This Thursday, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving, a celebration of harvest. Thanksgiving has come to be a wonderful time to gather with family and friends, and to reflect on the things for which we are most grateful. It also has an interesting history. In 1621, the English colonists at Plymouth Plantation (near Boston, Massachusetts) in the "New World" joined with the indigenous Wampanoag people to share an autumn harvest feast.
Today this is acknowledged as the official first Thanksgiving celebration in the colonies that later became the United States of America. This harvest meal has become a symbol of cooperation between English colonists and the indigenous people of America. That sprit of cooperation was short-lived, however, and was replaced with a long history of marginalization, exclusion and mistreatment of indigenous Americans. The unfortunate consequences of this history live on today. So, that history reflects both the incredible possibility that cooperation between diverse peoples can create, but also how long-lasting and severe is the impact of social exclusion and injustice.
I just returned from a visit to our country office in Sri Lanka. There I saw our work in the camps where internally displaced people (IDPs) have been detained over the last 6 months since the end of the 30-year civil war. I also visited with Sri Lankan government officials, partner organizations and, of course, our incredible staff (a few of whom are themselves detainees). The links between social exclusion, marginalization and poverty in this otherwise middle-income nation were clear. However, I left Sri Lanka with hope. I was heartened to see an article in Sunday's New York Times that said the government of Sri Lanka had announced that IDPs would be free to return to their villages after December 1st and that all remaining detention camps would be closed by January 31 next year. Now as my mother would say, "There is many a slip between the cup and the lip" – or, to put it more simply, much work remains to be done. However, the possibility that the end of this protracted war could give rise to cooperation between diverse peoples and one day lead to a bountiful harvest for all is encouraging.
Let me add one more note about Thanksgiving week and its additional significance for CARE. Friday, November 27, marks the founding of CARE in 1945. Back then, a consortium of 22 charities banded together to form CARE, an organization that would deliver food packages to survivors of World War II who were suffering from severe food shortages. Using rations from the U.S. military, CARE delivered nearly three million "10-in-one" boxes containing staples like canned meat, dried milk, raisins and chocolate. These boxes could feed 10 people for one day or one person for 10 days. Individual Americans paid for the boxes by placing orders at railway stations, department stores, CARE offices in major cities and through civic and religious groups. The first packages were shipped to Le Havre, France in 1946, and distributed throughout Europe. By early 1947, supplies of the original 10-in-one boxes were exhausted and CARE began designing its own packages containing tools, cloth, medicine and other goods.
As we know, the scope and approach of our work has evolved, but I am still proud of our initial roots and the spirit of cooperation and sense of common humanity those early efforts signified.