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Participants decorating and carving pumpkins at the Office of Religious Life event.


Photo Courtesy: Andie Ayala


Last Saturday, Oct. 12, marked the Office of Religious Life’s (ORL) fourth annual pumpkin-carving event for refugees and immigrants involved in organizations from across New Jersey and New York. 

Immigrants, refugees, and University faculty and students gathered on Murray-Dodge’s lawn to carve and paint pumpkins, big and small. The event also featured an assortment of fall treats, such as apple cider, apple-cider donuts, and pumpkin pies.

“The purpose of the pumpkin carving event is to gather together refugee/migrant youth, Princeton students and invited community members in a fun and meaningful activity,” wrote Andie Ayala ’19, a former member of the University’s Religious Life Council, as well as the communications team of the ORL, in an email to The Daily Princetonian.

“This very inclusive American fall tradition allows all to participate, regardless of cultural background, faith tradition or age,” she added.

This year’s pumpkin carving saw a record-high 90 non-University guests, according to Ayala. 

While prior years had averaged around 30 to 40 visitors, this year the ORL worked with partners of the Religion and Resettlement Project to plan the event, resulting in a greater turnout. Last year, the ORL received a grant for the Project which, Ayala said, “increased the desire to work with different partners who work with refugees, especially as it is related to religion.”  

The partnership inspired both the University and the Project to branch out to new organizations around the New Jersey and New York area. The ORL has worked with Catholic Charities in Camden and Interfaith-RISE in Highland Park in past years, but this year three more partners were added: Midtown Utica Community Center; The Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc, (LALDEF), Trenton; and Welcome Home, Jersey City.

According to Katherine K. Clifton ’15, the coordinator of the Religion and Resettlement Project, the Project is a religious program that works to understand and respond to the role of religion in domestic refugee resettlement. Clifton discussed the consistent historical overlap between religion and refugee work.

The Project grant was an initiative to bring the local community and migrants together in direct contact.

“It became clear that there was an interest in looking at the role of religion and the role of resettlement,” Clifton said. “The Office of Religious Life is a wonderfully receptive space for this kind of thinking, this kind of work, this kind of convening.” 

Visiting students such as Saw Day and Minh Hong, high school sophomores and members of the Midtown Utica Community Center (MUCC), came to the event to meet other people and learn more about life on the University campus. 

“I wanted to see what a college looked like,'' said Saw Day.

This year, the ORL and Religion and Resettlement Project made the experience more immersive by incorporating an Orange Key Tour and a lunch, held at Whitman College, for visitors.

“This year we added lunch and [a] tour specifically for middle and high school aged kids to have them see what it's like to live on a college campus and encourage them to start thinking about applying,” said Ayala.

The Office of Religious Life worked in conjunction with the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) of the Class of 2022. Anika Khakoo ’22, Class Officer and Social Chair for USG Class of 2022, said that the annual pumpkin carving partnership has developed into a tradition between the ORL and the sophomore class each year. 

The sophomore class contributed to the event by “providing funding, organizational help, manpower,” said Khakoo.

In addition to the officers and coordinators, chaperones accompanied the events with their respective organizations. 

Andrew Hieden is a member of the organization Welcome Home, a newly formed non-profit located in Jersey City working to help refugees, asylees, and asylum-seekers resettle in Jersey City. According to Hieden, Welcome Home arrived at the event with 32 children and 11 adults, who originally hailed from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. 

Hieden said that the kids on the trip were excited to come to the University, especially since for many of them, it was their first time leaving Jersey City after immigrating to the United States. He said some of the girls were excited to see the campus architecture because of how it resembled “castles” that they had seen in Disney movies. 

“It’s so hard to contain them because they want to see everything, there's so much open space,'' he said.

For some, the University’s “castles” were not the only novelty of the event. Some of the attendees’ parents had never encountered pumpkins prior to the event.

“When we were driving down we were trying to describe what a jack-o’-lantern is, what a pumpkin is, and what the holiday [Halloween] means, they had no conception of it — this is all new to them,” Hieden said. “I brought over pieces of pie and they said, ‘what kind of pie is it,’ and I said ‘pumpkin pies,’ and they said ‘what,’ and I said ‘these things are pumpkins and they went into the pie.’ They all had to try it.”

The pumpkin carving event ended with some participants carrying their pumpkins home and others leaving them to be displayed across Murray-Dodge for onlookers to admire.

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