New country, new traditions
Christmas can be an exciting time for immigrants, but it can also be puzzling as they try to understand American customs and make them their own.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For Betsy CAMPOS, an immigrant from Venezuela, Christmas Eve in America resembles the celebrations she and her family enjoyed in their native country. They attend church, then return home for traditional foods, gifts, and dancing.
For Pascal Madave, a refugee from Liberia, Christmas is a "devotional season." Last year, to mark his first holiday in the United States, he went to church on Christmas Eve. Later, back home, he "did some extra praying for family and friends I left behind."
For Firewoine Kassahun, an Ethiopian refugee who arrived two years ago with her husband, Christmas Eve will include a small party for friends in their apartment. There's only one challenge: "I don't have ingredients [for Ethiopian dishes]," she says.
Newcomers face many adjustments as they begin new lives here. Learning about American Christmas customs is one of them. Depending on their heritage and religion, some enjoy blending American traditions with their own. Others from non-Christian backgrounds may simply watch from the sidelines.
For some of the approximately 1 million immigrants and refugees who enter the US each year, the festivities embody the American dream they harbored for years before they arrived. Many are awed by the profusion of lights, trees, and decorations, and by the abundance of food and gifts.
"The first time, when I see the trees and decorations, I wonder, Who pays for the lights?" says Jeem Touray, a Muslim from Gambia, where electricity is in short supply. "I think, maybe the government is giving light free."
But the season can also be a time of confusion and sadness. Memories of what they endured in their own countries sometimes cast a shadow on what should be a happy time. They miss faraway family members. Mr. Madave's wife and four children, for instance, remain in refugee camps in Africa, waiting to join him here in Providence.
"People have a general sense of what the holidays mean, and they personalize it," says Robert Meek, director of the resettlement program at the International Institute of Boston. "Then they realize what's not there, and the holiday becomes very, very difficult."
The secular nature of Christmas celebrations in a consumer culture also troubles some new arrivals. "The religious factor is so important to recent immigrants," says Betty Simon, refugee resettlement director at the International Institute of Rhode Island.
Newcomers, alternately intrigued and puzzled by secular customs, wonder: Who is Santa Claus? And what about the reindeer and sleigh, the chimney and stockings?
Even carols pose a challenge. "Some of the lyrics of our Christmas songs are mystifying to people who didn't come from lands where there is lots of snow and ice," says Ms. Simon. "You can't even translate them."
Non-Christian refugee groups also find the holidays hard, because the season represents such a family time.
With little money to spend, immigrant parents face another problem: the prospect of not being able to buy presents for their children. "This is a time when American children get lots of gifts, but refugee families are not in a position to provide those things," says Kelly Lytle of Heartland Refugee Resettlement in Omaha, Neb. "It's got to be really tough."
Still, Baha Sadr, an Iranian who teaches English and citizenship classes at the International Institute in Providence, enjoys explaining holidays to students.
More than 40 percent of those in his classes are from Central and South America. Some Latinos "just go overboard" this time of year, he says, noting that Christmas means a lot to them. By contrast, Southeast Asians "don't really think much of it."
He urges moderation, telling students, "A gift doesn't have to be at a certain price. You can give whatever. And you don't have to necessarily eat all that food. Don't buy into what the media are trying to convince you about how you have to celebrate Christmas."
As one way of assuaging loneliness and helping newcomers enjoy the spirit of the season, groups such as the International Institute, a nonprofit agency serving immigrants and refugees across the country, hold holiday parties. A variety of languages and a smorgasbord of ethnic foods give these events the air of a mini United Nations.
Here in Providence, the International Institute hosts an annual Christmas party for immigrants. This year's event will be held Sunday, Dec. 22. The First Unitarian Church gives presents to the children. The Women and Infants Hospital donates $1,000 to buy winter clothing for newcomers. Burundians and Rwandans will provide holiday music from their countries.
One Burundian woman, Denise Ntungirenkabandi, arrived in Providence eight months ago with her teenage children. She had lived in Rwandan refugee camps since she was 7, and raised turkeys there.
How will she celebrate here? "Food, my family, friends, music, dancing," she says. "No gifts."
Even when generous Americans want to buy presents for immigrants, gifts can be problematic. Asking refugees what they would like is very hard, Ms. Lytle says. "You'll go into a home where people have just the basics - basically nothing. But when you ask them what they need or would like to have, they don't know what to say."
One Bosnian couple with three teenage children arrived in Omaha in September after being war refugees for 10 years. When Lytle asked for their clothing sizes, they told her, "We don't know sizes. We didn't shop in stores. We just picked through what was given by the Red Cross until we found something that fit."
