For many, Thanksgiving involves traveling to spend time with family and loved ones around the dinner table eating turkey and green bean casserole. It’s a time to watch football and reflect on everything you’re thankful for.
But for international students in the US, Thanksgiving is unknown territory.
That was the issue for Susana Orrego Villegas and her husband, Edward White, who recently moved from Colombia to Brookline, Massachusetts, a few miles southwest of Boston.
Both are international students on student visas. Orrego Villegas is studying for a Master’s degree in Global Health Delivery at Harvard Medical School, while White studies English.
When Orrego Villegas’s fellow classmates began discussing their Thanksgiving plans she got curious about this American tradition, since Colombia does not have a holiday like Thanksgiving.
So, she opened her Nextdoor app to ask for some help.
On October 26 she posted a photo of her and her husband asking if anyone was willing to share Thanksgiving dinner with them. In the post she wrote, “We are a super lovely couple and want to know more about American culture. I want to have our first traditional thanksgiving with an American family.”
And the neighbors weren’t shy. Within a few days more than 100 people commented, some from across town.
“I made the post with no expectations, only for people to give us recommendations of restaurants,” Orrego Villegas told CNN.
Welcoming others to the table
With the outpouring of invites, Orrego Villegas explained that it was difficult for them to decide where to spend the holiday. They messaged back and forth with many people to get to know them and narrowed it down to about 30 options.
Nurse practitioner Carol Lesser, who lives 10 minutes away from the couple, was the chosen host.
“She got a lot of offers of where to go,” Lesser told CNN. “I told her, ‘Wow we won the lottery, you guys are coming to us!’”
And for Lesser the decision to open her home to the couple was easy.
“I woke up one morning and saw it come across my feed and I had this instantaneous reaction to reach out,” she said. “This beautiful woman’s post spoke to me. She had a genuine curiosity in what we do here for the holidays.”
Lesser has always gathered with family during the holidays and, for more than a decade now, has been the hostess of the dinner.
“If anybody comes to Thanksgiving in my house and enjoys it, they can always come back,” she said. “My mom always made room at the table if somebody didn’t have a place to go, so I was raised that way.”
This isn’t her first time opening her home to strangers. Lesser told CNN that for nearly 30 years she’s been renting rooms out in her house to international students in the area.
“When I was young, I traveled and if it wasn’t for the kindness of strangers I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did about the cultures.” Lesser added.
This year the table will be set for more than 20 people, as Lesser’s extended family and new Colombian friends gather.
If neighbors weren’t available on Thanksgiving Day, they offered to meet up with Orrego Villegas and White another time. In fact, they’ve already met two families.
“The people were super friendly,” Orrego Villegas said. “One family gave us an American heritage book and the other showed us pictures of when they visited Colombia.”
Orrego Villegas and Lesser both say this experience has given them hope about the community.
Orrego Villegas says her view on Bostonians has changed, “Here in Boston my first impression was that many people don’t say hello on the streets. After this post I realized that people are super kind and welcoming.”
Lesser said, “It’s a no-brainer for me, to act as though what you do makes a difference. It does. I like seeing times where it feels like a sense of normalcy where we can reach out, we can trust each other.”
As for the future of this friendship, both hope to stay in contact past the holiday season.
“I hope we will meet again, and I would love to experience food from her country as well,” Lesser said.