During Cousin Camp, when our youngest grandchildren visited us for a week, I encountered examples of xenophobia in news stories, a biography of Rogers Williams and an educational trip we took. Xenophobia – the fear of strangers (or even people who practice unfamiliar lifestyles) is everywhere.

For many weeks, my breakfast time has included reading a couple pages of “Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul.” Williams, born in 1603 matured during England’s religious turmoil. Between monarchies the country switched back and forth between Protestant and Catholic. Under King James the split came over the form of worship in the English churches. The Puritans, Pilgrims, and others, like Williams, sailed away to America and New England to escape those in authority who arrested people for not worshiping as they did. Williams arrived in The New World only to be outcast by the church and community authorities for his non-conforming viewpoints. In time, Williams established the Rhode Island colony that allowed individual choices in worship. His viewpoint on church and state heavily influenced the first amendment to the United States Constitution.

Persecution for thinking or believing differently from the powers-that-be still exists. In Nigeria, last week, groups such as Boko Haram, militant Fulani, Islamic State and bandits joined together to destroy Christian churches, villages and believers with minimal response from the government. Similar actions continue in Afghanistan as the Taliban attacks individuals who choose to dress or live differently from the Taliban. Their fear of religious and wardrobd differences compel them to destroy anything or anyone not like them.

I silently read of these events as the children swirled around me last week. We all began talking about it Thursday when we visited to the World War II Japanese American Internment museum in McGehee and memorial park in Rohwer. From 1942 to 1945, in 10 camps in isolated spots of America, about 16,000 Americans whose ancestors immigrated from Japan lived in compounds surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into war against Germany, Italy and Japan. Within weeks, seeking to remove spies, executive orders mandated internment camps for citizens from the three countries and at times their descendants. Camps quickly rose up in isolated regions of the States. At some point during the war, 120,000 with Japanese ancestry, 11,500 with German ancestry and 3,000 with Italian ancestry lived in these armed camps. Around 16,000 Japanese Americans (many with American citizenship) arrived by train to live in the raw, barrack-type camps in Rohwer and Jerome. The 1940 census had included a question about national ancestry which made it easy to identify those sent to the camps.

Nothing remains of the camps except the hospital’s smokestack, the cemetery plots in Rohwer and a stone memorial in Jerome. Farm crops now cover former camp sites. My grandchildren explored the small cemetery and monuments in Rohwer. The children commented on the ages of the young and old buried there. They studied the monuments to the Japanese American soldiers who died in the European war theater for the country that exiled them.

The children debated the difference between the concentration camps set up by the Germans in Europe and the internment camps in America. Both countries began with xenophobia: these people look, think or act differently, so let’s not have them around. However, German camps did not provide the quality of food, medical care and education received in American camps. No one left German camps to work or join the military as they did in America. Most incarcerated in German camps did not live to tell their story or file legal suits against the government as the Japanese did in America.

Still the memory of the camps tarnishes our nation’s history. The six cousins may not recall the details. I hope a seed of thought takes root for them to consider the next time xenophobia raises its ugly head in their thoughts.


About jottingjoan

retired former newspaper writer. Many children and grandchildren. One husband.
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