American Spirit

The Pilgrims Were the Original Refugees

They were the first immigrants to come to America fleeing persecution—and their spirit of gratitude is an obligation that extends throughout the generations.

North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy

Long before Syrians fled ISIS and Jews fled the Nazis and Irish fled the famine, the Puritans fled persecution to become the original refugees to alight on our shores.

In gratitude for having found refuge and for the assistance they received from the Native Americans after landing at Plymouth Rock, the Puritans we call Pilgrims held what we know as the first Thanksgiving.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors… many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted,” wrote Edward Winslow of that gathering in November of 1621.

“And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

By then, another Pilgrim family, the Whites, had achieved what would be the dream of refugees through the centuries to come: to have a child born in America. The very first was a boy who was named Peregrine, which comes from the Latin peregrinus, meaning pilgrim. A pilgrim is someone who travels to a holy place. And for the Puritans we call Pilgrims their holy place was this new land where they were free to practice their religion and raise their families and prosper.

In that sense, all the refugees who followed, the Irish and the Jews and the Syrians and the rest, have been pilgrims. And all these pilgrims have given thanks of some kind, if not a historic feast of wild turkey and venison, then at least a heartfelt sigh of relief.

The moment of thanks-giving is often accompanied by thoughts of those who did not survive to get there, as the Puritans no doubt remembered the half of their number who perished that first winter preceding the first Thanksgiving.

The moment is always accompanied by an obligation to assist others in similar need of refuge in times to come.

And that obligation continues from one generation to the next along with our reasons for being thankful.

So, we should all be cheered to learn that one of the more recent refugees to visit Plymouth Rock was 9-year-old Danny Elamri, formerly of Syria.

Until March of 2014, Danny and his family had been living in Damascus. He has a sister named Tia, who is three years younger. Their father, Basso Elamri, owned a travel agency. Their mother, Amira Elamri, taught elementary school.

The family had obtained a visa to come to America in 2013, but, in the mother’s words, “We didn’t want to use it until we saw there was no way we can stay in Syria anymore.”

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The danger grew ever more dire.

“You never know when a missile or a bomb will just explode,” the mother says. “There is no place that is safe. No place.”

When there were explosions, the parents would try to convince Danny and Tia that the blast was too far away to have been a real threat.

“We kept telling them, ‘It’s not close,’ and we kept them distracted,” the mother recalls.

The daughter would just clap her hands over her ears.

“It’s very hard to explain to a child,” the mother says.

The family learned to get by without electricity or running water. The parents continued to go to work. The kids continued to go to school. But there was always the fear that they might not see each other again.

“You never know,” the mother says. “Every second when you go out you have to pray you will come back home and be safe.”

In the spring of 2014, they knew the time had come.

“When we decided to leave, it was just like the end,” the mother says.

The family landed in America with only what they could bring on an airliner.

“We arrived with three suitcases,” the mother reports. “That’s all.”

The father has a brother who lives in Massachusetts and they settled in Watertown. They scraped by on their modest savings until they got work permits.

They then set to building a new life with the spirit that has always made America great, the spirit of the refugees who have come here.

“Before, I thought life must be ending,” the mother says. “You always have to have hope and stand up on your feet and work and you will fulfill a lot.”

As they neared their first holiday season in America, the son went with his third-grade class on a field trip to Plymouth Rock. He came home and excitedly told his parents everything he had seen and learned.

“He informed us a lot about the Pilgrims and what they did and the first Thanksgiving, how they arrived here and what the ship was called,” the mother says. “He was the one who taught us everything.”

The Elmaris then had their own first Thanksgiving. “We had turkey and mashed potatoes and green beans,” the mother said. “It was really good.”

They were the most thankful of families just to be in America.

“We are really thankful, in a safe place where we’re all together, the four of us,” the mother says. “We’re happy and we’re safe and that’s the most important thing.”

Danny and Tia were the happiest of kids.

“They love being safe, they love being in America,” the mother says. “They didn’t have a normal childhood before.”

One continuing effect of their previous life is that where other 9-year-olds might be watching the likes of Nickelodeon, Danny is forever watching the news.

“He wants to know everything that’s going on in the world,” the mother says. “I think he grew up faster than he should have.”

He has learned a hard lesson early on.

“Life is not fair,” the mother says.

Six-year-old Tia even likes the New England winter.

“My daughter loves snow,” the mother says. “It’s funny how she loves it.”

This month, the mother attended the annual Thanksgiving luncheon held by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. Other guests included Gov. Charlie Baker, who had been asked earlier in the day for his views on admitting Syrian refugees in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris.

“No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria,” he had said.

Baker would have done well to have chatted with Amira Elamri.

“These refugees are just people who by war lost everything,” she told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “They’re not ISIS. Refugees are people who are afraid of ISIS. They left Syria because they were just seeking peace and a life for their kids.”

She could have been talking about the Pilgrims her son learned about when he visited Plymouth Rock. The Elamris were now coming to their second Thanksgiving in America. The mother was certain that it would be only wonderful.

“No matter what,” she said.

They will then keep on building their new lives with the all American spirit that comes from so many lands. She is 31 and teaching preschool. Her husband is 43 and working as a travel agent and plans to open his own agency.

“You just need to work,” she said.

Spoken like a true Pilgrim.