A Syrian Refugee Family’s First Thanksgiving

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

Last year when Kitchn published this essay, we had no idea that refugees would be such a huge political issue in 2017. (Sure, we had some idea — and some major concerns — but refugees are being faced with more than we ever could have imagined.) With the events of the year in mind, we are resurfacing this piece in order to spark conversation and hopefully illustrate how food and family unite us all, no matter where we’re from or what we believe.

When I received the text saying our sponsored family had arrived from Jordan and were en route to my home, I felt a profound sense of relief. Although I hadn’t met them yet, I cared deeply for their well-being. For months prior, I hadn’t been able to shake images of the horrors happening in Syria. Cities leveled, lives ruined, desperate parents trying to escape the country to provide a better life for their children.

Unable to turn a blind eye, my husband and I joined a sponsorship group, and made the decision to open our home to a refugee family from Syria.

(Image credit: Heather Lawless)

On the day of their arrival earlier in March (which coincided with a freak snowstorm), we were all excited about a fresh start for them in Canada. Some of my earliest memories include our first dinner together squished around our little table, and getting to know each other over the Syrian food that I struggled to cook. And despite a war raging back home, the eldest son still came out sledding with us, the mother still prepared Turkish coffee for everyone she met (adequate space in her suitcase had been dedicated to bringing over the relevant kitchen equipment!), and the other two 20-something children stayed in good spirits as they were shuttled around on sight-seeing trips.

(Image credit: Diana Yen)

A First Thanksgiving Together

This Thanksgiving (which, in Canada, fell on the second Monday in October) was the first intimate holiday we would spend together as a new extended family. I was looking forward to seeing them relaxed and at peace. The two eldest Syrian kids, who are now attending top Canadian colleges, were looking forward to a celebratory break from their intense study schedules.

In anticipation of the weekend, the Syrian mother and I collectively created two recipes to add to our shared Thanksgiving table: Syrian stuffed pumpkins and Canadian-Syrian Thanksgiving stuffing. Coming together in the kitchen was a fun and educational experience for us both.

During our afternoon of cooking, we laughed over traditions and stories (apparently in Syria, if you cry when you’re cutting onions, it means you’re afraid of your mother-in-law!). I also learned that many dishes in Syria originated in other countries of the region. For example, those who migrated from Turkey to Syria brought along many of the techniques, flavors, and recipes you find in Syrian homes today.

Why rush something that brings you joy?

I tend to be a bit of a hurricane in the kitchen — moving quickly, viewing measurements as light suggestions, and creating an epic mess. But in Syria, cooking is precise, technical, and a great deal more organized than I’m accustomed to. In the eight months I’ve know the mother, she’s impressed on me the importance of being patient and calm in the kitchen. Why rush something that brings you joy?

Setting up a mise en place is not my specialty, but in Middle Eastern cooking, it’s essential. Before we started, spices, knives, and bowls were logically arranged. I didn’t win any points when I tried to cut corners by chopping veggies in my Vitamix, but I did get away with my tried-and-true timesaver for drying out stuffing bread in the oven versus letting it sit overnight.

One thing we agreed on is food waste. In Syria, food is rarely thrown away. Here in Canada, my fridge is managed in a similar fashion. I rarely let food expire. I figure out a way to use everything I’ve bought. Sticking to our principles, I explained how we roast pumpkin seeds to snack on. And they encouraged me to freeze the discarded bread crust for use in soups and stews down the road.

(Image credit: Diana Yen)

Our friends now live independently down the road from us. By all accounts, they are living a successful life in Canada. One important thing they’ve regained in their new life is ability to give back again. When they visit, our friends always seem to have a made-from-scratch dish on hand. Cooking is one aspect of their lives that has transferred seamlessly across borders.

Fortunately, Toronto is a multicultural city so they’ve been able to find most of the ingredients they used in Syria. The practice of continuing to cook the foods they are used to provides a sense of normalcy, comfort, and even “home.”

During the Thanksgiving feast as I choked my way through an emotional toast, I was reminded of all the reasons we celebrate Thanksgiving in North America: To express gratitude for what we have in the present, and to remember what we’ve been blessed to have in the past. This year we added a new dimension: praying for the safety of those still in conflict.

After the meal, the mother delivered one of her off-the-cuff, powerfully eloquent speeches, thanking us for the support we’ve provided and the opportunities that have been offered to her family.

Being part of a family’s first Thanksgiving has helped me check in with things that matter: perspective, human connection, finding inspiration in the everyday, and overcoming adversity. It’s reminded me that by opening your heart, anything is possible.