I remember my first Thanksgiving dinner in Champaign, Ill., during the late 1970s. I was invited by a friend of mine to spend Thanksgiving Day with a Chicano family. We sat around the crowded kitchen table in a trailer home and shared a scrumptious turkey dinner complete with all the traditional trimmings.
After the meal, I went outside to play ball with the kids. When I realized that they were speaking in a different language, I spoke a few words to them in Spanish and I could see their eyes grow larger. They ran to their mother and excitedly told her that I spoke “their” language, something they were not used to hearing after leaving the Southwestern United States.
I have never forgotten this act of kindness of a Mexican-American family who hosted a foreign student for an afternoon. It is this kindness that my wife and I are continually passing forward when we host dinners and parties with friends and strangers.
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. It is one of the most unifying holidays in this country but it has lost much of its original significance. It reminds me of the first Pilgrims on the Mayflower who dropped anchor on Massachusetts Bay and began to establish a village at Plymouth.
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Most of the colonists remained on board the ship during the first cold winter and many suffered from malnutrition and disease. Roughly half the original passengers lived to see the first New England spring as they moved ashore. Soon after, the settlers forged an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe which would endure for the next 50 years.
The natives taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, and avoid poisonous plants. In November 1621, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast of the Pilgrims’ first successful corn harvest which lasted three days. Tragically, it remains one of the few examples of collaboration and harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.
Earlier this week, we celebrated the 34th annual Thanksgiving Ecumenical and Interreligious service at St. John’s Cathedral in Boise. Religious leaders and laypersons of various denominations came together for one evening and shared uplifting and motivational speeches on behalf of the hungry, the homeless and the refugee communities.
The service was a succession of Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu rituals, sacred readings, prayers of thanks, and cultural chants and songs. The highlight of Monday night’s service was the testimony of Dr. Khalid Ameri, an Iraqi surgeon who found a second home in Boise. After being targeted for kidnapping and assassination by unknown militias in his home country, he ultimately found refuge in the City of Trees.
Ameri was a successful surgeon in Iraq where he owned his own hospital and a fleet of luxury cars. He delivered a moving account of the tragic events that led him to Boise. And, yet, Ameri was thankful for all the bounties he has received in his life in spite of his losses.
At one point during his speech, Ameri brandished his tax returns for the past few years in a move that startled our master of ceremonies. Ameri’s gesture reminded us that we could lose everything but, given a chance and a little help from strangers, we can rebuild our lives.
Ameri reminded all of us of what it is to be a refugee. He reminded us that many refugees come to this country fleeing for their lives and leaving behind all their possessions in the midst of chaos and destruction caused by forces beyond one’s control. He reminded us that most refugees are only seeking a peaceful place for their families when they could no longer stay safe in their own countries.
Prior to his journey to America, Ameri served with Doctors Without Borders in Haiti and saved countless lives after a major earthquake. He has since reinvented himself in the field of psychosocial rehabilitation and has become a manager in a local organization helping refugees adapt to their new country. Here, in Boise, he continues to saves lives but in a different manner. He is always cheerful, and I admire his resilience in the face of adversity.
Those Pilgrims at Plymouth were also fleeing persecution in their countries, and they left their homeland for the promise of a better life in the new world. They made it because they found a helping hand in the Native Americans who helped them survive and thrive.
During the current and upcoming holiday season, let us take the time and initiative to thank our parents, our spouses, our friends, our neighbors, and all those who have been good to us. Let us also share our blessings with others so that they feel blessed too.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.