Thanksgiving: A Festival for Immigrants

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Thanksgiving is truly the one festival that represents immigrants and brings citizens to reflect on the birth of this nation. From its origins, it was meant to thank those who already lived here and generously opened their hearts and homes to newcomers. It is also today, the anvil on which America is being judged around the world – whether those welcoming values affording opportunity and bright futures, continue to define this country.

Despite a tumultuous year where shrill voices have ruled on both sides of the political divide, and some trepidation within some with the latest FBI report showing a dramatic increase in hate crimes directed at minorities, those Indian-Americans News India Times spoke to are thankful for being here, and show it by giving back to their local communities and to the nation.

Working in different fields, from the U.S. Army to business, politics and advocacy, religious and interfaith service, they are engaged in bettering their environment, and building their families. What better way to give thanks as they try to chip away at negativity and divisiveness, and raising awareness and understanding of diverse cultures, they said in talking about what they would do this year on Thanksgiving Day.

“I’ll be celebrating with my extended family in Massachusetts, the state that welcomed my parents when they first arrived in America in 1972. Nearly 400 years ago – not too far from where we will gather – another group of people chose to make this continent their home,” said Parag V. Mehta, executive director, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, referring to the first European immigrants escaping religious persecution and seeking a better life. “And they were welcomed with the hospitality we Desis value so deeply when we say, “Atithi Devo Bhava” (the guest is like God),” Mehta points out.

Parag Mehta (Courtesy: Twitter)

“I will be giving thanks for the generosity of the American spirit, which we must extend to each successive group of immigrants and refugees who arrive at our borders. I pray that the United States will always be the destination of choice for those who seek to build a fairer, more peaceful and more just society,” Mehta says.

Sam Sisakhti is paying back by through his project, Believe In Yourself, (believeinyouself.org) which he started last year after becoming increasingly concerned about cyber bullying and body shaming he saw online. Founder and CEO of UsTrendy, a global marketplace for fashion designers to grow their brands, Sisakhti, provides needy girls with dresses for upcoming social events and aims at promoting positive body image through mentors. “For Thanksgiving, brand new unworn dresses will be provided to underprivileged girls by the Believe in Yourself Project. The dresses will range in style and be functional for thanksgiving and other holiday occasions the girls have coming up,” he told News India Times via email.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, re-elected Nov. 6, consiers Thanksgiving a time to come together with loved ones “both to celebrate what we have been given, but to also acknowledge and help those around us who may be in need.” He told News India Times it was a honor to have the opportunity to serve his constituents. In addition, “My family is my continuing inspiration and I am looking forward to spending some much needed time with them this Thanksgiving.”

Sudha Acharya, founder and head of the South Asian Council for Social Services, in Queens, N.Y., is also looking forward for time with her family and the feeling of “togetherness.” Despite the “social turmoil” and the food scarcity she sees around her in her daily dealings with impoverished immigrants, Acharya says she is glad for the continuing compassion for others she sees in people. “So, that sense of humanity prevails and that is what is really heartening. I have faith in people. Everything else will settle down. Her organization set up a food pantry which has seen growing number of families availing services. “We are feeding 415 families, South Asians, Hispanics, Chinese, others. Think how many that is if we count the members in each family,” she emphasizes. “It is sad, even though the country is doing well, unemployment in down, GDP is growing, but those at the lower rungs are having difficulty pulling themselves up.”

Sudha Acharya (Courtesy: Twitter)

Deepak Raj, a New Jersey-based investor and founder of Indian-American Impact Project/Fund, told News India Times, this Thanksgiving he is “truly” thankful for the opportunities this country has provided him. He has been helped and mentored by so many people and opened doors to him in countless ways. “At this juncture in life, I have come to appreciate the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of so many to get where we have gotten to. And it is our responsibility to provide our shoulders for the future generations to stand on,” Raj said.

For those who have not shied away from making the final sacrifice, the political turmoil in the nation is disappointing. United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Kamal Kalsi, who was deployed in Afghanistan, spoke to News India Times in his personal capacity and in no way representing the Army, about his thoughts on Thanksgiving this year.

“It has certainly been a tumultuous year politically. We’ve seen things we never thought we would, boundaries crossed,” he said. Yet, “If you consider just for a moment, the number of women, Asian Americans, former military, all at highest numbers ever (in public office),” That’s something to be thankful for,” Kalsi said. “I see Indians engaging on the political stage in the near and far future and that bodes well.”

“Overall, personally it’s been a good year. I like to see the positive aspects – despite tragedies, our community has come together to rally – which is something to be thankful for,” Kalsi mused. He currently serves in the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a disaster medicine expert in the Army Reserve. He also serves as a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.

Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi (Courtesy: Kamal Kalsi)

Anju Bhargava, a risk and strategic business transformation management consultant and founder of Hindu American Seva Communities, says Thanksgiving helped her to integrate more fully with the land she chose to immigrate to, back in the 1970s. An ordained Hindu priest involved in interfaith activities, Bhargava says her effort at integrating Hindu philosophy and Abrahamic perceptions, anchored her understanding of the culture and concepts behind Thanksgiving, “as a Hindu person.”

Bhargava has been involved, like many Indian-Americans, in feeding the homeless, taking meals to those who are home-bound, and similar service activities around Thanksgiving and Veterans Day which fall close to each other.

On Thanksgiving Day, she is thankful not only personally for new additions to her family, but also on a larger scale, for the #MeToo movement that is confronting the “underbelly” of corporate America which she was part of at one time.

“That behavior is ‘adharmic’ and now “forces of good can fight forces of evil,” she says about sexual assault and harassment. “It’s a test of our country and people, and is democracy-in-action,” Bhargava says. While she is thankful for her safety, Bhargava will be thinking and doing whatshe can for the victims of the California fires and other natural disasters, as well as victims of gun violence, she said. “My other message is – every festival, including Thanksgiving, is for serving those in need,” she added.

Holiday feast

Young political activist Amit Jani, will miss his father Suresh Jani, who died earlier this year, during this Thanksgiving. It will be a family affair, but Thanksgiving for him “represents really celebrating being an American, adding the Indian culture to it.” He counts his achievements that he is thankful for, working on important political campaigns, launching the advocacy organization, South Asians for America.

Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur, academic and author, says even though politics is in turmoil and there are “dark clouds of nativism” swirling around Washington, D.C., “We should be grateful to live in the greatest democracy in the world. There are many checks and balances and we are allowed to disagree and protest. We are allowed to express our opinion and fight for what we think is right. The pendulum swings both ways and the country learns and adapts.”

Thanksgiving gives the opportunity to give back by helping fix what people may see going awry. Many Indian-Americans, Wadhwa says, may be worried about the racism they experience, “but this has always been there beneath the surface. Now we can’t deny it exists and we can focus on fixing it. We can work together to make America an even greater success.”

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