Welcoming Outsiders… The Spirit of Thanksgiving

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Emma Lazarus, from the New Colosses

Thanksgiving has always been my mother’s favorite holiday. I always thought this was a bit odd, since she is an immigrant to this country. Nevertheless, every year she roasted the ubiquitous turkey, stuffed it with dressing, baked a pumpkin pie and we feasted.

Even to this day, you never quite know who might be coming to our house for Thanksgiving. Once my grandmother came from abroad. Sometimes friends from South America or Europe join us and incorporate their own traditions (like empanadas or ceviche). One year, we invited a Hmong family, who had recently emigrated from Asia, to join us. It was at turns riotous and silent, since they hadn’t yet learned English and we shared no common language. So while my family’s Thanksgivings may not evoke Norman Rockwell, they strike me as being remarkably similar to that first Thanksgiving, with the mixing of newcomers and their cultures and languages.

Thanksgiving is steeped in history. The story of religious refugees fleeing their homeland for sanctuary in foreign lands; hoping to find a place to live in peace. Having arrived here, the pilgrims were poorly equipped to sustain themselves. The environment, climate, native people and languages were all different. They were outsiders in this land and their survival is due in part to the Native Americans who helped them during those first years.

The immigrant story has repeated itself time and again in American history but we have not always been so kind to newcomers. In the 19th century, the Irish, fleeing a famine that killed about 750,000 people, began immigrating to the US in droves. Germans also came at about the same time, fleeing religious and political unrest in Germany. However, unlike the pilgrims experience, in the mid-19th century the vast increase in immigrants led to the rise of the “Nativist” movement that sought to restrict immigrants’ and Catholics’ rights. (http://are.as.wvu.edu/baker.htm)

During World War II, we saw similar behavior when over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, many of whom were native born Americans, were sent to internment camps solely because of their ethnicity. It is an unfortunate truth that when faced with change, it is easy to fear or blame the outsider.

Today, the United States, and indeed the world, is faced with a similar challenge. Because of war and violence in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of Central America, millions of people are fleeing their homelands to seek refuge. They are travelling to countries where they are foreign, and are often part of a religious minority. And again, in some parts, there is fear of these outsiders. As a country, we can revert to the same fearful strategies that were used in the past, or we can choose a different path. We can welcome these newcomers, offer them sanctuary and teach them our traditions and incorporate some of their customs. We can give them the opportunity to support themselves; to contribute to our culture and economy; and to make this country a richer place to live. It’s the latter approach that represents the better spirit of Thanksgiving.

Imagine, for a moment, if Anne Frank’s refugee application had been approved by the United States instead of denied. She and her family likely would have moved to Boston, and Anne might have become a professional writer. But her family’s application was denied, and as we know, they did not survive the horrors of World War II. For so many reasons, the world is a poorer place. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/24/anne-frank-and-her-family-were-also-denied-entry-as-refugees-to-the-u-s/

As you sit to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, remember that precious few residents of this country are native. The rest of us are immigrants or their descendants. And many of those immigrants arrived as political, economic or religious refugees. I urge you to take a moment to think of those who are now fleeing oppression and consider what we as a nation can do to ease their way.

Elva D. Harding is a real estate and business attorney and founder of Harding Legal, dedicated to providing efficient and effective legal service to individuals and small, mid-sized and family-owned businesses. Elva currently serves as CCCBA’s Board President. Contact Elva Harding at (925) 215-4577, eharding@edhlegal.com or visit www.edhlegal.com.