Meals, Thanksgiving and Refugees

For much of the year, we’ve seen heart-wrenching pictures of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Desperate, they sold whatever they could, left the people they loved, and climbed onto a boat with the barest of possessions. Many people have died in the process. Who among us can forget the image of that little child washed up, dead, on a beach?

I am struck today, by the parallels to our country’s Thanksgiving story. The people we hail as forefathers were also immigrants who climbed into boats to escape the horrors that they faced in their homes. The Pilgrims started in two boats and had to turn back because one boat was too leaky. They crowded together in the Mayflower, which took longer than anyone expected to arrive. There were storms in their crossing, too. Conditions were bleak.

Then, with fortitude and determination they planted themselves in this new land so they could worship the way they wanted, so they could build a new life.

A third of those new arrivals died that first winter. (Read here for my thoughts on that.) There is no dispute that without the help of the Native Americans who were already here, none of them would have survived. We celebrate Thanksgiving as a feast to celebrate that collaboration of Indian and Pilgrim, or put another way, that generous help by Americans to newly arrived refugees.

You can probably guess where this biased writing is going next. I have known modern day refugees and immigrants. To a one, they are not people of whom we need to be afraid. They have told me their stories of fathers taken in the night, of friends murdered in the streets, of fear to sleep at night because of nighttime raids. They enter this country (after a lengthy screening process) because they cannot go home. They are desperate, needy but brave. I am saddened by those among us who are closing their hearts to these needs, by our country’s growing animosity to immigrants.

My daughter-in-law teaches at a charter school for refugees and immigrants. As you might imagine, the result of last week’s election was disturbing and terrifying for her students (and thus for her as well.) Will they send me away, Ms?

Sadly, her kids and their families have come from places where selfish and egotistical and intolerant leaders reigned. Having already witnessed torture and maiming and killing by those in authority in their homelands, they are of course disturbed (as I am) by the trends here toward intolerance and xenophobia.

One of Amelie’s students was forced, with his siblings, to stand against a wall in the Congo and watch his parents be killed. Now he lives here with relatives, has learned English and will graduate next year. P___ said this last week: “Miss, I want to invite Donald Trump to my house for dinner. I want him to sit down at our table and eat our food and see that we are good people. Then he would change his mind, Miss. I know he would.”

 Well, I am skeptical that P’s request is realistic. But I do believe that hearing stories around a table and eating together is powerful. It is the story of our first Thanksgiving- sharing a meal with people different than ourselves, the native-born sharing what they had with the newcomer.

I am guilty of hypocrisy as I write this-  I’m having dinner today with people just like myself. But how beautiful, and how first-thanksgiving-like, if all over our country today, Americans  were sitting down together with those who are newly arrived.    We could listen to each other, laugh.  We could celebrate together, different but the same.