CULTURAL CORNUCOPIA: African center hosts annual refugee Thanksgiving paused by pandemic

 

AURORA | Curry, naan, rice pilaf and baklava probably aren’t on most people’s plates for Thanksgiving dinner, but those were some of the options being served up Monday night at the Summit Event Center in Aurora.

The EDCD African Community Center’s 17th annual refugee Thanksgiving brought together newly arrived refugees and humanitarian parolees from across the globe to experience what for many is their first American Thanksgiving.

It was the first time the event had been held since the pandemic started, which made it particularly special. Refugee resettlement isn’t something that can be done remotely, said ACC development manager Maria Farrier, so the lack of opportunities to build community was a challenge.

The ACC reached out via email and phone to all the people it’s worked with in the past three years to invite them to the dinner, she said. Between two dinner shifts, over 900 dinner guests and volunteers participated.

The dinner included traditional staples such as turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans, including halal options, and ethnic food from a variety of cultures. Half the food was prepared by volunteers by different faith groups and the rest was catered by businesses owned by immigrants and refugees, including Zin Zin’s Burmese Cuisine, Jebena Ethiopian Coffee & Culture and The Cuban Coffee Break.

The Highlands Ranch stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Downtown Denver Islamic Center were two of the religious groups that had volunteered — traditional Thanksgiving fare from the LDS and chicken kebabs, rice and salad from the Islamic Center.

Imam Muhammad Kolida said that the Islamic Center has been volunteering at the dinner since 2018, and was glad to be back post-pandemic. Their offerings appeared to be popular with guests.

“I think we’re running out of food,” he said.

Aleksei Kolesnikov, who photographed the event for the ACC, is a former client of the center. A native of Belarus, which has been controlled by dictator Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, Kolesnikov and his family moved to the U.S. in 2016 because he wanted his children to have more opportunities.

“ACC was a great support when we arrived,” he said.

Anit Koirala, the DJ, also had a connection to the ACC. Koirala and his family arrived in the U.S. in 2012 from Nepal where they had been living in a camp for Bhutanese refugee camp for his entire life. He was part of the first cohort of the ACC’s college preparedness program for refugee youth, and graduated recently from CU Boulder.

He’s been deejay-ing the dinner for the past five years, which he said he always looks forward to. On Monday he was using YouTube to cue up a selection of songs in English, Arabic, Swahili, Burmese and other languages from around the world.

“It’s always a fun experience when people come to you and say ‘hey, can you play my country’s song?’” he said.

Before leaving, each refugee family received a bag of toiletry gifts and a bag of groceries, which were assembled by volunteers. Match grant caseworker Anna Hanel said toiletries were selected because they can’t be purchased using food stamps, which many families are on when they first arrive and are searching for work.

Now that the event is over, Hanel said there are still plenty of ways community members can help out new arrivals. The ACC has options for individuals and groups to volunteer with refugees, and it accepts certain new and used items, including kitchenware and furniture in good condition. It also has a goal of raising $45,000 by Colorado Gives Day on Dec. 6.

With the number of people the ACC is currently working with, Hanel said the support is more important than ever.

“We’re getting a lot of people this year,” she said.

After years of low resettlement numbers during the Trump administration, the amount of people the ACC has helped has skyrocketed over the past year, in part due to the fall of the Afghanistan government last year and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The majority of people the ACC currently is helping resettle are from Ukraine, Cuba and Afghanistan, development manager Maria Farrier said.

In the 2022 past fiscal year, the ACC helped resettle more people than it had in the four previous fiscal years before than combined, Farrier said. The increase has been both stressful and rewarding.

“It was challenging but we were really happy to play a role,” she said.

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