When Shatha Alshati had her first American Thanksgiving dinner, there was one particular item on her plate that gave her pause: the turkey. The former Iraqi refugee who arrived here in 2009, said that while there are turkeys in her home country, they aren’t frequently eaten.
A U.S. citizen as of April 2015, Alshati has perfected the art of serving a golden roasted turkey at the Thanksgiving dinners she now hosts.
“When I think back about it, when I first came, I didn’t know anything about Thanksgiving,” Alshati told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “Now, every year I’m inviting all my family to my house because I’m the oldest one in the family that I have here. I have another brother who arrived in 2013 here. It is really wonderful to be together and see each other. Especially after all these years, we start working and we’re all busy and sometimes we do not meet with each other. Thanksgiving is a really good time to meet with you family and get dinner with them and enjoy with them.”
Alshati works as a case specialist at the International Institute of St. Louis along with Ranga Nepal, another former refugee. They were joined by Anna Crosslin, the president and CEO of the organization.
Learning the story of Thanksgiving and celebrating, too
The International Institute hosted a “First Thanksgiving” luncheon for new refugees and immigrants settled in St. Louis on Tuesday during the noon hour. Crosslin said she expected around 300 guests, including community dignitaries such as St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
“They’re really excited about Thanksgiving, regardless of culture,” Crosslin said of refugees’ reactions to the quintessential American holiday. “Each culture has some sort of event or opportunity to give thanks. Thanksgiving in America means even more because these people have been in classes all morning long at the International Institute and then actually when they participate in the dinner, this is usually their very first one.”
IISTL hosts our annual Thanksgiving celebration. pic.twitter.com/NyxNRRVE99
— iistl (@iistl) November 24, 2015
Students at the International Institute spend weeks leading up to the holiday learning about its history, customs and what it means to Americans. Crosslin said that, currently, along the halls at the institute you’ll find refugees’ drawings depicting what they are thankful for compared to this time last year.
“What we’re trying to help people to do is to learn the language but also the customs so people feel integrated into the community,” Crosslin said. “If we don’t offer these kinds of opportunities, whether it is Thanksgiving or the significance of Martin Luther King Day or Fourth of July, then they feel disconnected. They don’t understand when the holidays come about.”
Alshati said that her clients often need extra coaching around Fourth of July because the sound of fireworks could often remind them of the sound of bombs, or something bad happening. On a lighter note, Crosslin said that Halloween can be equally as confusing. “They have no idea why people dress up in costumes like witches and skeletons and wander around the community demanding candy,” Crosslin said.
What new Americans are most thankful for
Nepal, a former Bhutanese refugee, lived in refugee camp in Nepal from 1993-2009, at which point he was resettled in St. Louis. In October of 2014, he became a citizen of the United States. He said that this Thanksgiving, he is most thankful to the U.S. government for giving him the opportunity to restart here.
“I was in the refugee camp for almost 20 years without any identity,” Nepal said. “No state. No country. No identity.”
Alshati originally left Iraq in 2006 and became a refugee in Egypt, where she immediately applied with the U.N. to be resettled. In 2009, she was resettled in the U.S. and wanted to be in St. Louis because that was where her brother lived.
Crosslin said that the experiences of Alshati and Nepal highlight the many hurdles refugees must jump before they’re admitted to the United States.
“There are actually 13 steps they have to cross from being designated initially by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees,” Crosslin said. “Biometric scans. Retina scans. Finger-printing. A variety of different issues including personal interviews to be able to ferret out fraud by interview teams overseas. It is a complex process and it can take years for it to actually happen. The average time between application and arrival in the United States is between 18 and 24 months.”
There are 20 million refugees around the world right now, Crosslin said. The U.N.’s top priority right now is holding people in refugee camps in hopes they can return to their home countries when peace is negotiated.
Both Nepal and Alshati said they were not sure when they would be able to return to their home countries, or if they would want to. Each has family that still lives in Iraq and Bhutan.
“I hope one day it will be fine and people will live in peace,” said Alshati, whose mother and sister still live in Iraq. “It is really hard to live there without any safety. It is a horrible situation over there. No utilities. There is nothing. No good education, many kinds of disease and health problems. I hope someday they’ll find the peace.”
Eyes on Syrian refugees
The Syrian refugee crisis is one that both Nepal and Alshati have kept their eyes on in recent years—both hope some amount of that population will be resettled in St. Louis.
“What’s happened hurts our hearts,” Alshati said. “We didn’t want it to go this way. I believe each one of them deserves a second chance. These people need help from different countries, especially from the United States. We cannot turn our back to them and ignore them and pretend we’re not hearing their voice.”
Crosslin, an outspoken advocate for bringing Syrian refugees to St. Louis, has been working with refugees for 38 years and said she has found surprising amounts of gratitude and eagerness to integrate with American culture from each person she’s worked with. She says she bristles when people ask her if she’s worried about her children, should Syrian refugees be resettled here.
“I’m more worried about them if they aren’t resettled,” Crosslin said. “What’s happening right now, the opposition around the world, whether it is ISIS or other groups, they’re trying to radicalize young people. It is easy to radicalize young people when they have no hope. What the American refugee program is, is a form of hope. It says to people ‘We haven’t turned our backs on you, we care about what’s going on in the rest of the world.’ As long as there is still that hope, we can build a better, stronger world.”
"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.