The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, November 27, 2009

Bhutanese + Thanksgiving in USA

Thanksgiving transcends nationalities

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
By Kate McCaffrey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kate McCaffrey/Post-Gazette
From left, Selma Alwan with her mother, Hakima, Thu Ho and her daughter Jennifer, and Jenet Kenyi enjoy an early Thanksgiving dinner provided by South Hills Interfaith Ministries.
In the middle of a crowd of some 200 people from 23 different countries and the loud buzz of their various languages bouncing off church basement walls, a little Kritika Timsinaran up to Courtney Macurak proudly holding up a rough sketch of a turkey.

"What's a turkey say?" Mrs. Macurak asked Kritika.

"Gobble, gobble," the little one repeated over and over before running off into the mix of nationalities.

Kritika was just one among many immigrants and refugees learning about an American Thanksgiving and making South Hills Interfaith Ministry's Thanksgiving dinner a new holiday tradition.

The dinner, which began as an outreach for 50 refugees in 2007, was repeated again last Thursday at Whitehall United Presbyterian Church.

"It's an opportunity for families to get out and share and talk and see neighbors. We try to break barriers between nationalities," SHIM director Jim Guffey said. "I wish we could do it every month."

A glance around the church basement showed various ethnicities: Some wore vibrant African dresses; others had demure scarves on their heads.

Mrs. Macurak, director of Prospect Park Family Center, a SHIM program site where most of the immigrants live, said the largest populations came from Burundi, an East African nation; Myanmar (Burma), in Southeast Asia; Bhutan, located between India and China; and Iraq. Other countries represented were Morocco, Vietnam, Turkey and Russia.

She said the Prospect Park families vote every year to hold the dinner.

"They won't let me cater it. They want to cook," Mrs. Macurak said.

And the long table groaning with trays of various foods shows they mean it. Mixed in amid an enormous vat of mashed potatoes and platter of turkey was Moroccan couscous, Turkish rice and beef, and goat.

Students from Seton La Salle High School's International Club were on hand to serve as part of a service project.

Hakima Alwan, originally from Morocco, now of Whitehall, helped cook the couscous. She's been in the United States 10 years. Her husband, Joseph, also from Morocco, has been here for 20. So they are Thanksgiving veterans.

Mrs. Alwan will make Moroccan and traditional American fare for their Thanksgiving dinner next week. They usually host between ten and 20 friends and coworkers, usually a mix, Mr. Alwan said, of Americans, Moroccans and Arabs.

Mrs. Alwan can't recall all the details of her first Thanksgiving in the U.S., but she knows the experience has improved.

"My first time here, I didn't like anything. I love it now," she said.

Mr. Alwan's introduction to Thanksgiving was while he was at college in Florida. He said Moroccans celebrate a similar holiday Jan. 23. Family and friends gather to share a turkey, cooked with vegetables, bread and egg. But America's Thanksgiving has the added bonus of lots of football games.

"Now I can't wait to watch the games," Mr. Alwan said.

Before the meal was served, Mrs. Macurak welcomed the immigrants, thanking them for attending and wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. Her message was repeated in Nepali, Turkish, Arabic, Kirundi, which is spoken in Burundi, and Karen, spoken by some in Burma and Thailand.

While a line formed at the food table, a group of five men sat singing African spirituals. One played a guitar while the others tapped out a beat on the table.

"The song is about glorifying the Lord. If we are here then, nothing can move me from the Lord," guitarist David Hajayandi explained.

Tila Phuyal, of Nepal, lives in Prospect Park. Although she's been here for "one year and five months," she hasn't celebrated Thanksgiving before. Does she think it's odd to spend a day stuffing yourself and watching football?

"It's very interesting and enjoyable," she said.

Mr. Alwan, playing with his 2-year old daughter Selma, said his favorite thing about Thanksgiving is that everyone, no matter how poor, no matter where they're from, can get a Thanksgiving meal.

"It's nice of Americans to help each other," he said. "And, of course, it's a day off."

Kate McCaffrey can be reached at or 412-851-1867.

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