November 26, 2022

JTA – Four and a half feet of snow had just fallen in East Aurora, New York, but Kim Kaiser and her fellow volunteers at Jewish Family Services of Western New York weren’t about to compromise their Thanksgiving plans .

Those plans involved joining a community thanksgiving party Tuesday night, two days before the holiday, at the Ukrainian American Civic Center in Buffalo, along with a Ukrainian family of six that volunteers had been supporting since his arrival in the United States at the end of the summer.

The event, which was sponsored by the Buffalo branch of the Ukrainian American Congressional Committee, was open to all Ukrainian newcomers, their sponsors and their supporters. A buffet of traditional Thanksgiving foods was provided, along with musical accompaniment by a Ukrainian singer and pianist.

For Kaiser, the night was an essential milestone in his journey supporting recent immigrants who have come to the United States under duress. Last year, she began volunteering through Jewish Family Services to set up homes for Afghan, Congolese and Burmese refugees new to Buffalo, which has a large refugee population.

“And then I heard about a family in our town that was going to sponsor a family from Ukraine,” Kaiser told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “My husband and I knew we needed, we wanted to do this.”

By joining efforts to support refugees, Kaiser participated in a millennia-old Jewish tradition. The importance of welcoming strangers is so deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and experience that immigration issues have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus in American Jewish communities, even amid deep polarization on other topics. Many cities have social service agencies that began to support Jewish immigrants and now work with newcomers of all backgrounds, often recruiting Jewish volunteers as the backbone of their work.

People who fled the war in Ukraine rest inside an indoor sports stadium used as a refugee center in the village of Medyka, a border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, on March 15, 2022. (Photo AP/Petros Giannakouris, file)

Over the past year, these networks have been put in place as two significant groups of people who could not safely remain in their homes made their way to American shores: first the Afghans last year after the US military withdrawal from their country and then the Ukrainians this year in between. the war instigated by Russia.

Now, as millions of Americans prepare for their Thanksgiving meals, Jewish volunteers are ushering Ukrainian and Afghan evacuees into Thanksgiving for the first time. Some are even setting aside their own reservations about the vacation to do so. (The cheerful myths of the origin of Thanksgiving are considered by some to whitewash the genocide of Native Americans that followed the arrival of Europeans in North America.)

In California, Gail Dratch and her husband Elliot have volunteered through the Jewish Refugee Coalition of Orange County. They will celebrate the holiday on Thursday by inviting a family from Afghanistan to their home, where they will serve a halal turkey, in keeping with the religious requirements of their Muslim guests.

Gail and Elliot Dratch stand with their volunteer circle partners and family evacuated from Afghanistan, whose faces have been blurred for their safety. (Courtesy of the Jewish Federations of North America via JTA)

“For us, Thanksgiving has become a part of what we do,” Dratch told JTA. “And I know my family at least, let’s not think about the beginning of Thanksgiving, which is really worrying. My daughters are especially concerned about the original story. But clearly, this family is very grateful to have this opportunity to be in the United States.”

Both Kaiser and Dratch drew support for their volunteer circles from their local Jewish federations in Buffalo and Orange County. They were two of 15 local federations that won support from the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group, to resettle nearly 2,000 Afghans through refugee-hosting circles, according to Darcy Hirch, a spokesman.

The Dratches have done much more than cook a special dinner. The Afghan family they work with arrived on a special immigrant visa, so Dad was able to get his driver’s license quickly and found work almost immediately. But the mother had to learn to drive from scratch.

Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane on the perimeter of Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, on August 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Shekib Rahmani, File )

“She cried the first time I took her to a big parking lot just to drive by Angel Stadium,” Dratch said, referring to the Anaheim arena where the Los Angeles Angels play. “And when he got behind the wheel, he cried because he said it was his dream to drive, but he never thought he could do it, living in Afghanistan.”

The couple’s son, who is in preschool, is learning English quickly, Dratch said.

“They are lovely, lovely people,” he said. “It was their dream to come to the United States and raise their son here because they knew he would have a lot more opportunities here than in Afghanistan. And so we’re grateful that this family came into our lives because it’s been a gift to us.”

Dratch’s experience working with displaced people began in 2016 when she went to Greece to work with Syrian refugees.

“I think in the future people will look back and say, ‘Why wasn’t more done?’ ” he said. “And I don’t want to look back and think, ‘Why didn’t I do anything?'”

In Buffalo, Kaiser’s circle of volunteers takes turns running errands and sharing chores with a foster family for the parents and four children they’ve been working with since September. Although the family has only been in the U.S. for a few months, Kaiser said she has noticed a big difference in the children, who she says were initially down and shy, but are now “smiles all over.”

At Tuesday’s meal, which was held for 200 people, Kaiser says she saw evacuees mingle with each other, delight in speaking Ukrainian without relying on Google Translate to communicate, and exchanging addresses and numbers phone number where they could be contacted. Buffalo area. The kids returned to the buffet table several times for dessert.

Kaiser said, “You can tell that any time you do something for them, they’re grateful that someone is there to help them, and they can start to finally feel a little bit at ease.”

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