing moving rendition of This Land is Your Land. Students stood, some clutching pink pieces of paper with the lyrics. Others watch a slide presentation on a screen at one end of the room.

All stood and sang – students, teachers, the mayor and other dignitaries and native St. Louisans.

The song represents the goal for those present, especially the newcomers. They, like countless souls before them, have moved to this country in search of a better life, and along the way have found that with some pumpkin pie, that life can be sweeter, too.