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Yersalem Tedros Tewoldermedhin, a student at The English Center, smiles as she looks at the different foods on her plate at the Thanksgiving meal for staff and students of The English Center at Jack London Square in Oakland, Calif. on Friday Nov. 19, 2010. This is the first Thanksgiving meal experience for many of the immigrant students at The English Center, the Oakland-based organization that teaches English and jobs skills to adult refugees and other new immigrants.(Laura A. Oda/Staff)

OAKLAND -- He has not lived in the United States for very long, but it took just a few moments surrounded by new friends and food last week for Ahmed Mansour to grasp what Thanksgiving is all about.

"It's a time for relief, for refreshment, to feel happiness in your life. To feel at home," Mansour said as he celebrated the quintessential American holiday for the first time in the community hall of the Lake Merritt United Methodist Church.

Mansour fled war-torn Sierra Leone a decade ago and lived in limbo in Senegal until he was welcomed to the United States as a refugee this year. He joined dozens of other East Bay refugees from around the world at a Nov. 18 dinner celebration at the Lake Merritt church.

"Since some of you are without family, we are going to be your family for tonight," said host Don Climent of the International Rescue Committee, a relief organization that has been assisting refugees since 1933.

A jazz band played as guests helped themselves to turkey and other fixings. It was the first Thanksgiving for almost all of the few hundred guests, Climent said. Some knew of the tradition. Others learned of the holiday and its meaning just days earlier.

In another Thanksgiving event Friday, dozens more refugees gathered in Jack London Square for a lunch hosted by The English Center, an organization that helps newcomers learn English and job skills.

Darshan Theivendramoorthy stood up in front of the crowd to say he was grateful to be with them, and grateful to be in the United States.

"I am thankful for being in America. In general, if I work hard I can be what I want to be here," he said. "I'm thankful for my father who taught me well. I am thankful to my mother who worked hard for me when I was a child."

Theivendramoorthy lost his father in the violence of Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war. The 28-year-old arrived in Oakland in the spring after spending three years stranded in a jail in Thailand. He has friends here, but no family, he said.

"Many cultures have harvest festivals and expressions of gratitude," said Marcy Jackson, director of The English Center. "This one is different. "... It's a holiday that all immigrant groups can adapt to. They might serve different cuisine, but because it's a universal experience, it's adaptable."

The legend behind Thanksgiving is also one that resonates with refugees: Struggling pilgrims, after arriving in a new land, shared a meal with locals and expressed gratitude for what they had.

"It's so huge. It's really our only myth, our only American myth," Jackson said. "It's just an amazing, very sacred experience. We all, essentially, believe that myth, and by believing it we make it true."