For 250 refugees, a first Thanksgiving feast in Tampa hit all the right notes

Church organizers and nonprofit groups bring together 250 refugees for an interfaith Thanksgiving feast, multiculturalism front and center and gravy on the side
Published November 20
Updated November 20

TAMPA — A little boy, maybe two, ambled by in stocking feet, tiny white sneakers clutched in one hand, looking a bit disoriented. People pushed back from their tables, orange turkey paper plates glossy with gravy and fringed with stuffing. As per Thanksgivings everywhere, it was days of planning and strategy, hours of cooking, for what amounts to 15 minutes of focused eating.

Only this one was bigger. Much bigger. Nearly 250 people filled every table at the University of South Florida Gibbons Alumni Center on Sunday afternoon. For almost all, this was a first Thanksgiving spread. They came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Eritrea. They were largely frightened of green bean casserole, dubious about mac and cheese. But there was no way these refugees were inured to the love and welcoming kindness of the dozens of volunteers and event coordinators.

The organizers started talking about putting together an interfaith Thanksgiving feast more than a year ago. Leaders from churches and Islamic advocacy groups met; they in turn met with folks from the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force.

What they realized was that all Abrahamic traditions — that’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam and more — espouse mutual understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

“And they all proclaim that despite our difference, all of our traditions preach love of human kind and service to humanity,” said Hyde Park United Methodist pastor Sally Campbell-Evans.

The gathering of refugees of different faiths in some sense echoed that very first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in November 1621. It was a celebration of difference, and also of newfound homeland. These people in the faith community and in local nonprofits were in agreement. Just one fly in the ointment: Who was going to do the food?

Will Wellman of Palma Ceia Presbyterian was family friends with Michelle Baker of the Refinery in Seminole Heights. He suggested she come to a planning meeting, at which she asked simply, “Do you want me to ask some of my chef friends if they will participate?”

He did, and they did. Chef Greg Baker, Michelle’s husband, roasted the turkeys and made the gravy, Marty Blitz of Mise en Place contributed the mashed potatoes. Habteab Hamde of Bern’s Steak House did the stuffing. Ferrell Alvarez of Rooster & the Till whipped up those green beans. Chad Johnson did Hoppin’ John for Elevage and mac and cheese for Haven, and the list kept growing.

“Michelle and Greg are friends, so the answer was yes,” Johnson said. “We get multiple asks a day, but regardless of your politics, you’ve got to agree this was for a good cause.”

At the dinner, Julien Shindano, 28, sat at a low table, taking notes in the margins of two printed sheets. He wore a crisp navy-blue blazer and wildly colorful printed pants in shades of teal and mustard.

He arrived in the United States a month ago and is awaiting a work visa. He lost his family at 9 during the Six-Day War in 2000, a series of battles between Ugandan and Rwandan Army forces in his home city of Kisangani in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

He was sometimes on the streets, sometimes housed by social services. He grew up and worked for the United Nations, but fled his country five years ago to a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, the same camp where the “Lost Boys of Sudan” were settled before coming to the United States. During an attack in the camp, Shindano was burned on his legs and subsequently relocated to Nairobi, where he worked as a barber and a masseur.

“I learned to work with my hands. It was hard, no family, no jobs.”

He applied for a resettlement visa to come to the United States. Now he’s here, in an apartment near Busch Gardens.

“I will look for work as a barber or in a spa,” he said. “But I have a bigger vision that needs education. I would like to work with children promoting human rights. I pray to my god.”

Shindano translated the day’s program into Swahili. Ghadir Kassab of Radiant Hands Tampa, an organization that help Muslim women gain independence, provided the Arabic translation. They listened patiently as Aida Mackic of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told a parable of sorts from The Little Prince, the story about how the fox and the prince slowly, gradually learn to trust each other.

First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day.

There were prayers from Hebrew scriptures, the Quran and the Bible.

And as the adults continued talking, the hundred or so children and teens in attendance glazed over, an international phenomenon. Congolese girls in vibrant, spangled head scarves swung their legs under their chairs. A few kids peered at cell phone screens, but far more roamed the room in little packs, arms slung around necks.

And after everyone had passed through the buffet, volunteers from different congregations and from the Plant High School football team explicating and cajoling (“you put the gravy on the turkey and stuffing; it’s good, try it”), it was time for dessert.

A Syrian girl named Shaheda, the designated translator for her big family, wore a pretty red dress and a big smile. She pointed at what looked like baklava, gently declining a wedge of pumpkin pie.

The USF Dabke dancers performed a foot-stomping Middle Eastern dance, after which a group of Congolese dancers got up to do a sinuous and contemporary choreographed number, audience members joining in.

And then it was time to go home, to their new homes. Wellman and his volunteers began packing up leftovers in disposable tin containers, urging them on the assembled guests. What these refugees may not yet know is that what is left over from Thanksgiving is sometimes the best part.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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