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Crossing cultures: How Frederick immigrants celebrate Thanksgiving

Nancy Lavin
Frederick News Post

For most of the world, the fourth Thursday of November comes and goes just like any other.


American festivities, tied to a tradition believed to have begun with the first colonists, hold no significance for people from other countries. But for some who come to the United States as immigrants, adopting the Thanksgiving holiday as their own can be an important part of assimilating into a new culture. For others, it remains a holiday unrelated to their cultural roots and identity.

The Frederick News-Post interviewed four immigrants who live, work and study in Frederick County about whether, and to what extent, they celebrate Thanksgiving. These are their stories.

Learning from an expert

Ahmed Hafid learned to cook a turkey by watching a professional chef. Hafid, a Moroccan immigrant who came to the United States in 1998, had secured a job working in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant in Massachusetts. He had neither celebrated Thanksgiving nor cooked an entire turkey.

But after watching the chef cook the bird that would be served at his family’s Thanksgiving in the restaurant kitchen, Hafid was inspired to replicate the feat. The next year, he resolved, he would cook a turkey of his own, and invite his friends for a “real American Thanksgiving” at his home.

“I wanted to be all American, like what I saw in the chef,” he said.

In the intervening two decades, much in Hafid’s life has changed. He’s married, with two children. He swapped his Massachusetts home for one in Frederick, where he has lived since 2016.

He’s graduated from kitchen staff to restaurant owner. He owns Tulip Grill, a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurant in west Frederick off U.S. 40.

But the ritual cooking of a turkey has remained a staple in Hafid’s Thanksgiving celebration. Although his restaurant will remain open on Thanksgiving — many of his regular customers are also immigrants who might not observe American Thanksgiving — Hafid and his family will host his mother-in-law, visiting from Morocco, for a meal of turkey, stuffing, vegetables and fish tagine.

The fish, steamed in a special glazed pot and seasoned with spices, pays tribute to Hafid’s Moroccan roots. Hafid stressed the importance of acknowledging his cultural heritage and religion — Hafid and his family are Muslim — as well as his present home.

“I embrace the whole culture,” he said. “We celebrate Thanksgiving, but we also celebrate our own holidays — Eid, Ramadan, the Islamic New Year.”

A surprising realization

This will be Mary Amusa’s first Thanksgiving in America.

Amusa, 23, who is from Nigeria, came to Frederick in January as a graduate student in Hood College’s humanities program. Although she has never celebrated Thanksgiving before, she was familiar with the history that inspired the holiday.

“I’d read about the Pilgrims and the [American] Indians and that before,” she said.

It wasn’t until her English class the week before Thanksgiving, though, that Amusa heard a different perspective on the relationship between early American colonists and the Native Americans.

“It was, well, kind of horrifying,” she said of the videos the class watched depicting colonists’ mistreatment of their Native American predecessors.

“It changed my outlook a bit,” Amusa added.

It didn’t change her eagerness for the chance to spend time with her family. She and her two sisters, who are also students at Hood, were planning to gather with other relatives at her brother’s home in Frederick.

Although she was unsure the exact menu, she knew there would be turkey, as well as a Nigerian rice called ofada, traditionally prepared as a stew with a sauce of fish, meat and hot peppers.

“I am just going to try it all,” she said of the food.

And while she was uninterested in the idea of watching football or catching the floats featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, she said she would enjoy the chance to relax with a much-needed break from her hectic schedule as a grad student.

Fasting, not feasting

While his peers gorge themselves on stuffing and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, Yonas Fishaye and his family will be fasting.

Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church mark the 40 days before Christmas by abstaining from animal products and fats, eating just one meal a day. Even after leaving their native Ethiopia as refugees four years ago, Fishaye’s family continues to fast in accordance with their faith.

Fishaye, 19, now a freshman at Mount St. Mary’s University, has not fasted on the requisite days this fall because of his studies, he said. But when he returns to his Baltimore home during the university’s Thanksgiving break, he won’t be partaking in any kind of celebration.

He witnessed a traditional American Thanksgiving last year, through a National Geographic program at his high school, he said. The program instructor invited him to her home for the holiday.

He’d never considered that family could adopt the holiday as their own, though.

“It has no meaning for us,” Fishaye said. “For Americans, it makes sense. It’s a holiday for them. But for us, we know nothing about Thanksgiving.”

Though he has never celebrated Thanksgiving, he likened it to other religious holidays his family observes. He named as an example the Easter holiday that marks the end to the 55-day fast observed by Ethiopian Orthodox followers during Lent.

He celebrates by gathering with family members, donning nice clothes and eating — goat, cow, chicken and other animals permitted under the dietary restrictions of his faith.

Despite the absence of celebratory festivities, Fishaye was happy about the prospect of spending time with his family during the school break, drinking Ethiopian-style coffee and, in his words, “just chilling and talking.” He was eager to tell them about his college experience thus far.

“We will have a lot to talk about,” he said.

Tradition with a twist

Beans and rice and the ingredients to make a flan — a Spanish baked custard dessert — were on Maria Herrera’s shopping list.

Herrera planned to bring the traditional Cuban dishes to complement the turkey, pie and stuffing that will also be part of her family’s Thanksgiving meal. Celebrating the American holiday has become a time-honored tradition for her Cuban-American family — as long as they’ve lived in the United States, Herrera said.

She added, “we just do a little twist.”

A twist in the form of Cuban beans and rice, flan, and rice pudding.

She was 7 years old when her family moved from Cuba to Maryland. She was an elementary school student in Montgomery County Public Schools. As a new immigrant, she was eager for her family to embrace the traditions of her American classmates.

“I kind of pushed for my family to celebrate Thanksgiving,” she said.

It wasn’t just about fitting in at school, though. Herrera also highlighted the holiday’s emphasis on gratitude as reason why she wanted her family to take part.

While the occasion has continued to be a family-first event, Herrera has also brought guests, friends who were new to the area and didn’t have other plans, she said.

She has also spent a few holidays helping clients in crisis, immigrants she works with at her job as executive director for Spanish-Speaking Community of Maryland. Although the organization’s offices are closed Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week, her work, particularly with clients who are victims of crime, doesn’t always abide by that schedule.

“It never really stops,” Herrera said of her work.

Photo, clockwise from top left: Ahmed Hafid; Yonas Fishaye; Ayo, Mary and Honey Amusa; and Maria Herrera. Courtesy of the Frederick News-Post.

Nancy Lavin
Frederick News Post