“It is gratefulness which makes the soul great,” wrote Abraham Heschel, the inspiring Jewish thinker and prophet. Especially during Thanksgiving season, when words of gratitude flow effortlessly, it is worth drilling down to ask: What does it take to make gratitude great?
Gratitude is both more authentic and more credible when it is underwritten by tangible demonstrations of thanks. When we tell veterans “Thank you for your service,” the sentiment means more when it’s backed by a GI Bill and other forms of support.
It’s no accident that veterans of the long war in Afghanistan are now at the forefront in welcoming Afghan refugees, who fled their homeland after rendering what was often hazardous service to the U.S. war effort. Americans who risked their lives know better than anyone what we owe others who risked so much for them.
At a moment when all politics is rancorous, we can give thanks for a unified effort from the top of our government down to the churches, synagogues, mosques and veterans groups in our communities welcoming Afghans fleeing the Taliban.
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“I think gratitude is the perfect way to describe this, because the outpouring of support from people across the country has been nothing short of remarkable,” Jack Markell, the White House coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome, told me last week. He spoke of his recent visit to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where Catholic Charities affiliates are leading the resettlement efforts.
“You know, it’s a pretty red state,” said Markell, himself a former governor of Delaware. “I met with two Republican mayors who were so supportive. The number of volunteers turning out to support the efforts of Catholic Charities is remarkable, and we are seeing this across the country.”
According to Markell’s office, roughly 73,000 Afghans have come into the United States under the Operation Allies Welcome program. The White House estimates that a little under half of these have been relocated to U.S. communities. The rest remain at one of seven military installations.
Although some in Donald Trump’s orbit have resisted resettlement of Afghan refugees, polls show overwhelming bipartisan support for being true to allies who now need our help.
An Associated Press/NORC poll last month found that 72% of Americans, including 76% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans, favored accepting Afghans who worked for the U.S. or Afghan governments. Support was less robust (and more split along party lines) for helping those who are fleeing out of fear of Taliban rule, but even for this broader group, a plurality (42% to 26%) supported accepting them.
The work of the aptly named group Welcome.Us brings home both the nonpartisan nature of the cause and the grass-roots energy on its behalf.
Founded by John Bridgeland, who directed President George W. Bush’s Domestic Policy Council, and Cecilia Muñoz, who held the same job for President Barack Obama, the group seeks to reinvigorate our nation’s best traditions of civic hospitality toward those fleeing oppression and seeking a better life.
Nazanin Ash, the group’s chief executive and a veteran of refugee work whose family came to the United States from Iran, says Welcome.Us also hopes to reform the U.S. asylum system as a whole by stressing the work of nongovernmental organizations and building civil society partnerships on behalf of Afghan newcomers.
As an example, she cites Welcome.Us’s alliance with Miles4 Migrants, an organization that encourages people to contribute frequent-flier miles to provide free flights for the displaced.
Alan Khazei, co-founder of the service group City Year and a senior adviser to Welcome.Us, reports that as of Monday, 783.8 million miles of travel had been donated on behalf of Afghans. About half came from frequent-flier miles, with the rest from other donors, including the major airlines themselves, Boeing and Trip Advisor. Those who want to help, Bridgeland adds, can also sign up through Airbnb to host an Afghan family.
The breadth of the personal, private-sector and civil-society response to the refugee surge is instructive. It demonstrates that while contention over U.S. policy on Afghanistan, past and present, is natural and inevitable, a robust debate can coexist with expressions of our shared humanity. In the face of often vicious political conflict, we Americans have not lost our capacity to respond person to person to those in need.
“This is as much about us as welcomers as it is about the needs of our Afghan neighbors,” Muñoz said. “We have never regretted the times that we have reached out to welcome those who came to the U.S. seeking safety, and our nation has been so deeply enriched by their presence. This is one of those moments.”
The quality of our gratitude will be judged by how we respond to it.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.