By Annette Meeks
Freedom Foundation, CEO
This Mother’s Day, I’m reminded of many sweet memories of my mom. She always encouraged me to be open to meeting new people, to be willing to try new things, and to pay attention. It was good advice, mom – all of it.
After my mom moved into an assisted living facility in Minnesota, we learned quickly that you meet a lot of interesting people in senior housing. Staff there discovered that my mom was talented at assisting new residents feel less lonely by sitting with them at meals and helping them “learn the ropes” in their new surroundings. Even in her 80’s, she made new friends including her sweet friend Helen.
Helen and my mom were nearly the same age and, early on during their residency at The Colony, both possessed sharp minds and mutual interests. Yet they were very opposite in many ways: Helen was born in Arizona to Japanese immigrants who started a small business near Phoenix. My mom was born in South Dakota to German immigrants and my grandfather was employed by the US Department of Agriculture – a good job during hard times.
Helen regularly won The Colony art competitions — she was a gifted artist. One afternoon during lunch, I asked Helen where she learned how to do delicate work such as origami. She chuckled and told me she had three years as a child with virtually nothing to do – art helped pass the time. That afternoon I learned Helen’s life story.
Helen’s parents started a business in Arizona. In 1942, her family was rounded up by American officials as part of a large, anti-espionage effort waged by the United States government during World War II. President Roosevelt and others believed that the nearly 100,000 Japanese immigrants like Helen’s family posed a threat to the American war effort. As such, these Americans were forced to leave their businesses, their homes and remove their children from their schools. They were taken to Hayward, California where they lived in an internment camp with other Japanese Americans for the duration of the war. They were all American citizens and had committed no crimes.
For three years, these Americans were denied due process. They were separated from their extended families and had all of their First Amendment rights stripped away. Their children were not formally educated, and health care was basically non-existent. They were given very little information about when and how they could be released. No one reported on their well-being nor did anyone attempt their release. These American citizens were forced to bide their time in a prison camp. It was during that time that Helen’s mom taught her the ancient Japanese art of origami. It helped Helen pass the time.
Upon release in 1945, Helen’s family returned to Arizona, only to discover that they had lost their business, their home and most of their life savings. The American government gave them $25 upon release from the internment camp and told them to start over. It took the United States government nearly 40 years to extend a formal apology and to make very modest reparations to these families.
Helen wanted me to know that long ago, she forgave the United States government and her captors for what they did to her family. Moreover, upon release, every member of her family became an American success story. Helen’s family faithfully documented their parent’s lives in an American internment camp. Today, her children share this story with Minnesota school kids, teaching them about what can happen to our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when Americans didn’t pay attention. They remind us that every freedom can disappear in the blink of an eye.
I’ve thought a lot about Helen recently. And indeed: there have been other dark days in our Republic when some Americans were denied their unalienable rights given to us not from government but from our Creator.
In these times, we must remind our fellow citizens that the Declaration of Independence remains a steadfast and powerful tool for every one of us — that when those unalienable rights are denied to any American, they are in essence denied to all. We have a moral obligation to fight on their behalf. We owe Helen and many others who sacrificed so much no less.