By Bob Simmons, Executive Director
My family is an immigrant family, and my family’s story illustrates how our nation’s earliest forefathers took a far-sighted approach with the children of refugees in order to build greatness out of adversity.
On November 9, 1621, shortly after the surviving Pilgrims of the Mayflower held the feast that is now known as “The First Thanksgiving,” a second ship arrived at Plymouth Colony with 35 new settlers. Among those settlers was my 11th great-grandfather, a 17-year-old who went by the Dutch name of Moyses Symonson. He was the son of William Simmons, one of the English Dissenters who founded the Reform Church at Leyden, Holland. After arriving at Plymouth, the young man resumed his English name, Moses Simmons.
Like the Syrians and other refugees now fleeing in small boats to the safer shores of Southern Europe, William had fled the theocratic tyranny of England across the sea to the greater safety and freedom of Holland. His son Moses later determined to come to America seeking a new life with other refugees who spoke his language and were building a new community.
Like the refugees coming to America from around the world today, those who arrived on the Mayflower and the Fortune, were transported by groups of men who were in it for the money. The London group behind the voyages of both the Mayflower and the Fortune was called the Merchant Adventurers, and mixed in with the refugees were fortune seekers.
In order to increase the Merchant Adventurers’ profit from the voyage of the Fortune, their agent Thomas Weston chose to carry additional paying passengers and to leave behind the supplies they had promised the Pilgrims. So when Moses and his fellow passengers arrived at Plymouth, although their capacity for labor was seen as a future benefit to the colony, they also created an immediate problem for the Pilgrims as additional unexpected bodies to house and un-provisioned mouths to feed over the winter from the harvest they had just celebrated – a harvest that had been carefully planned and rationed to meet their expected needs until the next growing season.
But instead of turning away Moses and the other Fortune passengers, or depriving them of shelter or food, the Pilgrims welcomed them and worked with them to build and expand dwellings. The Pilgrims reallocated the rations from the Thanksgiving harvest – shortening everybody’s ration by half – so everybody could share equally to survive the winter. Facing the prospect of another winter of hardship and hunger, the Pilgrims chose to respond with courage and generosity.
Once upon a time, most Americans really believed in the strength we derive from becoming one out of many. Now too many of us talk of building walls to keep others out, excluding refugees fleeing danger and oppression, deporting those who are here without documents, and depriving their children of health and educational services.
In the report linked below, NC Child writes about a new act of the North Carolina General Assembly, signed into law by the Governor in October, that we believe will hurt the children of our State, in particular our immigrant children, instead of embracing them and helping them to thrive.
As concerned and interested child advocates in Mecklenburg County and North Carolina, it is important that you are aware of what our leaders are doing to our children, and it is vital that you join us in holding our leaders accountable for doing better for all of our children.
Unlike the Plymouth Colony at the end of its first year, we are a strong nation with more than enough for all of our people and for those who want to join us as they seek the safety and freedom we promise the world. At Thanksgiving 2015 we should do nothing less in North Carolina and in the United States than to follow the example of the Pilgrims who welcomed my ancestor Moses, an unexpected 17-year-old immigrant refugee 394 years ago: Open our hearts to imagine the possibilities of immigrant children and share our capacity with them and their families to unlock the potential for building greatness out of adversity.