No religion, no politics, just community: How refugees learn to celebrate Thanksgiving


Hundreds of refugees celebrated Thanksgiving last weekend outside Washington, D.C., at the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a refugee resettlement agency.

How did an Ethiopian community nonprofit come to help refugees from Afghanistan, Congo, Eritrea, El Salvador and Ukraine?

ECDC started in 1983 to help Ethiopians displaced because of conflict and famine, but it is now one of nine U.S. resettlement agencies that partner with the United Nations. Since last year, the nonprofit has helped nearly 1,600 refugees begin new lives in Northern Virginia, 95% of them Afghans.

That’s how my family heard of the agency.

After Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021 when the United States withdrew our military from Afghanistan, my husband wanted to help with the humanitarian crisis. As an editor with a defense contractor, Bob is close with his Afghan American colleagues and friends. Including them in our lives has only enriched our family. 

Fall of Afghanistan, fall of Vietnam

In 2014, after working in Kabul for six months at a U.S. military base, Bob had helped Afghan interpreters get visas to immigrate to America. When Afghanistan’s capital city fell seven years later, these new Americans agonized over their helplessness trying to get their own families out, and we agonized with them.

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Bob found the Ethiopian agency near our home in Northern Virginia and started volunteering to help pick up refugee families from the airport. As he came home with stories, I knew he was on a mission and wouldn’t stay a volunteer long. By this time last year, ECDC was adding staff to deal with the overwhelming number of arriving Afghan families. And Bob quit his full-time editing job to work for the Ethiopian center as a housing coordinator for these new exiles. 

That is who Bob Elston is. He would have done it even if he weren’t married to me, a refugee-turned-American whose family fled Vietnam at the fall of Saigon nearly five decades ago when I was 8. But I do think of my dad, whose last job before he passed away in 1991 was director of a refugee agency for the Vietnamese American community in Phoenix. 

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‘After two years of hibernation, all of a sudden we were back’

Sunday, Bob helped with the Thanksgiving celebration and came home with more stories about his colleagues at the Ethiopian Community Development Council and the refugees they’re helping. I was sorry I couldn’t make it and wanted to talk with his boss. I wanted to know: Why did hundreds of people show up for an American Thanksgiving that most of them didn’t know anything about? 

At the Ethiopian Community Development Council's Thanksgiving party on Nov. 20, 2022, in Arlington, Va., from left, refugee case manager Manizha Nuzhat, Executive Director Sarah Zullo and housing coordinator Bob Elston.

Sarah Zullo, head of ECDC’s local branch, told me this is the 10th year of the agency’s Thanksgiving fest but that it had been online for two years because of COVID-19.   

“After two years of hibernation, all of a sudden we were back,” she said. “The desire for the people to come out, to see people, to be around people” was a big draw.

The number of people in attendance was so overwhelming that Sunday’s Thanksgiving broke into two back-to-back celebrations for more than 500 refugees. About 150 volunteers helped serve not only the traditional American Thanksgiving meal but also Central American yucca fries next to mashed potatoes and gravy, turkey amid lentils and traditional dishes from Afghanistan, Africa and Ukraine. 

“It’s our own Thanksgiving,” said Alexandra Hernandez-Pardo, the agency’s resource development manager. “It’s what an international community Thanksgiving looks like.”

The Ethiopian Community Development Council's volunteers celebrate Thanksgiving with Afghan, Congolese, Eritrean, Salvadoran and  Ukrainian refugees on Nov. 20, 2022, in Arlington, Va.

What sticks with Zullo after a decade of Thanksgiving celebrations at the refugee agency?

“It’s the one place where we’re not going to talk about religion, we’re not going to talk about politics, we’re not going to talk about ethnicity. It’s just we bring people all together, and this magic happens when people are around food that all of a sudden they sort of discover that they have so much more in common with each other,” she said. “To me, that’s what Thanksgiving is all about.”

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What about Ethiopian refugees?

Like my husband, Zullo started at ECDC as a volunteer in 2010, when she was on a student visa from Ethiopia. Studying criminology to be a lawyer, instead she stayed with the refugee agency and got a master’s degree in public administration.

It’s ironic for both Zullo and the Ethiopian Community Development Council that so much of Washington’s attention has focused on refugees from Afghanistan and now Ukraine. In Ethiopia, a civil war in the north over the past two years is an even bigger and deadlier conflict than the Ukraine war. 

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As USA TODAY reports on the Tigray conflict: “No working ambulances for a population of more than 5.5 million. No banking services. Hundreds of thousands killed by fighting and famine. A near-total military siege that has all but cut off essential supplies and forced families to stay in touch by word of mouth or through handwritten letters.”

Just recently, ECDC applauded the Biden administration‘s designation of Temporary Protected Status for Ethiopian immigrants for 18 months. 

“The United States recognizes the ongoing armed conflict and the extraordinary and temporary conditions engulfing Ethiopia,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said. “Ethiopian nationals currently residing in the U.S. who cannot safely return due to conflict-related violence and a humanitarian crisis involving severe food shortages, flooding, drought, and displacement, will be able to remain and work in the United States until conditions in their home country improve.”

When I asked Zullo about the U.S. caps on where refugees could come from, she said the quotas have “always been the problem. … It’s a hard line to walk.”

Thuan Le Elston, a member of USA TODAY’s Editorial Board, is the author of “Rendezvous at the Altar: From Vietnam to Virginia.” Follow her on Twitter: @thuanelston

More from Thuan Le Elston:

‘You’re my Kim’: How I landed a Hollywood movie and gained a family

‘Remembrance is vital for our society’: Honoring 40 years of the Vietnam wall

Thanksgiving on Sesame Street: How a ‘Top Chef’ judge helps her childhood show make history


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Written by Ethiotime1

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