By Eskinder Negash
President and CEO
Every school child in America knows the story of our first Thanksgiving., captured so strikingly by artist Jean Leone Jerome Ferris in his famous painting, “The First Thanksgiving.” The pilgrims and the Wampanoag are sharing this iconic meal—a pilgrim woman offering a platter of turkey to a Native American seated on the ground while his tribesmen look on companionably to the unfolding scene of warmth and hospitality in front of them.
We are taught in school that the pilgrims fled to escape persecution in England and to seek religious freedom in the New World. The pilgrims were America’s first refugees and they were met with kindness and generosity by the Wampanoag. There is a deeper and more nuanced story about their relationship, but the fact remains that America’s first refugees and the people of the Wampanoag cohabitated in Massachusetts and the survival of the pilgrims was a testament to the goodwill of their neighbors.
Kakuma. Pugnido. Katumba. Yida. Zaatari. These names mean nothing to most Americans, but everything to the millions of refugees today who call these places home.
The pilgrims had a place of refuge—the New World—and hosts who welcomed them with life-sustaining survival skills to meet the challenges of an unfamiliar and challenging environment. Today’s refugees—almost 26 million worldwide—have fled the intolerable conditions of their countries only to find the doors closed for resettlement outside of a refugee camp. Out of 26 million refugees today, only a little more than 92,000 worldwide were settled last year. The U.S., once resettling 200,000 refugees from South Vietnam in one year with the enactment of the 1980 Refugee Law, has significantly reduced its refugee admissions ceiling to 18,000 for FY 2020. European countries are similarly responding with substantially lower refugee admissions.
These are challenging times for refugees worldwide. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) has been responding to the needs and advocating on behalf of refugees for the past 100 years. We are able to do this work because of the invaluable support from communities across the United States.
This Thanksgiving, USCRI’s field offices around the country are hosting Thanksgiving dinners to welcome refugees to our communities. It is a celebration of arrival and welcome—bringing together people to share food with each other on common ground.
We are a nation of immigrants. During this holiday season, let us remember this enduring message of America’s founding and rise among nations. We have come from around the world to stand together as Americans—from many we are one.