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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: Giving thanks for new neighbors

| Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, 9:12 a.m.
Refugee mother, daughter at a Hello Neighbor outing on Gateway Clipper
Hello Neighbor
Refugee mother, daughter at a Hello Neighbor outing on Gateway Clipper

One Thanksgiving when I was in college, I skipped dinner with my family for some stupid and prideful reason long forgotten. Our mother Molly-O and I never spoke of it, but that summer she added Thanksgiving in July, the start of a new tradition for a family that had reason to be doubly thankful.

Our people had come from the “old country,” where they had nothing and were starving. It is hard to believe now, but the back-breaking and dangerous jobs in the mills and factories were actually a step up from the slow misery they faced in their villages back home.

In the gray and grimy industrial towns here, day-in and day-out, the men placed one foot in front of the other and headed into the mills, where 12-hour shifts were the rule. Every two weeks they would swing from daylight to night-turn, which kept them working for 24 hours straight. Twice during that long shift, kids would deliver lunches to the mill gates for their fathers.

Wives and mothers worked around the clock, preparing breakfast and dinners at all hours, depending on the shifts worked by the men in the house. In the early days, stoves were wood- or coal-fired, requiring constant tending to keep the ever-present pot of percolated coffee hot.

There was little rest. But they were thankful for this opportunity to work themselves to the bone, even though it often led to an early grave. Their hard work was not for them, but for their families. This was their American Dream.

As our memories of them fade, much of what they made possible for us is taken for granted. And it has become easy to lose sight of the difference between a holiday routine and a tradition that celebrates what America still means to those who seek better lives for their children.

Two years ago we got lucky. Sloane, the oldest of the six kids who form our combined family and who now has her own family, invited a Syrian refugee family to our Thanksgiving dinner. It was a gift, and Thanksgiving is fresher now, the message crystal clear.

Their faces are the faces of our families who came here long ago. They are tentative but happy, unsure of what happens next but determined, and their journey and their stories are ours. And, just as it was with our own refugee families, they will make America better.

After that dinner, Sloane formed Hello Neighbor, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that matches refugee families with local families. They spend holidays together, and also work through the daily challenges that any family would face in a new neighborhood and culture.

We hear the fear-mongers, too. They are wrong. They are merely recycling old tactics that were used when our families came here.

Our families, like these new families, started at the bottom and worked their way up. They fought in the wars and some died for their new country and the opportunities it provided. They worked hard in the factories and offices, became good neighbors and raised good families.

They became Americans, and that is still the promise of Thanksgiving.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at misticklaw@gmail.com.

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