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Robert Roggie announced that the dinner about 200 recent arrivals to America were about to receive Saturday would feature turkey, "which is like a large chicken."

The explanation was helpful for many who attended the seventh annual Refugee Harvest Festival. It was the first time many of the newcomers to this country had tasted America's bird of choice for the holiday season.

"It's very good," said Hamadi Shebule, a 21-year-old from Somalia, whose smile conveyed more than his limited English would allow him to express. "Everything is good."

Designed as an introduction to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, the festival is a joint production of Journey's End Refugee Services of Buffalo and Niagara University's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

The big crowd that gathered at the Massachusetts Avenue Project is a reflection of the activity this year at Journey's End, said Roggie, the executive director of the refugee resettlement organization. All who came arrived in the United States after last Thanksgiving.

"This year, we've had about 150 refugees, and also a large number of Cubans who have come via a special Cuban migration lottery," Roggie said. "We have been averaging about 23 Cubans a month."

One of those Cubans, Felix Leon, is a 45-year-old Havana native who came in February with his wife and four sons.

The transition to America has been a little difficult, he said. "I don't know anybody, but it's good."

The largest single group at the dinner were Bantu, tribespeople originally from southern Africa. Many Bantus were sold into slavery in the 1880s and ended up in the northeastern African country of Somalia.

As that country disintegrated into anarchy during the 1990s, many of the Bantu, who historically were discriminated against by other Somalis, were forced into refugee camps. The U.S. State Department recently granted asylum to 15,000 Bantu Somalis.

Mohammed Eimi, 42, spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before finally settling in Buffalo eight months ago with his wife and six children.

"Today is my first time for turkey. Next time, I will know what it is," he said. "It's a good feeling to be here, a very warm feeling."

It's also a good feeling for the 22 seniors from Niagara University who prepared and served the dinner, said their professor, Steve Siegel.

"As part of their senior seminar, this is a requirement, but they all hear how wonderful it is, and they really work hard to pull it off," Siegel said.

He said several former students have gone on to become active in Journey's End after they graduated.


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