When Rothouse mentions "harvest," the puzzled students turn to their dictionaries.
"Thanksgiving is very, very American. I think more than any other holiday," Rothouse concludes. "It really doesn't matter what your religion is. Catholic. Protestant. Jewish. Muslim. Buddhist. We're all American. It's nice."
Awadia Lazarus, her husband, Francis Ayoub, and their year-old son, Tony, enter their Arlington apartment. Lazarus and Ayoub escaped from war-torn Sudan and are struggling to get by in America.
(Photos Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
Violence Fractures Cease-Fire In Sudan (The Washington Post, Nov 24, 2004)
Violence in Darfur Inspires Surge In Student Activism (The Washington Post, Nov 23, 2004)
Rebel Attacks Raise Tensions in Darfur (The Washington Post, Nov 21, 2004)
In Sudan, a Sense of Abandonment (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 2004)
U.S. Urges Aid to Spur Peace in Sudan (The Washington Post, Nov 15, 2004)
There is the iconic American story of the newly arrived Pilgrims learning from Native Americans and sharing the bounty of the earth with them at a feast. It is both a myth and the ideal for a country built on a crazy-quilt pattern of the dreams of all the immigrants and refugees who come to America for its promise of a better life.
Ayoub has that same dream.
Growing up in Sudan, he never imagined that this would be his life.
He wakes at 6 a.m. in his high-rise apartment off Columbia Pike in Arlington. Sometimes he drops his year-old son, Tony -- named for British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- off at day care. Some days his wife, Awadia Lazarus, transports their son before she heads off to work as a housekeeper at a motel. Most days, Ayoub catches the bus at 6:50 a.m. and gets to work by 7. He works as a "house person" at the Doubletree until nearly 5 p.m., catches the bus home, picks Tony up from day care, eats a quick dinner, showers and then catches another bus to Kenmore Middle School, where he learns English until 9 p.m., four nights a week.
Some nights, a cousin drives him home. Other nights, he walks back.
He watches the 11 p.m. news. He diligently works on his English homework, making plans to work the night shift so he can study by day for his high school GED and then go to college to become an accountant or an engineer. He's in bed by midnight or 1 a.m.
Thanksgiving this year will be no different, except that Ayoub won't have English class. Perhaps he and his wife will eat a traditional Sudanese stew of beef and potatoes in their quiet apartment, where at night the living room is lit only by the dim front-hall light. But there will be no big family gathering.
His mother, Sarphina Surur, who lives in Springfield, plans to pack up Ayoub's four younger brothers and sisters and drive to a convention of the Madi tribe in Texas for Thanksgiving. "With the war in Sudan, we are going to talk about what to do back home," she said. She explained that in Sudan, the family name is the paternal grandfather's name, and that is why hers is different from her children's.
Ayoub's stepfather, Linus Geri, is matter-of-fact. "They work in hotels, so they have no break," he said. "When [other] people are on vacation, it's time for them to work. It's good for them. Because otherwise there would be no work."
It is a separation all too familiar for Ayoub, only this time it is not due to war and hardship. In Sudan, Ayoub was living with his grandfather, working and going to high school when his mother wrote him that the entire family was escaping to Egypt and seeking to become refugees to the United States.
Already, 2 million people had died because of the civil war, either killed by others or dead from starvation or sickness. Another 4 million were displaced from their homes, seeking refuge from the violence and chaos in other countries or eking out an existence in another city or town. In all but 10 years since it won independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan has been at war.
Geri, a Christian from southern Sudan, spent his childhood as a refugee from war in Uganda. After a peace accord in 1972, he returned to Sudan and found work. But the fragile peace lasted barely a decade before tensions again erupted. He was repeatedly denied a visa to travel for work outside the country and was harassed to convert to Islam.