The pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were refugees

It’s fantastical and revisionist—but the image of natives and newcomers coming together is something all Americans should aspire to.
It’s fantastical and revisionist—but the image of natives and newcomers coming together is something all Americans should aspire to.
Image: US Library of Congress/Jean Gerome Leon Ferris
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There are a number of reasons why an American might not celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. It certainly glosses over the centuries of brutal oppression suffered by Native Americans at the hands of European settlers. Others might object to the annual mass slaughter of turkeys.

I, myself, am a complete hypocrite in this department. Despite the fact that I advocate for Native American rights and reparations, and am generally opposed to the inhumane dispatch of animals for food (even turkeys, which I believe are the closest living descendants of dinosaurs and are accordingly terrifying), I love Thanksgiving. I love the food, the togetherness, even the hokey, revisionist historiography of interracial harmony. Because even though I know it’s inaccurate, there’s something about the image of American Indians and European pilgrims exchanging ideas and traditions that resonates, especially as America grapples with increasing racial tensions fanned by conservatives and fear mongers.

There is a group that should wholly abstain from celebrating the holiday, however. It consists of a handful of US state governors, congressional Republicans, and 2016 presidential candidates. These men and women all have one thing in common: An absurd, xenophobic, racially-motivated opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees within US borders.

Thanksgiving is a refugee’s narrative. The first Thanksgiving (or at least, the event we now remember as Thanksgiving) was celebrated in 1621 at the Plymouth Plantation colony in modern-day Massachusetts. It was attended by both native inhabitants and newcomers—the latter having fled England, by way of the Low Countries, due to religious persecution.

Syrian refugees today are fleeing warfare and the political oppression of both a secular dictatorship and an extremist theocracy. But in attempting to find safe haven in the United States—a country that owes a great deal of its success to immigrants, from all over the world—they are now being met with persecution in another form.

Not only is discriminating against refugees based on religion or national origin a direct affront to the Civil Rights Act, it is culturally antithetical to the notion of Thanksgiving—this most American of holidays.

Whereas the white settlers of Plymouth (some of whom maintained their own share of zany religious ideals) are valorized for fleeing England and making the arduous journey across the Atlantic, scrabbling together a livelihood from the unforgiving landscape of colonial New England, modern Syrians are offered no such courtesy. According to conservative demagogues like Republican presidential candidate and real estate tycoon Donald Trump or conservative governor Greg Abbott of Texas, they are an insidious, monolithic group, bent on manipulating American goodwill to their advantage in the war between East and West, Islam and Christendom, white and brown.

We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Resettled refugees are among the most heavily vetted entrants to the United States. Similarly, we should not need to emphasize, once more, that these men, women, children, and families are more interested in simply surviving than spreading Islamist politics. Any opposition to the intake of 10,000 Syrian refugees that Obama has promised (a drop in a bucket, and pitiful in comparison to the efforts of France and Germany) is therefore definitively anti-American, and indisputably anti-Thanksgiving.

Those Americans who maintain that “Syrian refugee” is synonymous with “ISIL” despite all logic and facts should be thankful for one thing above all else: birthright laws. Because the only difference between a Syrian refugee and yourself is a stack of paperwork and a geographically lucky birth.