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Houston Chronicle Tony Freemantle column

Nov. 28-- When the chicken karahi, the lamb biryani, the beef nihari and the roast turkey are ready, Mohammad Mian and his family will spread it out on the carpet in their living room this afternoon and settle down, Pakistani style, for Thanksgiving dinner. The Morisho family will cram into their modest southwest Houston home to celebrate the recent arrival of the...

By Tony Freemantle, Houston Chronicle
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Nov. 28--When the chicken karahi, the lamb biryani, the beef nihari and the roast turkey are ready, Mohammad Mian and his family will spread it out on the carpet in their living room this afternoon and settle down, Pakistani style, for Thanksgiving dinner.

The Morisho family will cram into their modest southwest Houston home to celebrate the recent arrival of the mother and son they left behind in Africa. Turkey, cassava and fufu sima, a traditional West African dish, will be offered up in thanks.

The Amadors and friends will blend the culinary cultures of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador and the United States for a meal to share in gratitude that their tenuous hold on the American Dream has lasted another year.

For many Americans, gathering for the Thanksgiving meal is a celebration that goes back for generations. For recent immigrants, it is a tradition in its infancy, enthusiastically embraced, a quintessentially American holiday that excludes no one.

It carries no baggage -- there's nothing religious about it, nothing cultural, nothing political, nothing patriotic. It's purpose is deceptively simple.

At first, Raul Amador, Sr., who came here from Mexico with his wife and young son in 1989, didn't really get it.

"The first year I got here, I thought it was just about eating turkey," he tells me. "It wasn't until the following year that I understood that it had a special meaning."

Immigrants take many different paths to reach America -- some easy, some treacherous, some fortuitous.

Inevitably those paths lead to the Thanksgiving table, where for one day every year we all stop and acknowledge how fortunate we are to be here.

It's bedlam in the Morisho's southwest Houston home on a recent rainy afternoon.

The drapes are drawn. The large screen TV is loud. The sectional sofa in front of it is writhing with children wrestling and squealing. Two-year-old Moses is an unstoppable, high-volume force.

Every now and then, Saleh Morisho, the father of this clan, barks over his shoulder in Lingali, his native tongue, for one of the older girls to curb the chaos.

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He fled the war and turmoil of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with his wife Fatuma and their eight children in the early 2000s, ending up in a refugee camp in Harare, Zimbabwe, where they sat for three years before being cleared for resettlement in the United States.

It wasn't until a few days before their departure that he learned they would be coming to Houston, a place he'd never heard of. One son and his mother were left behind, he says.

They knew no English and had no possessions when they arrived in 2006, but with the help of the Alliance For Multicultural Community Services, they found a place to live, and he found a maintenance job at a Galleria area hotel.

Slowly, he began staking a claim. The children -- ranging in age when they arrived from 17 to 3 -- went to school and started learning English. He is starting an export business, shipping used clothes and appliances to Africa for resale.

Two weeks ago, his eldest son, who was left behind in Zimbabwe, and his family finally arrived; his mother was expected Tuesday night.

Morisho is not sure exactly how many family members will be on hand today for their meal, and you get the sense he is never entirely sure how many are in the house at any given time.

But he and Fatuma do know that this will be the first time in many years the entire family is together, safely in one place.

For that they are thankful.

Amairiany Amador and her younger brother Paul are American citizens. She is 23 and working toward a degree in communications at the University of Houston-Downtown; he is a doctoral candidate in microbiology at the University of Texas at Austin. They were both born here.

Her older brother, Raul Jr., was brought to the U.S. illegally by his parents when he was 2. He is working on his Ph.D. in kinesiology at the University of Houston, more secure now than he's ever been since qualifying for deferred action, a temporary reprieve from deportation for people like him.

So when Amairiany gives thanks on this day every year simply because it means the family has survived another year without being torn apart, she's talking about her parents, Raul Sr., and Ofelia, who are here illegally and live under the constant fear of discovery and deportation.

"It's a day for us to get together and celebrate and be thankful that one year your family is complete, but the next year it might not be," she says. "It's strange because I was born and raised here, but in a way I've always felt like an immigrant myself."

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Raul Sr., and Ofelia crossed the border with their oldest son in 1989. Like many Mexican immigrants they thought they would stay for a while, earn some money and then return. But life got in the way, and it became complicated.

Raul Sr., found work at a picture framing business and over 16 years rose through the ranks to a supervisory position. They had a house in Katy, paid their taxes, had health insurance and driver's licenses. The children were excelling at school. They even had a dog,

And then in 2009, a casualty of the recession, Raul Sr., was laid off. They lost their house (they now live with an aunt), and soon thereafter his and his wife's driver's licenses expired and for the first time in many years they found themselves once again unable to find steady work and looking over their shoulders.

They now find work where they can. He does maintenance at a gym; she cleans it.

But today they will gather as they have done for years around a meal to give thanks for what they have and for the fact they still have it.

Dinner at the Mians house today will be sandwiched between football games.

Khalida Mian will preside in the kitchen, assisted by her daughters-in-law to be, while her husband and sons watch the games.

Mohammad Mian is a manager in the marketing department at Fluor Corp. He first came to Houston in 1977, became a citizen in 1986, and immediately went back to Pakistan to marry Khalida and bring her to America.

Theirs is a classic immigration family. They cling to their Pakistani culture, which dictates their dress, their food, their weddings and their funerals. But the children -- two boys and a daughter -- grew up thoroughly American.

Fareed is 22 years old. He was class president and a varsity football player at George Bush High School and is now working on a business degree at the University of Houston. Amina is married with a child of her own. Mueed, 23, is also studying business at the University of Houston-Downtown.

After a meal on a recent evening, they gather around a game board for a round of ludo, a version of a traditional South Asian game. Mueed also had in his hand a copy of the game Madden 25.

"We also play this traditional game," he says.

Mohammad watches it all, bemused. He tells me his kids are demanding more traditional American elements in their Thanksgiving meals -- turkey, stuffing, cranberry relish. But that's OK.

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"You have to love this place and its people," he says. "Thanksgiving is a chance to celebrate, to give thanks, to celebrate how people treat each other. It is one of my very favorite holidays."

___

(c)2013 the Houston Chronicle

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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