Giving thanks, bridging divides

Smithton Middle School ESL students
celebrate their own Thanksgiving
Tuesday, November 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:16 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

With no turkey, no dressing and no cranberries, more than 40 international students at Smithton Middle School celebrated no less a Thanksgiving.

English is their second language.

Food is their first.

Amid a cacophony of languages — and over a smorgasbord of foods from Asia, Central America, the Middle East, Africa and Europe — this band of students feasted, sharing native dishes and celebrating new friendships.

The multicultural banquet was the culmination of the sixth- and seventh-grade students’ lessons on Thanksgiving: The holiday salutes the journey of pilgrims who wanted a fresh life in another land and who gave gratitude for their new start by sharing a colossal meal with friends.

Marilyn Zumwalt, who teaches English as a second language, to sixth-graders at Smithton, said she wanted students to see a connection between themselves and the motivations and challenges of the first immigrants who came to America.

“Since America is their new home, I want them to realize America is made up of people who have come here for many reasons,” she said. “America is a potpourri of cultures, and I want them to realize we need to be patient with each other, we need to be understanding and we need to respect each other because we have commonalities.”

Food served as the ultimate instrument of harmony at the students’ Thanksgiving lunch Friday. The students brought dishes to share from 13 countries: Bosnia, Cambodia, China, Iran, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Pakistan, Rwanda, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Thailand.

The eclectic Thanksgiving fare reflected the students’ diversity: tacos, tostadas, tempura veggies, ceviche, salsa and sushi. Flaky pastries from Bosnia, chicken mole from Mexico, steamed dumplings from China. And yes — someone brought pumpkin pie.

The students learn to appreciate one another’s cultures by sharing native foods, said Ann Fuchs, Smithton’s seventh-grade ESL teacher.

“I’ve got so many countries, I feel like I’ve got a little United Nations in my classroom,” she said. “I’ve got kids from countries that are political enemies. Yet, when they’re here, they have to learn to get along.”

“They learn that people from enemy countries are not enemies,” Fuchs said. “They’re kids, just like themselves.”

To fully understand the meaning of Thanksgiving in America, Zumwalt taught her students a mini-unit on immigration, she said.

The sixth-graders studied two books: “How Many Days to America,” a story about a refugee family fleeing for America in a small fishing boat, and “Molly’s Pilgrim,” a tale of a Russian girl whose grandparents fled their homeland to avoid religious persecution, just like the first pilgrims to America.

Mashal Siddiqui, one of Zumwalt’s sixth-graders, said her new home topped the list of things for which she was grateful.

Mashal, whose father is pursuing a doctorate at MU, was born in Lubbock, Texas, but moved to Pakistan when she was six months old, she said.

“I’m thankful for having the nationality of America,” said 11-year-old Mashal, who moved to Columbia in July.

Mashal brought a Pakistani salad of onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes. She said the biggest lesson she learned about this holiday is that it is time for people to give thanks for everything they received.

Salma Sait, another 11-year-old in sixth grade, said she learned pilgrims came to America to find religious freedom.

Garbed in a cotton pink hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim females, Salma said attending ESL classes has stretched her understanding of people from different countries.

“I learn new things from them, like how they act, how they speak, how they dress, how they look,” said Salma , who moved from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Columbia four years ago. She proudly pointed out the homemade dish she brought to the buffet: rice and vegetables wrapped in grape leaves.

Thalia Mendez, also in sixth grade, said her family will mark Thanksgiving with turkey and Mexican food.

Sharing tacos with her classmates, 12-year-old Thalia said she knows the first Thanksgiving was a meal shared among American Indians and people from England.

“And,” she said, “that people still come here for many reasons — to get a good job, to be free, and sometimes because there are wars in their countries.”

Thalia said her mother was a field worker who planted flowers in Mexico. Thalia said two years ago, her family moved to Columbia, where her mother could find better opportunities for work.

The students scraped their plates clean, delighting in the carnival of tastes that filled their mouths. Laughing and shrieking, they went back for seconds, leaving a carcass of nearly empty pans on the table. The food was nearly finished.

Only the barely touched pumpkin pie remained.

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