Happy Thanksgiving! If you are one of my non-US readers, we are taking the day off here in the States to be with our families, eat far too much food and in a sort of vague way, commemorate the survival of a group of early English settlers in the area that is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Because they only survived with the help of the existing local inhabitants and because most of us have no actual familial ties to England, we loosely categorize the event under, “aren’t we grateful to be together and not starving.”
I am, of course, very grateful to have plenty of food. I am also particularly grateful this year to be with my husband and son–last year work kept me in a different part of the country for weeks at a time. But I am not sure I really need a day to grateful for being with family. For the past few years I have found myself wondering if what we really need to be focusing on at Thanksgiving is the courage that takes so many people away from their families–away, in fact, from everywhere and everything that they know.
Every day, people all over the world embark on a risky, often dangerous journey away from the lives that they have inherited. Sometimes they are students in search of an education. Sometimes, they are professionals clinging to a job or grabbing an opportunity. Most often, they are people simply looking for work that they need to survive.The World Bank estimates that, in 2010, workers around the globe sent over $440,000,000,000 home from abroad to support those they left behind. For 24 countries, these remittances made up more than 10% of the entire gross national product. These are just the remittances that were officially tracked, and they don’t include all of those workers in India, China, the U.S. and elsewhere whose journey keeps them within national borders. In other words, leaving home is a foundational part of the global economy. It always has been.
As impressive as these numbers are, the stories behind them are far more compelling. These are stories of immense success: has any country told more of these stories than the U.S.? They are also, always, stories of heartache. We see it in the tears of our students when they make what seems to us to be a relatively short journey from their villages to their new schools. We see it in the migrants who enter here through the bewildering lines and fluorescent lighting of immigration control. We see it in people who arrive across borders in so many countries in darkness with nothing but determination. We see it here in the U.S. and in every other country on earth because leaving home has been one of humanity’s fundamental survival tools as long as we have been a species. If you go back far enough, all stories are immigrant stories.
We can lament the fact that thriving or surviving so often means leaving our inherited lives behind. But on Thanksgiving, I prefer to recognize the courage of those around me who have taken that journey. I have the benefit of knowing 396 students in East Africa I can look to for inspiration, each of them moving away from their homes in an effort to shift their destinies. As a U.S. citizen, I also have the benefit of knowing (and being related to!) so many more. I have been honored with stories of risked lives and bodies, and I have watched those who arrive safely continue to share what they have gained with the people they left behind and with those around them now. In the shadows, we remember those who did not make it and know that without the help of strangers, a journey like this will usually end badly.
As I sit down for dinner with my family for the first Thanksgiving in a couple of years, I will be grateful for what I have, but I will think about those who, right now are packing belongings and saying goodbye, boarding planes or hiding in the back of trucks. I will think of the student down the street who has come all of the way from Kenya alone to pursue her education and the woman working at the gas station, who is still trying to make this work for herself and her family. For me, Thanksgiving is a reminder of that sort of courage that changed our world in the 17th century and will likely be the only thing that can make an even greater change possible today.