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The first Thanksgiving
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The first Thanksgiving

Local families host Syrian refugees

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Alma Schneider’s daughter plays the guitar in front of friends and a Syrian guest on Thanksgiving.
Alma Schneider’s daughter plays the guitar in front of friends and a Syrian guest on Thanksgiving.

For Thanksgiving this year, Emily Pollack, a freshman at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, made a sign in Arabic that she hung on the front door of her family’s home in Montclair; it read, “Welcome” and “We Support our Muslim Neighbors.” She also made bilingual labels for all the food on the table. That’s because along with the usual array of friends and family, her parents, Sharon Pollack and Kathryn Crawford, also hosted a family of Syrian refugees recently resettled in Elizabeth. 

They were among 21 local families, including at least one Jewish religious leader (Rabbi Mary Zamore in Westfield), one Orthodox Jewish family in Teaneck, and a church (Union Congregational Church in Montclair), that hosted 24 refugee families, mostly from Syria but also from Iraq, who have settled in New Jersey in the last year.

Posting a photo on Facebook, Melina Macall, a member of Bnai Keshet in Montclair — who coordinated the holiday hospitality with fellow member Katherine McCaffrey — wrote, “Don’t let what’s really happening be drowned out by the noise.” She continued, “A modern Orthodox Jewish family opened their home and their hearts to a Moslem Syrian family. No shouts, no hate, just warmth and friendship.” 

McCaffrey and Macall have been coordinating efforts on behalf of the refugees through Bnai Keshet, where Emily Pollack and her family are members, for over a year. They launched a “Christmas” dinner at the synagogue in 2015, and have continued with summer camp scholarships for refugee children, “adoption” of a refugee family, a synagogue interfaith Passover seder, and, most recently, weekly dinners in people’s homes.

The biggest challenge during the Thanksgiving meals, according to two hosts and several guests who spoke with NJJN, was the language barrier. Many of the refugees don’t speak English, and participants had little more than Google Translate to communicate with each other.

“It was unusual to have no language at all and have no ability to speak,” said Alma Schneider, another Bnai Keshet member who hosted a family, though on Friday rather than Thursday, which she spent with extended family in Brooklyn. It was an “awkward” start, she said, “but by the end of the night, we were all talking with each other. It’s amazing how much you can communicate without using words.” 

Omar, 13, one of the four children of the family Schneider hosted, told NJJN through an interpreter, “It’s like it was my house — it was so comfortable. We sat, we talked, we went outside, we had some laughs.” He had never eaten most of the types of food on the table, but, he said with a grin, “I liked everything.”

Still, communication remained basic. “We did not have a conversation about the election. That would be way too complicated. We were on, ‘Do you have a dog?’ or ‘Where are you from in Syria?’” said Schneider. But even that turned very emotional: The father of the Syrian family she hosted was “almost crying” as he showed before-and-after videos of their hometown on a smartphone, according to Schneider.

Despite their difficulties in speaking with each other, they did have the benefit of the universal language of music. Schneider’s daughter performed a song on her guitar with some friends, and some of the other teenagers found Arabic music on YouTube that their Syrian peers recognized. “It was so interesting to watch how it all unfolded” for the teens, said Schneider. Though they were initially out of their comfort zone, she said, “By the end, they were sitting on the couch together.”

Through an interpreter, Omar’s 16-year-old brother, Gazwan, said, “We were making conversation through the phone, through Google Translate, but it would translate things wrong and everyone would laugh.” Still, he was impressed with Schneider’s daughter’s musical talent and said she let him try his hand at the guitar. “I tried, but failed,” he said, smiling.

As Schneider laid a spread that included deep-fried turkey, pecan cornbread stuffing, roasted Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and cranberry relish, as well as a lasagna (“I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough food,” she said), she recalled that her Syrian counterpart started pulling up photos of her own specialty dishes and invited the Schneiders to a meal at her home. “We’re really excited to meet up with them again and hopefully they’ll speak English in a few months,” said Schneider.

It was difficult to get past the language barrier at the dinner hosted by Pollack and Crawford as well, but it was no less meaningful. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” said Pollack, whose grandparents, she said, were refugees from Poland and Russia in the 1930s. “It’s a daunting adjustment these people are making. I’m happy to be a part of welcoming them. It was hard, but that’s okay. It was just something that came up and was kind of timely, something we had the ability to do. It made the holiday very special.”

A majority of the hosts live in Maplewood and Montclair, but refugee families were also placed for the holiday meal in Teaneck, Livingston, Mountainside, Bloomfield, and Madison, and, McCaffrey said, it was “a bit of a scramble” to find the hosts. As Thanksgiving approached and she was still short and asked anyone she could — including “one unsuspecting woman I grabbed in the South Mountain Reservation on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving,” who ended up hosting a family of eight. 

There were bumps in the road. One family that initially expressed interest in being hosted backed out after being placed. “The mom had second thoughts about descending upon a strange family with her five small children,” said McCaffrey. “This makes you realize how gutsy everyone was who participated.” Another family couldn’t attend due to health issues. 

The experience was successful for those families at the church. Rana, who asked that her last name not be used for the safety of her family back home, said she “really enjoyed it” and was surprised at how far the church went to make them feel welcome. “We entered the church and they gave us a tour, and then they thanked our prophet for the message he brought to the world. That was very, very nice,” she said. Rana added that the food — “turkey and dessert and other things” — was delicious. Asked whether she would celebrate Thanksgiving next year, she said, “Us, by ourselves, in our home? We’ll see. You know really for us, we give thanks every day, not just one day of the year.”

Said McCaffrey, “The whole project was a leap of faith: strangers opening up to one another. Prior to Thanksgiving, there was a lot of chatter on the media about how U.S. families might not tolerate sitting at the table together post-election. 

“Here we had families from vastly different backgrounds and religions, who didn’t even speak the same language, and they were willing to sit down together and share bread.” 

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