New immigrants and refugees get their first taste of an American vacation thanks to HIAS Pennsylvania

Abdullah Amarkhail left everything behind in his home country of Afghanistan – his family, his friends, his career.

“Even my hope,” said the 31-year-old.

He has lived in South Philadelphia for the past six months, supported by HIAS Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization that provides legal, social services and other support to new immigrants and refugees. On Sunday, the organization hosted a Potluck Thanksgiving dinner at the Old Pine Community Center in Society Hill for their clients who came to the United States over the past year.

For many, including Amarkhail, who enjoyed a plate of turkey and sides, it’s the first Thanksgiving in the United States.

» READ MORE: Some immigrants will remain in Philly for a time after being brought here by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

“This is my family now,” Amarkhail said, waving to the dozens of workers and volunteers who were there to celebrate the upcoming holiday with him and others like him. “This is my country. These are my people.”

HIAS Pennsylvania has been hosting Thanksgiving dinners for nearly two decades, said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, the group Managing Director. But Sunday’s event marked the first time since the pandemic that HIAS has held the event in person. For the last two years it only offered virtual programming.

It’s nice, Miller-Wilson said, but nothing like being together.

“It’s such a great final step on the road to integration into the United States,” Miller-Wilson said of the event. “Everyone who has come over the past year, come, break your bread, learn about this uniquely American holiday, and officially begin your life in America.”

» READ MORE: Parents who fled Afghanistan are naming their new baby after the Philadelphia woman who helped them

Part of the learning was literature about the painful past that the indigenous population also had to endure.

The dinner came amid two of the largest immigration events in Philadelphia since the Vietnam War: the permanent resettlement of about 5,000 Afghan evacuees in the region following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the arrival of at least 10,000 Ukrainians fleeing the past nine months of the war in their Hometown.

Philadelphia was also in the immigration spotlight last week when a bus carrying 28 migrants from Texas, dispatched by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to bring what he described as “much-needed assistance to Texas’ struggling border communities,” arrived. a move that locals support and criticize as unfair to families legally residing in the country.

Approximately 100 HIAS Pennsylvania customers and 50 employees and volunteers attended the Thanksgiving dinner, which ran from 3 to 5 p.m

Among them was Shammas Shamaun, 52, who arrived in the United States from Pakistan in 2017 and had not seen his wife and sons until they were able to enter the country two months ago. Their arrival has been delayed in part by the pandemic, he said.

» READ MORE: Afghan evacuees are crushed by grief. An agency in Philadelphia is trying to help.

“When I left them,” he said of his sons, “they were so small.”

For the first time, Shamaun enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner together his wife Sittara, 51, and sons Seth, 18, and Shobal, 17.

“That’s what Thanksgiving means to me,” said Shamaun, who works in information technology and lives in Northeast Philadelphia. “My family is here. I thank God for that.”

He said he left Pakistan because he and his family are Christians, where there is a religious minority, and their lives are in danger.

On Sunday they were all smiling and just happy to be together. It was also the first time his wife and sons had had turkey.

“That’s good. It’s like chicken,” said Shobal, who plans to attend Fels High School with his brother.

Amarkhail also liked the turkey. Dinner brought welcome relief from the hard, lonely path he has chosen in coming to a new land.

He said he worked in the presidential administration in Pakistan on higher education issues but left the country because he wanted to live in a democracy.

Amarkhail plans to get a business degree and start a life of his own. He has a new hope.

“I want to be a good citizen,” he said.

Staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.