Thanksgiving is special to refugee families

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(From left) Khulood Salman, 16, Kantima Dangkhuntong, Huda Salman, 17, and Mohammad Salman, 13, who all immigrated to Philadelphia from Thailand two months ago, choose from the dessert offerings with the assistance of volunteer Eric Haase, right, of Havertown, during the 11th annual Thanksgiving dinner to welcome new immigrants and refugees at the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia on Saturday.

Galeb Salman has lived in North Philadelphia for just two months. But for the first time in 25 years, he feels as if he's home.

An Iraqi citizen raised in Kuwait, Salman was traveling in Thailand on a tourist visa in 1990 on the day Iraq invaded Kuwait. The war left him stranded, unable to return home or secure travel documents. He stayed, married a Thai woman and started a family. But he could not obtain work permits, and at one point spent more than two years in an immigrant jail.

Now 57, he moved his wife and their five children to the United States this fall with help from the Nationalities Service Center, Philadelphia's largest resettlement agency.

On Saturday, they were part of a group of more than 300 people who gathered for an annual Thanksgiving meal held in the city for the group's clients.

"In this place, there are people who want to help me," Salman said between bites of pumpkin pie. "I can work. I can live. Here, now, every day I'm smiling."

Refugees from dozens of countries, including Nepal, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Myanmar crowded into the agency's headquarters on Arch Street on Saturday afternoon. Children colored pictures of turkeys with crayons while parents sampled sweet potatoes and cranberries.

A similar Thanksgiving for refugees, hosted by HIAS Pennsylvania (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) is planned for Sunday at Philadelphia's Old Pine Community Center.

"This is the quintessential American holiday, where we get to open our doors to each other," said Alicia Karr, board chair of the Nationalities Service Center. "That's what being an American is."

The Paris terror attacks have sparked new debates about U.S. immigration policies and whether the United States should continue helping Syrian refugees who are fleeing violence and the Islamic State's brutal regime. Just fewer than 2,200 Syrian refugees have arrived stateside since their country's civil war began in 2011, most within the last year. Pennsylvania has received 161, among the top 10 states nationwide, with most first resettling in Allentown and Erie. Fewer than a dozen came to Philadelphia, according to State Department figures. New Jersey received 92.

Margaret O'Sullivan, executive director of the Nationalities Service Center, said one family arrived in Pennsylvania last week from Syria, and four others are lined up to come this month.

"They're recovering from trauma," she said. "We're lucky to live in a state that welcomes them."

Asylum-seekers must undergo an extensive screening process before they can be approved for resettlement, O'Sullivan said, and only an estimated 1 percent of the world's refugees end up making it through the system.

After the Iraq invasion of Salman's home country, three years passed before he was even able to reach a member of his family.

"I had no home," he said. "I could not go back to Kuwait. I could not go to Iraq. I was not wanted in Thailand."

Salman and his family applied to come to the United States almost a decade ago, he said. He and his wife, Kantima, now have five children between 8 and 18. The kids are thriving in school, he said, and their eldest is fluent in English. He has worked as a teacher and also as a driver, and is confident he will find a job with help from the Nationalities Service Center.

Asked what it meant to celebrate Thanksgiving, he bowed his head and tears came to his eyes.

"I feel now we are human beings," he said.

asteele@phillynews.com856-779-3876@AESteele