'The healing of connection': Scottsdale rabbi hosts refugees, asylum seekers for Thanksgiving

·6 min read

What does your Thanksgiving table look like this year? It's likely you'll see some familiar faces on the holiday, or maybe meet the newest members of your family.

Yanklowitz had never met any of his Thanksgiving dinner guests until Wednesday evening, when his family hosted the meal for complete strangers, two families who recently immigrated to the U.S., to spread love and support during their first American holiday.

While the sun set behind the palm trees outside Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz's Scottsdale home, a family from Venezuela walked in through the metal gate to the backyard. Excitement and gratitude filled the air when he greeted the first five guests with a warm smile.

A short while later, a family of three from Afghanistan joined the group to eat their first Thanksgiving meal in the United States.

Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix and CEO of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L'Tzedek, opened his home to eight newly arrived immigrants to the United States as part of the Arizona Jews for Justice's campaign to support refugees.

This show of fellowship has been a yearly tradition for Yanklowitz's family. For the last five years or so, Yanklowitz has hosted asylum seekers and refugees from Syria. This year, Yanklowitz said he felt the need to welcome families from countries facing the most ill will from Americans.

“The essence of Thanksgiving for me is the time to be grateful to be American, and a time to give back,” said Yanklowitz, reflecting on his new tradition. "Our goal is that people will feel less afraid of these populations that are coming in and seeking refuge.

"As Jews who have been strangers for millennia, we feel a particular responsibility to welcome the stranger. And so tonight we have Afghan refugees and Venezuelan asylum seekers who are coming to just join each other at dinner and get to know each other and share our stories," Yanklowitz said.

'I want to treat people like how I wish I was treated'

An Afghan mother, father and 18-month-old baby named for "crossing waters" arrived in the United States just 28 days earlier. Both parents worked as English translators before leaving Afghanistan for fear of the Taliban.

The family from Venezuela had only been in the States for five months, and one family member just one month. The youngest member of the family was just 2 years old. The child's older brother, age 6, asked to play on the backyard swing set almost as soon as he sat down at the dinner table.

During the meal, which was both vegan and kosher, Yanklowitz spoke with the family about their experiences in the immigration process through a friend and campaign director who spoke fluent Spanish, Eddie Chavez Calderon.

Calderon said this meal was important for him to organize personally. He is an immigrant who was in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program but said he was approved for a visa just this week. He said his introduction to the States as a young boy was not nearly as rosy.

"I look at the young mom and her son, and that, to me, that was exactly my mom and me. You know, I came in when I was four ... I look at it like, 'How would I want to have help?'" Calderon said.

"That's why I do this, because I want to treat people like how I wish I was treated," Calderon said.

For Yanklowitz, the evening was one he wanted to make perfect for his guests to feel welcomed and comfortable in such a vulnerable time.

"My hope is that as they taste familiar foods, and as we enter conversation, that they will truly feel welcomed in a deep way that can be healing. And I think that's what Thanksgiving is about, it's about the healing of connection. That people who are divided or isolated come back together," Yanklowitz said.

Dinner guest Julia speaks with some refugee guests at an early Thanksgiving dinner hosted at the home of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz in Scottsdale on Nov. 24, 2021.
Dinner guest Julia speaks with some refugee guests at an early Thanksgiving dinner hosted at the home of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz in Scottsdale on Nov. 24, 2021.

'We're so grateful for this country'

In years past, Yanklowitz said, his family's Thanksgiving was open to one family newly arrived from Syria each year. This time around, two families from completely different cultures joined Yanklowitz, his wife, Shoshana, and their four young children at the dinner table.

Luckily, everyone enjoyed the meal, including stuffed bell peppers, rice, toasted cauliflower, spaghetti, and spring rolls.

Picture a Jewish family of six, a Venezuelan family of five, and an Afghan couple and their baby all chatting around the dining table in the backyard. You'd hear Spanish on one end of the table, English at the other and a symphony of thankfulness in between.

"My hope is that they can see their plight in the other's narrative as well, and they can see that they're not only part of the Afghan refugee community, but of a whole range of stateless people ... Because I think that that's what needed in the country right now more than anything, is that people aren't just advocating for their own population, but really see their common humanity," Yanklowitz said.

Egle, the Venezuelan mother of the two young kids, said her experience Wednesday night will be remembered for its warmth following a very difficult experience getting to the border. The family traveled entirely on land, from Venezuela to Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and through Mexico before reaching the southern border of the United States.

"The main thing I'm going to remember is the warm smiles, the warmth of everybody seeing me, the warm hellos, and how everyone was so excited to see me," she said through a translator.

Egle mentioned how thankful she was for her life, her freedom, her family's health, the meal and the support her family's been able to receive during this challenging time. She said she hopes that others in the U.S. will be willing to understand families like hers arriving in the country for the first time, and support them in their times of need.

"We're so grateful for this country that opened its doors for us. We understand that it's very hard to get a visa, and it's very hard to get in, but we're so grateful for everything," she said.

"I am now born," Afghan refugee Shah remembers telling his wife when they first arrived after facing extreme violence in Afghanistan. Twenty-eight days prior to his first Thanksgiving, Shah was able to "make a new life" with his wife and baby.

The families chatted about their recent travels, but also about their current day-to-day experiences. Shah celebrated getting his driver's license, and Egle's family discussed what they'd be studying at school in the coming months.

Early in the evening, Yanklowitz spoke with the Venezuelan family candidly, letting them know that they had friends in their corner.

"You may see on the news, people saying that we don't want you here. We do want you. We need you, and we are so excited to have you with us," Yanklowitz told the family. Awe and gratitude washed over, as all three families sat in mutual respect.

Reach breaking news reporter Athena Ankrah at athena.ankrah@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @AthenaAnkrah.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Scottsdale rabbi hosts Thanksgiving meal for refugees, asylum seekers

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting