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Afghan refugees celebrate the first Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania

Judith Samkoff needed a bigger dining table for Thanksgiving this year.

The 65-year-old Harrisburg, Pennsylvania resident was helping relocate an Afghan refugee family of eight, and since this is her first vacation to the United States, Samkoff invited her to her father and sister’s home for Thanksgiving.

“Because they have a bigger dining table and more chairs than me,” she said, adding, “our meal isn’t very traditional since we’re vegetarians.”

At various homes across the US, they are welcomed to their first Thanksgiving dinner on US soil by Jewish volunteers who have helped resettle Afghans.

One of Samkoff’s guests is Hadia, a 24-year-old Afghan refugee whose family fled Afghanistan in November 2021.

“We got a call and they said we had to go to the airport immediately,” Hadia said of her family’s flight from Kabul. For security reasons, VOA only shares her first name.

In Afghanistan, Hadia had a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from Balkh Province. She also volunteered to help displaced people from other countries.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, her family had to make plans quickly.

The US completed its withdrawal in August 2021, helping to evacuate more than 130,000 Afghans in a chaotic few weeks after nearly 20 years of war.

“We decided to leave our country because my father came from a military background,” she said.

Hadia’s father served in the Afghan army and worked directly with the US forces.

She did not reveal who helped her family leave Afghanistan, but they were among a group of people who were able to get to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

They lived there for four months before being approved to travel to the United States in March 2022.

Pennsylvania was the place the US government chose for the family to rebuild their lives.

“We [didn’t] know someone here. we [were] Worries[ied]’ she said, adding, ‘It’s really hard when we [first arrived] … how are we supposed to do that, you know, it’s really hard to start from scratch. You left everything in your country. If you come here you have to start from scratch.”

That’s where Samkoff and the other volunteers come in. They help newly arrived Afghans like Hadia and her family settle in and give them the resources they need to thrive in their new homeland.

Samkoff said she became a volunteer after speaking to a friend who was helping to resettle another Afghan family.

“And I said, ‘You know, sign me up. How do we do that?’” Samkoff told VOA.

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Samkoff is one of 1,866 volunteers in the Jewish Federations of North America network, which partnered with the Shapiro Foundation to launch a $1 million refugee resettlement initiative to support local communities across the country, including the Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg (JFS).

The network has resettled 19,163 Afghans across the country and stands ready to resettle more as they arrive.

Darcy Hirsh, associate vice president of public affairs at the Jewish Federations of North America, said volunteers played an important role in helping refugee families resettle.

“A lot of it is really goodwill. … Our model allows each community to respond in a way that makes most sense to them. … I was really proud of [the] Commitment that we’ve seen in communities,” Hirsh said.

Hirsh said volunteers are helping Afghans find apartments and houses. They also work together to set up the new home, help them enroll children in school, find transportation to job interviews and teach them English.

“The support services that we have at the agencies will help any Afghan that comes through the doors, but we’re working very closely in coalition with many of the resettlement agencies … to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act that would not only help improve status to adapt, but also to afford an easier path for those who remain in Afghanistan,” she said.

The Afghan Adjustment Act is bipartisan legislation that would allow eligible Afghans to apply for legal permanent residency in the United States. It was introduced in both houses of Congress in August.

“So we’re hoping that the bill will be attached to the bill that Congress will pass by December,” Hirsh said.

First Thanksgiving

At the table, family and friends had Tofurky, a plant-based meat substitute made from tofu.

Hadia said she tried to explain to her mother what National Day means to the United States.

“It’s like they’re meeting [and] appreciate people with thanks. … So it’s really good. In our culture [it’s] even so. We don’t have a specific date to say thank you, but we do say thank you [to] everyone,” she said.

Hadia said she is excited for the future and hopes to one day work as a diplomat, helping other refugees find safety as she has been doing. In Harrisburg she works as a social worker and does voluntary work for other refugee families.

She told VOA her family is still adjusting to the new country.

“The United States is very busy. … Everyone is busy here. … [But] We have many options here. I can work in the morning and attend my classes in the evening,” she said.

Samkoff said helping Hadia’s family is a blessing and makes her “feel really good.”

“I have no grandchildren of my own. I feel like if someone asked me if I have grandchildren, I would say, “Yes, I have seven. One of them is in Germany. I haven’t met him in person yet, but he’s coming,” Samkoff told VOA. This is Hadia’s brother waiting to be relocated to the US

“My family is always happy when Judith (Samkoff) invites us [to come over] or other volunteers. You know, when we came here, we didn’t have any family. Now they are my family. I call Judith my grandmother,” Hadia said.

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