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Utah Syrian refugees give thanks as they experience American holiday

SALT LAKE CITY — When Kholoud Abou Arida came to America, she knew very little about it. But she knew her family would be safe here.

On Thursday, Abou Arida — who was one of the first Syrian refugees in Utah — shared Thanksgiving with her family and six other families who have come to Salt Lake City from Syria. For many, it was their first exposure to the traditional American holiday.

Of course there was turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes, but the table was replete with traditional foods from Syria as well, brought by families grateful for the opportunity to share.

"It is something we can share with the American people," Abou Arida said, adding that Thanksgiving is a holiday she has grown to love and will continue to observe with her family and their new community.

And, like many Americans who gather around family for Thanksgiving, Abou Arida's 17-year-old daughter, Nour Bilal, said the holiday reminds her of extended family still in Syria.

"I hope to see them again," she said. "But that is what I love about this day."

Abou Arida said they love their homeland and would return if it were not so unsafe because of ongoing war, but they have settled in Utah and don't really think about leaving. They consider themselves "very lucky," she said, to have been given the opportunity to flee.

"My future started here," said Bilal. "I wouldn't be able to accomplish what I have in my own country."

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City, said the program helps families and "saves lives."

"They come here because they don't have anywhere to go," he said.

Around 10,000 Syrians have come to the United States seeking refuge in the last year, including several families to Utah. They join the approximately 60,000 refugees from various countries already in the state.

"They are here to fulfill their lives," Batar said, hoping to curtail any stereotypes that often accompany the idea of Syrian refugees coming to America. "They all come with skills and they want to contribute to our community."

"This is a time when everybody is thankful for what they have," he added. "Many of them do not make it here, they die trying to escape the hardships in their countries. So they are grateful they are here and that they are safe. And they are very appreciative of this community."

Nour Haji, 26, said he is grateful he was able to come to Utah almost a year ago, where he says it was "easy to get a good job." He works two of them and said "people are so nice here."

The idea of giving thanks, Haji said, is not unfamiliar to Middle Eastern people, as they celebrate and give thanks to God formally at least twice a year during traditional Muslim holidays.

"I am extremely proud that Utah has opened its arms to these people," said Intermountain Healthcare's new CEO, Dr. A. Marc Harrison, who, with his family, spent Thanksgiving with the Syrian refugee community at the St. Vincent de Paul Center. "All you have to do is talk to them to know they want the same as what our ancestors who first came here, or those who headed West, were seeking — they want opportunity for their families."

Harrison said it is important that Intermountain continue its promise to the LDS Church when the church donated its medical assets to the health organization decades ago: to be a model health care system providing care that is accessible and affordable.

Intermountain is a leading partner with Catholic Community Services, offering medical care that is often necessary when resettling immigrants to Utah.

"They are highly motivated people," Harrison said of the refugee population. "I can't imagine them not making our community better."