Thanksgiving lessons for the Syrian refugee debate

After the Paris attacks, Americans are divided on Obama’s plan to let in 10,000 Syrian refugees. The timing is good: Thanksgiving can shed light on how much the nation’s tradition of hospitality should influence this decision.

AP Photo
Syria refugee Nedal Al-Hayk works as a fabricator in Warren, Mich. Several U.S. governors are threatening to halt efforts to allow Syrian refugees into their states in the aftermath of the coordinated attacks in Paris, though an immigration expert says they have no legal authority to do so.

Just as Americans prepare to express their hospitality toward others during Thanksgiving, a national debate has erupted over another kind of hospitality: President Obama’s plan to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. After the Paris attacks, the plan has been widely challenged, not least by nearly half the US governors. They fear Islamic State terrorists might slip in as “sleepers” among the refugees. Others argue back that the US already rigorously vets all asylum seekers – for as long as two years.

Might Thanksgiving, with all its traditions and meaning, shed some light on this debate?

The practice of welcoming strangers into one’s home or community long precedes the first American thanksgiving, that autumn feast of 1621 when Pilgrims and native Americans expressed gratitude for either the harvest, each other, or God’s mercy (or all of the above). Hospitality is an ancient Middle East virtue, rooted in the traditions of desert tribes and deeply encoded in the three Abrahamic religions. In the scriptural book of Hebrews, we read: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Hospitality, like Thanksgiving, is a type of giving that treats others – rich or poor, stranger or family – as equals. In ancient days, this egalitarian focus was symbolized by the washing of a guest’s feet. Today it serves as a cornerstone for democracy. It is also the basis for the United Nations Refugee Convention, in which a majority of the world’s states have agreed to grant asylum to people deemed to be refugees.

In the US, a thanksgiving day was not an official holiday until Lincoln made it one during the Civil War. The woman who championed it, Sarah Hale, wrote in 1864: “Let us each see to it that on this one day there shall be no family or individual, within the compass of our means to help, who shall not have some portion prepared, and some reason to join in the general Thanksgiving.”

Granting permanent asylum in the US to a refugee, of course, is not the same as sharing a turkey dinner with a stranger. Today’s modern nation-states are careful about who crosses their borders, either to prevent problems or to enhance their society. But with 1 in every 122 people now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum, the need for hospitality is great. And in hospitality a nation can find its greatness.

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