For 17 years, this itinerant Thanksgiving has welcomed refugees to the Denver area

Mohammad Saighani remembers last year’s autumn and winter as one of the most chaotic times of his life.

The 30-year-old and his brother, a government employee of Afghanistan’s now-defunct Ministry of Economy and Public Health, were among the latest wave of people to evacuate the country during the United States military withdrawal. When violence broke out at Kabul airport, Saghani suffered a stab wound in his right leg. That didn’t stop him from applying for asylum and flying out on a military plane.

He lived in Germany for a few weeks, then Washington DC, then Wisconsin before finally settling in Aurora in November 2021.

Now, a year later, he wore a clean suit and hugged and greeted friends at his first Thanksgiving dinner.

“Hello and thank you,” he said while lining up a plate at a buffet and taking scoops of rice and Afghan naan.

Matt Bloom/CPR News
Mohammad Saighani sits at a table and eats a meal during the first Thanksgiving dinner for refugees in Aurora on November 21, 2022. Saighani relocated to Denver in November 2021 after fleeing his native Afghanistan during the US military pullout in August of that year.

When he reached the dessert table, his choice was between pumpkin pie and baklava. He took the latter.

“I’m looking forward to trying it all out at some point,” he said.

Saighani was one of several hundred people who dined at this year’s Refugee First Thanksgiving, an annual multicultural celebration organized by local resettlement aid groups. Due to the pandemic, it was the first in-person version of the meal since 2019.

In recent years, volunteers have been delivering home food packages to welcome refugees around the holiday season. The event itself is taking place for the 17th time.

It started with just a few dozen participants and has grown to hundreds, said Maria Farrier, a development manager at the Aurora-based African Community Center, the main refugee services organization that coordinates the meal.

“It’s always had the same focus on showing gratitude to our refugees and volunteers in the community and giving everyone a chance to share,” Farrier said.

Matt Bloom/CPR News
A serving tin contains slices of Afghan naan. Local chefs, many of them refugees, helped prepare hundreds of different dishes for the annual Refugee First Thanksgiving event on November 21, 2022.

The venue usually changes from year to year based on where the largest percentage of parishioners live, Farrier said. Former venues are church cellars and school gymnasiums.

A focus of this year’s event was to ensure that all participants – regardless of their religious dietary restrictions – could participate. Organizers secured 40 halal turkeys and urged all donors to follow similar preparation guidelines.

“That was really important for this year’s event, just knowing that a large percentage of our families are Muslims from Afghanistan,” Farrier said.

The country provided the largest influx of new arrivals in the Denver area last year — about 2,000 people, Farrier said. The state has also seen a surge in refugee numbers due to the war in Ukraine.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth,” Farrier said. “In the past year we resettled as many refugee families as in the previous four years combined.”

Matt Bloom/CPR News
Participants dance the cha-cha slide at the Summit Event Center in Aurora during the annual Refugee First Thanksgiving event November 21, 2022. Several hundred people attended the event organized by local resettlement agencies and advocacy groups.

The Thanksgiving meal was loosely structured, with dozens of dining tables set out in a banquet hall. Seats were not assigned to encourage new connections. Contestants did the cha-cha slide on the dance floor and snapped photos in a red carpet-style photo booth.

But the main focus was the food. Volunteers prepared buffets with dozens of different dishes for the participants.

Options included traditional American fare like turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Local chefs in the refugee community also contributed their own dishes, from Ethiopian injera to Burmese tea leaf salad.

Matt Bloom/CPR News
Zin Zin Htun serves a spoonful of Burmese tea leaf salad during the first Thanksgiving dinner for refugees in Aurora on November 21, 2022. Htun relocated to Denver in 2015 and started a catering business after fleeing religious persecution in her native Burma.

Chefs told their own stories while handing out scoops of their creations. Zin Zin Htun, a Burmese refugee resettled in Colorado in 2015, filled cups with Burmese tea for attendees.

As she handed a woman the hot drink, a mixture of black tea mixed with milk and sugar, Htun asked where she was from.

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