For his family’s first experience with a traditional Thanksgiving meal, Wahidullah Asghary had to explain to his children what turkey is: “I said, ‘turkey is like a big chicken.’”
Asghary, a former translator and interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan, came to the United States on a special immigrant visa in September 2020. He brought his four children, who tried to learn English while enrolled in what was then all-virtual school at the time. His wife joined them five months later.
Thursday was the first time they had been invited by an American household to experience a Thanksgiving meal.
“Every homeland, every nation, every people, every person, they have got a culture or tradition, right? So it is our first time, and now we want to learn a little bit about what this is, really,” Asghary said.
Their host, Kiki Nagy, volunteers for Miry’s List, a Southern California-based group that helps refugee families settle in the U.S. In August, during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Miry’s List enrolled more than 20 refugee families, about five times the number of families compared to the month before. Next year, the organization is working to prepare to help more than 300 families settle in Southern California.
Nagy had asked the organization’s founder, Miry Whitehill, if she could host an Afghan family for their first Thanksgiving. She was connected with the Asgharys, whom she had never met until the day of the feast.
Nagy made a big turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes and spinach. But she also prepared a halal lamb to make sure the Asghary family could have something familiar to eat. Asghary said his daughter, especially, liked all the food.
Nagy was eager to not only introduce them to Thanksgiving dishes, but to also show them the tradition of giving thanks.
“From the right and the left, everyone is kind of like, ‘America has got problems – x, y, z,” Nagy said. “In the midst of this conflicting cultural moment, this narrative of division that we hear so much about, that there is something essential to the American experience that is rooted in gratitude, that is rooted in the volunteerism that you leave your country, you leave a situation and you come here with sometimes very little – sometimes with nothing. And you start over. And you create this opportunity for your family.”
Asghary said they have much to be thankful for: “We may have more opportunities in our life in our hands. So of course the foremost example is this, that we are together. Family.”
He said they’re lucky his wife was able to join them before so many others tried to make a chaotic exit in August during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The image of the many families trying to escape Afghanistan in August especially resonated with another guest at the same Thanksgiving party, Tam Van Tran.
Tran, a friend of Nagy’s, was a refugee from Vietnam in 1975. Tran told CNN he and his siblings arrived in the U.S. one week before the fall of Saigon.
“When I saw the photo of the Afghans and the cargo plane, it reminded me very much of just – I was in the same, but it was a gigantic cargo ship,” Tran said.
When Tran came to California, he was about the same age as Asghary’s oldest children. He said he and his siblings escaped initially without their parents, so they were welcomed in the home of Richard and Rejean Schulte, a foster family in Mountain View, California.
He said he could offer the Asgharys a warm welcome: “Brotherhood and camaraderie. In a sense, you know…I went through that experience in ’75.”
Like at many holiday gatherings across the country, several people at the table were at one point new to the country and had to learn American traditions. And many of them worked to seize the opportunity available in their new home country.
Asghary said he tells his children, “We are here for you, the United States is here for you, and everything you have got in your hand. What are you going to do is you have to study. That’s it.”
Nagy hopes one of their first lessons would be from their first Thanksgiving: “To see that that kind of tolerance is really possible in the United States and, um, I guess I would want them to feel, I would appreciate, that Americans are at heart, really a generous people.”