Translating Thanksgiving: Fargo-Moorhead immigrants reflect on this American holiday
FARGO — In the Fargo-Moorhead area, new Americans share similar experiences to the Plymouth pilgrims: They both traveled to a new land and then had to learn about new cultural norms. Some of the new Americans living here shared how their first Thanksgiving shaped their perception of American life.
"We didn't know about Thanksgiving before arriving in America," said Yadu Ghimire, who left Nepal in 2011 before arriving in a small southern Pennsylvania town and then eventually moving to Fargo in 2015. "We knew it was in November, but that was about it."
Her limited English prevented her from understanding the holiday and its significance.
"It wasn't until I had enrolled in an English class that I learned about Thanksgiving, and the annual 'big meal' with the family," Ghimire said.
Most of Ghimire's immediate family remains in Nepal while she and her husband raise their five children in Fargo.
Like Ghimire, Sartal Kakai spoke little English when she arrived in the Fargo area in 1997.
"I was very confused about the holiday when the church group that was helping us tried to explain it to me," Kakai said.
Kakai and her husband at the time left their home abruptly due to his involvement in Peshmerga, the military forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraqi Kurdistan. Her husband's extended family was allowed to immigrate to the U.S., but Kakai's family still lives in northern Iraq.
Some new Americans — like Paskalina Bakhit from South Sudan — remember how they learned about Thanksgiving in school before moving to the United States.
"We learn about Thanksgiving usually when we are in middle school," Bakhit said. "They started to teach us about other countries and all the states within the U.S., including what the states grow and what kind of holidays they celebrate."
'Creative with the turkey'
But why turkey? According to Bakhit, Ghimire and Kakai, this is a common question new Americans have about Thanksgiving.
"It is strange that Americans always need to celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey," Bakhit said, explaining the holiday to her mom who still lives in South Sudan.
Like Bakhit, Kakai remembers when a person brought her turkey. She thought, "What am I going to do with this?"
Ghimire said one of her American friends first told her that Thanksgiving was "Turkey Day" so you have to prepare it.
"Before coming to America, I had never seen or ate a turkey before, so I didn't really know what to do with it," Ghimire said. Bakhit had a similar experience, remembering seeing turkeys in South Sudan but never imagining eating one.
"I think (South Sudanese people) think that they have no reason for killing the turkey," Bakhit said.
During her first Thanksgiving, Bakhit tried mashed potatoes, a foreign dish to her.
"I didn't like it," she said. "It's so mushy. The turkey was OK, but it could've used more spices."
Bakhit's cousin defended the bland turkey, saying that's how it's supposed to be made.
"But you can be creative with the turkey. The meat is cold so it needs some salt or something," Bakhit said. "My cousin just suggested that I put some gravy on it."
Now Bakhit uses her own recipe to prepare the turkey for her husband and six children, although she still recalls her confusion about Thanksgiving when she first arrived in 2007.
"That first year many people would say, 'I have to be home for Thanksgiving', and I didn't understand it," Bakhit said. "I asked, 'Why can't you have Thanksgiving wherever you want?' "
She now understands this perspective of spending Thanksgiving with close relatives, but she still doesn't think everyone needs to be home to celebrate.
The Thanksgiving holiday is new to many who arrive in the U.S., according to Newzad Brifki, founder and director of the Moorhead-based nonprofit Kurdish Community of America.
"Many think it is a religious holiday," Brifki said. This misconception is clarified when he explains the differences between Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Despite the fact that Thanksgiving is an American holiday, the concept isn't alien to emigrants, according to Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president of senior and humanitarian services at Lutheran Social Services.
"It's not uncommon in other countries that people share this feeling of gratitude over a large gathering of food and family," Dykshoorn said. "It's a celebration that's prevalent in many faiths."
Many cultures have a holiday equivalent to the American Thanksgiving celebration. In fact, Kakai's religion by the same name (Kakai) celebrates a day of feasting in January called Qorbani.
"But we do it with chicken instead of turkey," she said.
What Thanksgiving means now
Bakhit, Ghimire and Kakai now merge traditions to celebrate Thanksgiving while they remember what first motivated them to emigrate.
"Back home there was so much insecurity," Bakhit said. "I just remember trying to find a safe place to go to bed — place where you won't hear guns shooting all the time. It's so different here."
Ghimire echoes this, citing more opportunity in America for her children.
"It's important for all of these families to gather for customs so everybody can spend time together," Ghimire said.
She plans to cook traditional Nepali rice and American dishes for her family. Kakai celebrates Thanksgiving today with her two sons while serving a mash-up menu from her roots.
Bakhit also upholds both American and South Sudanese traditions when she attends large community meals within several families' homes.
"Every year we will try to celebrate as a community," Bakhit said. "If I say South Sudanese as a whole, it's way too big so we try to break it up by tribes — like my tribe is Madi."
This year, the Fargo area is hosting Southern Sudanese from across the country as the community sends out a national invite every four years.
"Not every individual has family members here, some are alone so we just make it a tradition to gather around the Thanksgiving holiday," Bahkit said.
Bakhit, Ghimire and Kakai all say celebrating this holiday is just one way they embrace their new American customs.