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African peanut stew. Burmese chicken curry. Veggie-stuffed samosas. Ethiopian flatbread. No, those dishes aren’t the usual suspects at a Thanksgiving potluck, but serving foods from multiple cultures alongside classic Americana—turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce—is a beloved tradition at African Community Center’s annual Refugee First Thanksgiving Dinner.
Last Thursday, more than 1,000 Coloradans of all ages and nationalities (myself included) braved snowy weather to share a feast at Mango House in Aurora. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s a multipurpose space that houses a shopping center, medical clinic, food hall, and other resources for immigrants and refugees. Mango House food stalls including Urban Burma and Jasmine Syrian Food, plus volunteers from eight local faith organizations, provided an epic buffet of dishes. “The most important part of our Thanksgiving event is to show gratitude for and celebrate the vibrant mix of people and cultures in our community,” says African Community Center (ACC) volunteer coordinator Kate Weatherbee, who has organized the event for five years and witnessed it grow from 100 to 1,000 attendees.
After piling my plate high, I grabbed a seat in Mango House’s buzzy dining room, aptly festooned with flags from around the world. I marveled at the culinary diversity before me. Where else can you enjoy “laphet thoke” (Bumese fermented tea leaf salad), “mujadara” (Lebanese lentils and rice with onions), brisket, and green bean casserole (a side I can never pass up) all in one place? Volunteers bustled around the tables, keeping attendees’ plates loaded, collecting trash, refilling pitchers at the water station, and directing guests to the restrooms. In fact, nearly 200 volunteers pitched in at this year’s event, including members of Congregation Rodef Shalom, Light of Nations Church, and Stapleton Church. The International School of Denver sponsored a dessert table where the bounty included frosted pumpkin bars, cookies, brownies, coconut tapioca pudding, and every type of pie imaginable.
This is the first time the Refugee First Thanksgiving Dinner was held at the Mango House, which Weatherbee says felt like a practical choice since the space is home to two ACC refugee initiatives: an employment skills training program and a youth center. The potluck was free to attend, but guests were encouraged to bring household pantry items, such as paper towels, cleaning products, and toiletries, for refugee families—some of whom were celebrating their first holiday in this country. My friends and I lugged in a 12-pack of paper towels and a variety of all-purpose and bathroom cleaners—a small price for such an incredible meal—and were happy to see individuals leave with bags stuffed to the brim with donated products.
ACC is a branch of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, which has been welcoming refugees and immigrants to the Denver area for over 18 years. In 2018, ACC resettled 292 newcomers from 24 countries, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Burma, and Cuba, and served 1,362 individuals with its various resettlement programs, according to the organization’s annual report.
“Regardless of the actual history of the holiday, the spirit of Thanksgiving is one of people coming together over food, putting aside their differences, and celebrating community,” Weatherbee says. As a first-generation American whose parents moved to Colorado from Thailand nearly 40 years ago, I couldn’t help but wish there had been an event like this back then to welcome them. Because whether you’re a native or a newcomer, uniting over the common joy that is a shared meal is powerful enough to warm you on even the coldest day.