Making room for refugees

Thanksgiving is a time to reflect – and reach out to those in need

THIS WEEK, MILLIONS of Americans will sit down to dinner with friends and family to celebrate Thanksgiving. While there were a number of precursor national holidays, it was President Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation that began what we now celebrate each year. Lincoln’s hope, in the midst of a nation engaged in civil war, was that people would rise above the animosities that divided the country to recognize the blessings that Americans shared on both sides.

This is a country of great bounty with freedoms, security and opportunities to be celebrated each day. While our nation seems to be growing in an awareness of the reward that comes from multiculturalism, we are less aware of how much of our wealth has been acquired at the expense of other people, especially the Native Americans and those from African origin. Our country has much to do to make right the serious historical mishandling of our fellow human beings. The Thanksgiving holiday should make space for some discussion of the real stories of American growth so that our children can play a role in the important work of rebalancing and reconciling our nation.

This kind of dialogue and healing will never undo what was done to those who have been oppressed. However, in 2015, we have an opportunity to act in a positive fashion to bring freedom, security and opportunity to those who are fleeing oppression and death in Syria. Looking ahead is much easier than correcting the mistakes of the past. In the face of elected officials who seek to deny safety to people whom they perceive as different and unsafe, Americans have the present opportunity to demand better leadership and action on behalf of those who are literally dying to obtain sanctuary.

We must all be disturbed by the xenophobic response of American leaders who deny the Syrian refugees’ cries for help. We must all be outraged when children and those in desperation need compassion and assistance. Who are we to deny these refugees a seat at our country’s table, when so many of our ancestors were in the same situation only decades ago? What if they were all put in internment camps or were met with a wall rather than a chance? Many of our ancestors, including my Italian grandparents, were looked upon with prejudice, but they were not denied refuge or opportunity. As much as we tout the fact that America is a melting pot of immigrants, we have often turned our backs against our own countrymen and oppressed those who are disempowered or who seem different.

It’s understandable that people are afraid.  After the attacks in Paris, some lawmakers feel that we must take a “better safe than sorry” approach to Syrian immigration. But the screening process for Syrian refugees in the United States is a rigorous one.  And, in 2015, if we cannot find an efficient, technologically advanced way to screen people coming through our borders, how can we claim to be one of the most powerful countries in the world?  How are we the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Americans who sympathize with the refugees may feel powerless to aid them, thinking that politicians ultimately control these decisions. This is true to a certain extent, but we also have the chance to use our collective voice to everyone’s advantage, uniting in support for a group of people who would give anything to share in the blessings we celebrate this Thanksgiving.

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As we take our seats at the table this week to give thanks for our blessings, we should use this as an opportunity to reconsider the prejudice, indifference and suffering that surrounds our national discussion on immigration. Our nation’s history, like that of a number of other countries, is not without significant and horrible missteps. We should, however, find a way to teach it to our children with the hope that they can lead us to a healthier engagement with people whose language and beliefs are different from theirs.  Perhaps the next generation can find a path to reconcile the iniquities that created many of the privileges that we appreciate.  While we work toward that, we can use this time to challenge our fears and find a way to help those who are searching for survival and a safe place in the world to work and raise their families.

Nicholas Covino is president of William James College in Newton.