Michelle Heimerman

Celebrating the Fourth of July in America

Two immigrant families, one from Burundi, another from Pakistan, gather friends around the table—and the drum set—for festive meals in their new homes

There’s a playful rhythm on the drums as eight-year-old Furaha and her twin brother Baraka run around their front lawn with wide smiles and mallets in hand. Smoke and spice wisp out from the kitchen as their parents, Francis and Solange Muradi, prepare a typical East African lunch at their home on the northside of Syracuse, New York.

I’ve returned home to Syracuse for my first Fourth of July in nearly ten years, which was just around the time that the Muradis immigrated from a refugee camp in Tanzania, where they had lived since 1990. Before that, they stayed in a refugee camp in Rwanda for 18 years. Francis was 3 when he left Burundi. Now they call Syracuse home.

Since 1970, this upstate city, one of the poorest in the nation, has been home to tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants from dozens of countries around the world. Here is how a few of them celebrated America's independence.

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Furaha Clavella, 8, her mother Solange Muradi, 40, and her father Francis Muradi, 47, gather around the dining room table for a lunch of ugali, a Burundian dish made with cornmeal cooked into a thick paste that's then rolled by hand and dipped into curries and stews. Also on the table: rice, beans, spinach, and samaki, a smoked fish curry with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers—produce all grown at their local farm.Michelle Heimerman
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Furaha Clavella, the youngest in the family, was born in Syracuse. She tells me that although she enjoys East African food, she also has a big sweet tooth for cookie dough ice cream.Michelle Heimerman
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These Burundian drums are a symbol of national pride. Francis had them shipped from Africa a few years back in order to keep their old traditions and culture alive in their new home. Although a proper performance includes many people, we had a nice rhythm going on his front lawn as neighbors from Nepal looked on from a distance.Michelle Heimerman
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Ndagala, small, sardine-like fish found only in Lake Tanganyika, are popular in Burundi. Solange gets bulk bags of dried ndagala shipped to Syracuse to season stews.Michelle Heimerman
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When the family first moved to America, they had difficulty adjusting to pre-packaged and processed foods in local groceries; back in Tanzania they mostly ate fresh produce. Solange mentions that the family often got sick, and ran into some problems with diabetes, because of the change in diet. Now they share a farm near Cazenovia Lake with a few other families where they grow and sell their own corn, beans, eggplants, onions, green peppers, and potatoes. They’ll buy whole cows from local farms, butcher them, and smoke the meat in their backyard.Michelle Heimerman
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Baraka Philippe, 8, on his front porch.Michelle Heimerman
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A Burundian amphora used for serving wine or other alcohol. The family has carved out I LOVE SYRACUSE on the side, and it now has a proud home on a shelf in their dining room.Michelle Heimerman
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Francis puts on a traditional outfit worn while performing the drums. It consists of layers in red, white, and green, the colors of Burundi’s flag, and is detailed with matching beads. Before lunch, we watched a few large performances he’s done for crowds at Syracuse’s Refugee Day in years past. Though Francis tries to play the drums any chance he can get, long hours at work take up much of his time. He will often drive down for work in Pennsylvania on top of his near-daily work during the summer at the Cazenovia farm. He doesn’t have the assistance to sell his produce at grocery stores, but does well using social media platforms like Facebook and What’sApp to sell to the local community of refugees.Michelle Heimerman
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Emerine Mukewera, 13, currently in school, is about to sit down for lunch with the family.Michelle Heimerman
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It’s now the evening of the Fourth at home with the Metzgar family on Onondaga Hill in Syracuse. Husband and wife, Mike and Mara, are getting the fireworks all squared away while their children, Quinn and Julian, are in the kitchen with Sarah Robin helping to prepare chicken biryani. Sarah left her native Pakistan six and a half years ago for Sri Lanka, where her family still lives. She came to Syracuse in 2012. “Life as a refugee is very difficult. You don’t know where you’re going next. But the news of coming to America, it was the happiest I have heard.”Michelle Heimerman
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Sarah prepares fruit raita: yogurt with cucumbers, tomatoes, and pomegranate.Michelle Heimerman
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Sarah's cooking talent earned her a spot at Adam Sudmann's My Lucky Tummy pop-up meals, and by the end of 2016, she was the inaugural restaurateur at With Love, a restaurant incubator and training program. The feedback to her Pakistani food was tremendous, with locals returning for repeat meals during the pop-up's six-month stint. "It feels so good that people want to eat my cuisine," Sarah says. "I'm so inspired because it's not just the food, but it's the people of America, of this community in Syracuse, that support me." Sarah's professional accomplishments at the restaurant led to personal challenges at home. Her husband and his family expected her to stay indoors as a homemaker, not to build a career of her own. But with the support of the local community, and her own family in Sri Lanka, Sarah is moving forward with an American way of life. Finishing up at With Love, she is currently in the process of finding a location in Syracuse for her own permanent restaurant specializing in Pakistani street food, which will be called Punjabi Girl.Michelle Heimerman
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The Metzgar family were regulars at With Love. Julian and Quinn are huge fans of Pakistani food, and now that Sarah is staying with the family, they are fortunate enough to enjoy it all the time.Michelle Heimerman
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The sun has set and we’re all stuffed with too much biryani. The kids are running around the backyard with fireworks. Sarah and I are watching from the table, discussing all that she has to look forward to. She will be getting her U.S. citizenship very soon, learning to drive to get her license, and opening up her restaurant. Although it’s a long process, she will someday be reunited with her family when they are able to come from Sri Lanka. “I feel so blessed that the people of America have given me such great, great opportunity. Because they accepted me here as a refugee, I have many good things, so much support, so much encouragement.. Every day is a new day for me.”Michelle Heimerman