We recently noted the growing chorus of observers — ranging from respected columnists to religious leaders — condemning the fearmongering in the House that resulted in bipartisan passage of a bill making it practically impossible for desperate Syrians fleeing war to seek refuge in the United States.
Last week, as families across the nation celebrated Thanksgiving, a number of powerful pieces and editorials further called for Americans to extend the same kind of welcome to today’s refugees that the Wampanoag tribe extended to the nation’s original refugees — the Pilgrims — during the very first Thanksgiving celebration.
The tradition of Thanksgiving Day comes from a story of generosity towards foreigners, travelers who arrive escaping persecution – of a religious kind in the case of the first settlers, – with whom native people shared bread. The table has continued to grow with time, and with the arrival of immigrants from all over the world. This is not the time to close the door; we still have room to welcome a modest number of Syrian refugees.
The United States was built by immigrants through their strength and labor. However, the country also has a history of initially rejecting immigrants who spoke languages other than English or had a different ethnicity or religion. Excessive fear led to the creation of concentration camps for American people of Japanese descent during World War II, and to refuse to shelter Jewish families docked in New York, forcing them back into Nazi Germany to be killed.
Let’s not repeat this part of the story with these refugees. People are fearful after the Paris events and from the incendiary discourse of politicians who take advantage of the generalized anxiety. To achieve this, these politicians exaggerate facts, as when they say that the White House wants to bring in 100,000 refugees when the President has only spoken of 10,000. They also distrust the admittance process – detailed enough to take at least two years, – which they deem incapable of stopping a terrorist.
Figures matter in this case. The number of refugees the government is planning to take in is very small compared to the hundreds of thousands who are being accepted into Europe and to the millions of displaced people who have moved to Jordan and Turkey due to the chaos reigning in Syria. The U.S. has a humanitarian duty to participate in this rescue endeavor, as well as a responsibility over the crisis they unleashed when they invaded Iraq and left it in a state in which the conditions were ideal for ISIS to grow and strengthen, fed by Sunni discontent.
Enough of saying we are “compassionate, BUT…” Most refugees are families. Terrorists wanting to attack will not wait two years to see if they are accepted into the country.
According to Thanksgiving tradition, being grateful for what we have is shown by sharing it. Let’s not turn our backs on Syrian refugees.
Long before Syrians fled ISIS and Jews fled the Nazis and Irish fled the famine, the Puritans fled persecution to become the original refugees to alight on our shores.
In gratitude for having found refuge and for the assistance they received from the Native Americans after landing at Plymouth Rock, the Puritans we call Pilgrims held what we know as the first Thanksgiving.
…all the refugees who followed, the Irish and the Jews and the Syrians and the rest, have been pilgrims. And all these pilgrims have given thanks of some kind, if not a historic feast of wild turkey and venison, then at least a heartfelt sigh of relief.
The moment of thanks-giving is often accompanied by thoughts of those who did not survive to get there, as the Puritans no doubt remembered the half of their number who perished that first winter preceding the first Thanksgiving.
The moment is always accompanied by an obligation to assist others in similar need of refuge in times to come.
And that obligation continues from one generation to the next along with our reasons for being thankful.
Despite our country’s immigrant history, we fail to welcome our neighbors–particularly the over 11 million who are undocumented–with open arms when our nation’s antiquated laws refuse to allow their families to be together. We fail to embrace them as brethren in our communities when we denigrate them as “illegal immigrants.” We deny the generosity our ancestors were shown by turning away refugees who seek safety and freedom to begin new lives in the throes of immense pain and loss. When we advocate for deporting and splitting up families who call this country home or hope to make it their home, we hold in contempt the values the Native Americans espoused when the Pilgrims were new immigrants. This is no way to express gratitude to our native ancestors’ selflessness, nor for the invaluable contributions immigrants have made to our nation.
Pilgrims, immigrants who arrived in 1620 fleeing religious persecution and seeking a better future for their families. In the cartoon, the Native Americans tell the English pilgrims: “The Chief signed an executive order letting you stay.” The cartoon alludes both to the celebration of the first Thanksgiving and President’s Obama decision to offer relief to millions of undocumented immigrants last November.
Sadly, the significance of this important day is being eroded by a shameful wave of xenophobia. One year after the President’s announcement, DAPA is held up in a court battle after 26 Republican governors challenged the Executive order in a conservative Texas court. And, last week, House Republican leadership passed a bill denying entry to 10,000 Syrian refugees who are fleeing the savage bloodshed their country is suffering at the hands of ISIS and President Bashar Al Assad.
But today….[the] extremist segment has commandeered the nation’s Republican leadership. And no, the facts don’t back them up. There are 100,000 Iraqi refugees in the United States who arrived shortly after we invaded. None of these people have committed a crime as heinous as the slaughter of innocent children in Newtown, Connecticut or churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Facts also haven’t stopped Republican candidates from demonizing immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, when statistics indicate that hard work and good behavior are the norm.
Far from securing our country— and beyond that, honoring the ideals engraved in the Statue of Liberty— alienating entire groups of people makes us weak and vulnerable. The Paris attacks, far from dividing us, should spark empathy and brotherhood among us. These are the sturdiest firewalls against evil. If terrorists succeed in dividing us, they win.
During this season, we should seek that unity and give thanks for it. As Deuteronomy 10:19 says: “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” The Native Americans who welcomed the pilgrims in 1620 truly understood the spirit of this Biblical verse.
Ben Carson has compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. Donald Trump says that he would send them back.
Who are these Syrian refugee monsters who terrify American politicians?
Meet Heba, a frightened, desperate 20-year-old woman who dreams of being an artist and has just made a perilous escape from territory controlled by the Islamic State in northern Syria.
She was detained two months ago with her sister by Islamic State enforcers because her sister’s baby girl had too short a skirt — even though the baby was just 3 months old.
“That was crazy,” Heba said, shaking her head. “This was an infant!”
Heba says she and her sister argued that infant girls should have a little leeway in showing skin, and eventually the family was let off with a warning.
But Heba, strong-willed and self-confident, perhaps had been too outspoken or too sarcastic, and the police then cast a critical eye on her clothing. She was covering even her hands and face, but the authorities complained that her abaya cloak wasn’t loose enough to turn her into a black puff that concealed her form. The police detained her for hours until her family bailed her out by paying a $10 fine.
Heba was lucky, for other women have been flogged for violating clothing rules. Her sister saw a woman stoned to death after being accused of adultery.
“If I were wearing this,” Heba told me, pointing down at the tight jeans she was wearing as we spoke, “my head would come off.” She offered a hollow laugh.
I spoke to her after she left her mother and siblings behind in Syria (her father died years ago of natural causes) and fled with a handful of relatives on a perilous journey to Turkey, then on a dangerously overcrowded boat to this Greek island. I took Heba and her relatives to a dinner of pizza — Western food is banned by the Islamic State — and as we walked to the pizzeria she made a game of pointing out all the passers-by who would be decapitated by ISIS for improper dress, consorting with the opposite sex or sundry other offenses.
“It’s a million percent difference,” she exulted of life in the West. “Once you leave that area, you feel so good. Your whole body relaxes.”