Last year I celebrated Thanksgiving in the Hyannis home of my friends David and Paloma McLardy, immigrants from Scotland and Spain, respectively. They put a few tables together in their brightly colored kitchen, creating one long table with about 30 chairs. There was little elbow room, but it made for a warm encounter among people from far-flung countries of origin including America, Afghanistan, Brazil, Poland, and South Korea.
A few days before Thanksgiving the McLardys had welcomed four Afghan men to an apartment attached to their home. They had been settled in the area by Catholic Charities after their arrival at U.S. military bases in Virginia and New Mexico. The men had all fought for the U.S.-backed Afghan military, making them prime targets for the Taliban, which took over their country in August 2021. Like so many others, they had come to America to escape persecution, and possibly death, in their home country.
They sat at one end of the long table, hunched over with downcast eyes, and didn’t touch any of the food. They were polite, but they didn’t know any English and couldn’t communicate with most of us. Having come from a provincial region of Afghanistan where religion, cuisine, and gender norms were radically different from here, they seemed shell-shocked by the foreignness of the experience. After dinner, we played ping-pong in the basement. Slowly, their stony expressions melted. They started to smile. A simple game became the context for a budding connection.
One year has brought many changes in their lives. They all received driver’s licenses and rotated through a series of jobs: house painting, janitorial work, dishwashing, and landscaping. But they’re still separated from their wives and children in Afghanistan.
I worked with them over the past year, teaching them English. Their progress has been slow but steady.
In September, I had my last lesson with them. They had decided to leave the Cape for places with larger Afghan communities and where housing is cheaper. One man has gone to Kansas City, and the other three were headed to Green Bay, Wisc. They would be driving there in an old minivan, so I taught them a few phrases: “I have a flat tire.” “I need a tow.” They made it without incident and have since gotten jobs in a meat-processing plant. They tell me they’re happy, but it seems like there’s a long road ahead of them to fully find their place in this country.
I’m glad I got to know these men. It was a pleasure to step outside my reality each week and enter the home they had created. It was a space of warm friendship with a hand-painted Afghan flag hanging over a window and a living area cleared of tables and chairs, leaving the carpeted floor open for meals. I often sat with them cross-legged on this floor, drinking tea or eating. Like the McLardys, these men always made space for guests in their circle.
Perhaps it’s immigrants who best embody the spirit of that first Thanksgiving. This year, I’m holding onto this idea of Thanksgiving, which is really an idea of America as a place where there’s room at the table for people of different backgrounds to come together in scarcity and in plenty and encounter each other’s humanity, collectively give thanks, and celebrate.