I am an American but like most of us living in the U.S. my family has roots in another country. Unless we are Native Americans*, we have all come from a country other than America.
My specific ancestry dates back to a man named Sven, who was the first of our family to come to the US from Sweden in the late 1800’s. When you think about it, my family really hasn't been in America all that long.
We have tried to find out why Sven came to America as a teenager, but despite our efforts, this detail seems to have been lost in history. Apparently he never told anyone the whole story.
As we consider the birth of our Nation, we do know some of the reasons families made this often treacherous journey. Some came here to seek new opportunities and new beginnings, while others were forced to flee famine or wars. And some made an even more tragic entrance, at the hands of their oppressors, as slaves.
As the American population grew, this eclectic group of foreigners started building a society that was rooted in the diverse backgrounds of many. This blending of cuisines, languages and even religions became a colorful concoction that laid the foundation for the culture we have today.
We don’t have to look to deep into our own history to realize this melting pot has not always been blissful. Our American history has a divisive, even violent, reality. Many immigrants faced prejudices, poor living conditions, dangerous work environments or worse. We even developed slums that helped separate and dehumanize groups based on race, ethnicity and religion.
Although our ancestors built a society that many would consider desirable today, we were often terrible neighbors along the way.
One of the more recent examples of this was the struggle during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was divided as citizens sought some of the most basic rights intended for all Americans. Warped by years of dehumanization based on race, African Americans were treated as harshly as possible. To study this time period leaves many brokenhearted by the foolishness of our past.
Yet leaders rose from the ashes of this mess. Men like Martin Luther King Jr. who helped us move past misunderstandings and prejudices, while leading us toward humanizing each other as neighbors. He helped us see there was, and is, another way.
As we entered the new millennium a sadly familiar division began to emerge in America. One that we have seen in previous eras and finds roots in the process of dehumanizing others based mainly on misunderstandings and fear.
Like the ocean swells before producing either a beautiful or harmful wave, our culture is heading toward what might be our next big triumph or failure.
In America today, much like our own ancestors, there are millions of neighbors who have fled famine, war or worse. They arrive with a story, sometimes even too difficult to hear. They have many hopes and dreams for a better future, like many of our ancestors. They also carry fears and anxieties about living in a new world, experiencing a new culture, wondering if they will be accepted or rejected.
I'm speaking specifically of our neighbors who have arrived in the US as refugees from the Middle East and North and East Africa, who are often from predominantly Muslim countries like Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Palestine. They speak Arabic or Somali; some wear a Hijab, a traditional headscarf. They have a religion that is unfamiliar, and often misunderstood, by most of their new neighbors.
Often these neighbors have a courageous history of survival. Some have braved the dangerous trek from Mogadishu to Dadaab Refugee camp, protecting little ones along the way from unimaginable horrors. Others can vividly recall lying on the floor, covering their wife and children, as militias battled on opposite sides of a street in cities like Baghdad.
Many of these stories seem so unreal that they should only be found in the fantasy of film, but their stories are real, and they survived, often in heroic fashion.
As our society responds to our new neighbors, they are feeling the weight of a growing rejection, prejudice, even xenophobia and islamophobia. They are seeing well-spoken, often well-funded, individuals spread the message that we are enemies. Reminiscent of the now rejected responses of some of our forefathers.
As this rhetoric continues to grow, as a society and as individuals, we have a choice in how we respond.
We can consider our own history and the remarkable results of embracing others. We can consider the foundation from which we were built that leads many of us to beam with pride in how our ancestors overcame difficulties and experienced the 'American Dream'.
We can choose the way of wisdom that learns from our past and embraces the concept of loving each other as neighbors. We can lean on our similar heritage and become an encouragement to our neighbors. Building them up, befriending them, while allowing our own lives to be enriched with the beauty of new cultures.
Or we can choose to repeat part of our own history. A history that dehumanizes others as misunderstandings and misinformation prevail. Sending the message that we don't accept you, you are not welcome here.
This period in our American history will someday be read about by our children and grandchildren, a history that is being written by our actions today. Will future generations be left with broken hearts for our foolishness? Or will they beam with pride in how we overcame the temptations of fear and modeled the way of Loving each other as neighbors?
*A future post with go more in depth regarding our Native American neighbors