Ukrainian, Afghan refugees welcomed for first Thanksgiving at parishes

Ukrainian, Afghan refugees welcomed for first Thanksgiving at parishes

Updated: 15 days, 23 hours, 39 minutes, 41 seconds ago

The menu featured Thanksgiving favorites: turkey and gravy; ham; stuffing; mashed and sweet potatoes; stuffed cabbage; green bean casserole; corn; Brussels sprouts; rolls; butternut squash soup; and an assortment of homemade pies.

Thanksgiving came a little early when St. Bernadette Church in Springfield, in partnership with diocesan Catholic Charities’ Migrant and Refugee Services, hosted a dinner for Ukrainian refugees Nov. 11. The savory scents of the season wafted from the school cafeteria kitchen, where a flock of volunteers, led by Pastoral Associate Rick Caporali, busily prepared the newcomers’ feast.

At Thanksgiving — the robustly American tradition of a day dedicated to gratitude, complemented by bountiful meals and gathered relatives — it’s not difficult for immigrants and the needy to feel excluded. But in the Arlington diocese, numerous parishes are working to give more people a place at the holiday table.

“Stuffing is the best!” exclaimed Anastasiia Starodub, who left Kiev the day the conflict erupted. With a boyfriend in America, it was a sensible wartime destination. “The Catholic Church, that was the first place I came for the help,” she said. Catholic Charities has been assisting her to “find a job; to adjust to (the) environment; to the people; to the culture.” The warmth of her welcome impressed Starodub. “Here you can find … open hearts and good people.”

This wasn’t the first time Caporali’s culinary skills welcomed the migrant community; the inaugural MRS Thanksgiving banquet dates back almost a decade, when Burundian émigrés settled in the region. Caporali and Father Donald Rooney, both now at St. Bernadette, but then at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, envisioned breaking bread as more than just simple sociability.

“We thought it would be helpful to bring everyone together and share a meal — kind of a way of introducing them to the American culture,” Caporali recalled. “Being displaced was pretty traumatic, but connecting them with others in the community was a way of building community with them.”

Such hospitality isn’t optional, Caporali said; rather, it’s a reflection of his Catholic faith. “This is what we’re called to do — to treat people like humans, not bound by ethnicity or culture,” he reflected. “And the easiest way to do that … is a meal at the table.”

At St. Mary Church in Fredericksburg, the parish and Catholic Charities planned a Nov. 16 drive-thru food and coat distribution for the Afghan refugee community. They expected 150 Afghan families and another 100 disadvantaged families. 

Finding turkeys that were halal, an Islamic dietary standard, proved challenging so they were swapped for chicken, with the cost split by St. Mary’s and Catholic Charities. The parish Knights of Columbus council also provided turkeys, while parishioners and students at the parish’s Holy Cross Academy contributed side dishes.

“We heard St. Mary’s helps people,” is a phrase often repeated to Elena Doyle, parish outreach director and executive assistant to the pastor, Father John Mosimann. “I love to hear that,” she said.

The imperative of Matthew 25:35 (“for I was hungry … ”) inspires a response.

With grocery and especially turkey prices much higher than last year, Thanksgiving food collections are meeting urgent needs throughout the diocese. 

Knights of Columbus councils at St. Andrew the Apostle Church (Clifton), St. Clare of Assisi Church (Clifton), and St. Jude Syro-Malabar Church (Chantilly) packed 235 Thanksgiving meal boxes — an estimated 6,000 pounds of food — for a Nov. 19 distribution through Western Fairfax Christian Ministries. Monetary donations will partially benefit the St. Lucy Food Project.

The Thanksgiving Dinner Drive at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna aims to support 360 families in seven different Fairfax County Public Schools, and families identified through St. Vincent de Paul. Organizers at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Arlington are working to distribute approximately 800 Thanksgiving dinners Nov. 21.

And Christ House in Alexandria, assisted by multiple parishes and groups, expected to distribute nearly 150 turkeys, as well as meal kits, treats, and hats, mittens, and gloves. “You can see their smiles when they receive those food boxes,” said La Sallette Sister Aniliza (Annie) P. Juan, volunteer coordinator. “We want all our clients to experience the spirit of Thanksgiving.”

Heatherington is a freelancer in Alexandria.

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