Tuesday was Thanksgiving Day for 200 students at International Preparatory School who received a taste of American culture during a daylong open house attended by parents, teachers and invited guests.
Their guests, in turn, got a taste of the culture and the sometimes-harrowing life stories of some of Buffalo's newest residents.
“Thanksgiving can be celebrated by anyone, any culture any language,” said Michelle Biggar, one of the event's coordinators. “It is a wonderful holiday to celebrate because it is nondenominational. We have students of all cultures, all religions, and everyone can get together to share a meal.”
This Thanksgiving feast, donated by Cole's restaurant, featured turkey with a twist. The students were asked to bring a dish from their native countries to contribute to an international smorgasbord.
Fatima Naser, 12, of Yemen, brought sambose, fried pockets of dough stuffed with seasoned beef, potato and parsley. Best friend Jayzin Htwe pointed to the Burmese fried rice from her family kitchen.
International Preparatory School is located in the former Grover Cleveland High School on 14th Street on the city's Lower West Side. Of the 550 students in grades 5 through 12, 40 percent come from approximately 30 countries, including Eritrea, Burundi, Tanzania, Thailand and Gabon. Twenty-four languages are spoken, including Bengali, Burmese, Creole, Igbo, Kurukh and Spanish.
The students celebrated more than food Tuesday.
Each shared an essay they wrote about their journey to this country. In small groups, they rotated through five rooms to read their essays one-on-one to invited guests, including parents, School Board members and teachers. The essays were based on questionnaires, simple interview questions composed by a core group of instructors to grease the minds of these students who have so many stories to tell.
Kyu Paw Sa was born in Mae La Oon refugee camp in northern Thailand after her family fled Burma. Today, the 18-year-old helps her little brothers with their homework and dreams of becoming a nurse.
Mary Clare Hayes, who teaches English as a second language, got the idea for the journey essays after discovering her own family story of emigration from Ireland. The story told by her mother was an inspiration.
“My students probably have similar stories,” Hayes recalled thinking. “As it turned out, some of the students knew their stories, but some did not know what happened to them until this project.”
Some of these students were too young to remember walking with their families from Burma to Thailand, their essays revealed. They didn't have food, and they were running from soldiers who had burned their villages.
And that's just one country, noted school Principal Carlos Alvarez, sitting at a table listening as student after student – many dressed in native garb – read him their journey essays. Students from Yemen, Pakistan or Nigeria had different scenarios. Some of their parents arrived in the United States years ago, saved money and applied for visas to bring their families here.
“Just be prepared with a box of tissues,” Alvarez told guests who were about to be seated. “There are some heart-wrenching stories, things we don't even think about, like literally picking up what belongings you could and running as fast as you can.”
Their stories hit home for Alvarez, whose father came from Puerto Rico in 1952 knowing little about American culture.
Rayboe Hto escaped more than a decade ago from Burma on the shoulders of his father, who was running from soldiers.
“Some people died, but we escaped safely because our house was on the mountain- side,” explained the 15-year-old, who said America has changed his life.
“It's changed the way I act and the way I think,” he said. “Now I am a real gentleman.”