04/04/2013 10:49 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2013

Make April 8, 2013 International Friendship Day

April 8, 2013 could be a day to welcome immigrants and people from other nations. My colleague and friend Dr. Mohammad Mahallati, at Oberlin College, wants Congress to declare April 8 International Friendship Day. Mahallati, from a family with generations of Imams, says "difference is a blessing." He has his hands full at Oberlin due to a rash of recent racial incidents, but he is an optimist. Indeed, we all should be optimists and activists.

Why? One big reason is that our country is facing an unrelenting campaign to demonize immigrants, especially those from Mexico, South and Central America, and the Middle East. This in part is based on fears of the changing demographic backgrounds of the people who make up our society. Fear of new immigrants is nothing new, nor is bigotry, racial strife, or other aspects of anti-immigrant xenophobia. These days there is also an entire industry devoted to spreading false and malicious claims about Muslims.

Xenophobia is one of those words few of us think about; but it just means fear of the stranger or anything we find strange or unfamiliar. We are told by social scientists that as a species we are programmed to face the stranger with a "fight or flight" response.

They leave out the third "F" for friendship. It's not just a utopian dream; the future of our nation depends on teaching about difference and friendship among people from diverse backgrounds as a practical national policy.

My wife Karen has Irish and German immigrant heritage. My grandfather on my father's side immigrated to the United States from the French-speaking part of Switzerland and married a woman with French roots. My mother's side of the family is a mélange of Scandinavian, Scottish, and English ancestors, including the Fosters who can claim an actual Knight in their genealogical tree.

A study of the past reveals that these nationalities spent centuries involved in wars with each other. Here, as immigrants, our forebears were expecting to be welcomed to a nation of immigrants. The French even gave us a really big statue to celebrate this new liberty. I think we have an obligation to make this promise a reality, but it is going to take a hard look at history and some roll-up-the-sleeves activism to accomplish this.

When we are taught about immigrants to what is now the United States we learn of the Pilgrims and Puritans; the English and Spanish who established settlements in the southeast; the French who built cities in the northeast of the continent; or the Spanish expeditions to the west coast and the road they built up the pacific coast called El Camino Real. We often leave out of the picture the unwilling importation of black slaves captured for sale from their nations in Africa. A lot more is missing from this picture.

The first immigrants to North America apparently walked across the Bering Strait to what is now Alaska. They established communities and then indigenous nations that spread from the Pacific to the Atlantic and south to the islands close to Antarctica now called Tierra del Fuego; an archipelago now shared by the South American nations of Argentina and Chile.

The United States of America is a nation of immigrants. The earliest waves of European settlers decimated the first peoples with disease, war, and genocide. We cannot ignore this history. Nor can we ignore the harsh reality that almost every new wave of immigrants has been treated badly, especially if they were people of color.

Yet over time each new group of immigrants has brought an added richness to the cultural, political, economic, and social tapestry that weaves together our nation.

Contemporary critics of recent immigrants complain "they are not like us" who were here first. And it's true. Few of us are like the people of the Lakota Nation, or the Hopi, or the Navaho, or the Cherokee who used to live in the southeast before being forced to march on the murderous Trail of Tears. We learn of the Indian women Pocahontas in school, but seldom connect her to the Cherokee nation or what future settlers did to her people.

Our family lives near Boston, Massachusetts, where the Wampanoag resided when the Mayflower landed. My wife Karen was born in Rochester, New York, deep in the land of the Iroquois Nation. I grew up in northern New Jersey were my father collected arrowheads left by the Lenni Lenape peoples whose language gave towns names such as Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus. In their native tongue, Lenni Lenape means "original people."

The area around Hackensack saw early Dutch settlers who were welcomed by Chief Oratam of the Hackensack tribe, part of the Turtle Clan known for seeking peace. German and English settlers soon arrived, followed by Italians and other ethnic nationalities.

The region saw places of worship built for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. When I was a teenager there were Unitarian Churches and an Ethical Humanist Society. Still, in the 1960s the area saw racial tensions between the majority White population and black residents that reflected the struggles of the Civil Rights Movements in which I became involved.

When Karen and I moved to Chicago, we bought a house on the Southwest Side of Chicago in a neighborhood with many ethnic Eastern Europeans. There was an area called Lithuanian Village nearby, and a Polish Polka dance hall up the street from our house. In local markets we bought food items savored by Lithuanians, Poles, Croatians, Serbs, Albanians, and Greeks.

There were Spanish and Middle Eastern restaurants, and the shop where I bought sewing supplies was run by a black woman. The big Sears department store at the corner of 63rd Street and Western Avenue was managed by a black man.

When racial tensions spilled over into violence and firebombings of residences of black family's homes in the 1970s, Karen and I worked with the Sears manager, the sewing store woman, and the owners of a Spanish and Middle Eastern restaurant to seek an end to racial strife. The majority of our allies, though, were decent people of Lithuanian, Polish, Croatian, Serbian, Albanian, and Greek descent.

We worked through the Southwest Community Congress, a multi-racial group devoted to a peaceful, prosperous, and diverse community. As a group of diverse activists, we stopped the attacks by beginning a public conversation about how our community was being divided by fear and false claims.

What we all learned from this is that people working together across racial, religious, and ethnic divides can solve real serious problems.

There is an organized anti-immigrant movement in the United States today. We need to be the stand-up hands-on kind of people who push back and confront this xenophobic bigotry peacefully but forcefully.

We can help build a peaceful, prosperous, and diverse nation. On April 8 our family will mark the day as a day for building friendship among nations and peoples. It is especially important that we do this as residents in a nation of immigrants.

Maybe someday Congress will make it official.

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Read More:

A Conversation with Mohammad Ja'far Mahallati

More about the Oberlin Friendship Initiative from Mohammad Ja'far Mahallati

Originally written for Talk2Action