She also asked a Bosnian war widow and her three children what they would like. "The oldest girl said, 'We are not the kind of people who can say, I want, I want, I want. We have an apartment, we have furniture, we have pots and pans. I don't think we need anything else.' "
By gently probing, Lytle eventually found answers to her wish-list questions. The son likes skateboards. One daughter longs for a camera so she can take pictures to send home to Bosnia. The oldest girl loves guitar music.
"When we deliver those wrapped packages, that will be very exciting," Lytle says.
As she works with businesses and individuals to find holiday sponsors for each refugee family, she finds their response gratifying. Many volunteers thank her for giving them the opportunity to help.
That outpouring changes the way refugees view the holidays, Lytle says. "Whatever traditions they came from, they are all amazed by the spirit of Christmas they have experienced here - the food, gifts, and invitations to celebrations they receive from strangers or those they barely know. After living through carnage and horrors, it is a very special lesson for them to see the kindness of strangers."
Such generosity across the country leaves everyone, recipients and donors, feeling grateful. But its seasonal nature poses a problem for those who work with refugees.
"Everyone feels incredibly generous during the holiday season," Mr. Meek says. "That is absolutely wonderful. On the other hand, our clients need this kind of generosity throughout the year."
Last month in Providence, Simon used the history of Thanksgiving to reassure newcomers that however difficult their adjustment might be, others before them have survived even greater hardships.
"I told them that the Pilgrims made it through the first year, and they would, too," she says. "Refugees are always resettled into poverty. The first years are so hard."
But as immigrants create new celebrations, they also recall the customs they left behind.
In the Venezuelan town where Campos lived, residents use a doll to symbolize the baby Jesus. Neighbors honor the infant by gathering at one family's house in the evening for cake and fruit. The next night the celebration and the doll move to a different home. This continues until Jan. 7, when residents take the doll to church.
On Christmas, Campos says, many families serve Hallacas, a traditional tamale-like dish wrapped with banana leaves. A Spanish grocery store in Providence sells banana leaves, enabling her to continue her culinary traditions. Her extended family will join Campos, her husband, and their five sons for Christmas.
Mrs. Kassahun, from Ethiopia, explains that in her country, "the old generation go to church, pray, cook food, be with friends and family." Young people, by contrast, celebrate. "Most of them don't go to church. They go to parties."
In Liberia, Madave says, Christmas is a time to "dress up fine" and visit friends. He calls it a "grand spiritual feast" and a children's feast, adding, "We try to make children happy."
Liberians also use the holiday as a time of reconciliation. "If there are any difficulties in the family, it's a time to resolve and mend differences," he says. "You don't have to enter the new year with old problems."
If a couple is thinking about separating, he continues, it becomes a time to speak out and confess what is wrong. The wife's family and the husband's family are both there.
"There is forgiveness," Madave says. "Most of the time, we use the children to bring the two parties together, because the fruit of a marriage is children. You have to come together and bring them up the right way. Do it for the sake of the children."
Liem Bui, who arrived in Boston Sept. 4 from Vietnam with his wife and three children, finds this season a time to give particular thanks. He spent more than 11 years in reeducation camps in Vietnam, and the family waited decades to reach the US.
"In Vietnam, freedom is a dream," he says. "My family is thankful to the American people and government."
A City Hall worker in Chelsea, Mass., gave the Buis a Christmas tree. The family will cook a turkey, following a tradition they enjoyed in their homeland. "Turkey is very special in Vietnam," Mr. Bui says. "You have turkey if you can afford one." They will also attend a church service conducted by a Vietnamese priest.
Even Muslims sometimes adapt secular parts of the American holiday. Mohammad Hussain Dadrass, who arrived in Boston in August 2001 with his wife and five children, enjoys an artificial tree.
"We also received some gifts last year for my kids - some toys and clothes," he says. Formerly an orthopedic surgeon in Kabul, he now works the night shift at a copy center.
As Christmas approaches, those who work with refugees and immigrants praise them for what they have accomplished.
"How courageous and brave they are to have left homes and careers and extended families behind, for the promise of new dreams," Meek says.
Simon shares that admiration. "They have wonderful resilience, and such hope. It's inspiring to see them after a couple years."
Whatever challenges immigrants meet this year, their faces beam and their eyes dance as they describe their feelings about their adopted homeland.
"I love Christmas in America," exults Campos. "I love white Christmas. Oh, when I hear those Christmas songs, I feel like I'm in peace. I love to buy Christmas presents for all my family and friends, and see their faces.
"Everybody's nice," she adds. "That's what I love in America - a big heart for everybody."