The Days of '47 Parade will have some remarkable first-time participants this year. Julie McAdams, the associate general counsel for the University of Utah, thought it would be fitting to create and enter a float highlighting refugees who have settled in the Beehive State, even though the refugee community was unacquainted with American-style parades. The float will be the product of the participation of refugees from many parts of the world, which is entirely appropriate.
"This place was built by refugees," McAdams told the Deseret News, noting that those who have been displaced in today's world are "just like modern-day pioneers where the (original Utah) pioneers were the earliest refugees."
That's a reality that's lost on many amid the fireworks and barbecues. Given Pioneer Day's proximity to the Fourth of July and the similarity of the celebrations, it's worth remembering that many of the earliest settlers to the state and the country made treks west because they had been driven from their homes and had nowhere else to go. For the pioneers, Utah was as remote a locale as anyone could imagine, and part of its appeal was that most people wouldn’t even dream of living there. That’s why Mormon leader Brigham Young, when considering possible locations where his people could be safe from religious persecution, saw the Salt Lake Valley as an ideal spot to settle. He famously stated he was looking for a place where "the devil can't come and dig us out."
In an interview for NPR’s "Morning Edition," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert noted history was part of the reason for Utah’s uniquely empathetic response to the current refugee crisis. He recognized Utah as "a state that was founded because of exiled Mormons who were kicked out of other parts of the country and actually had one state put out what was called an (extermination) order.” He added that under that order, people “could kill Mormons just like you could kill deer.” He also cited then-President Rutherford B. Hayes’ plea to Europe to stop sending Mormon refugees to the United States.
“So we have a history of knowing a little bit what that is like to be discriminated against because of your religion,” the governor said. “And when people come to Utah, we welcome them.”
That’s probably the most significant difference between 1847 and 2016. In the 19th century, the refugees who fled to what became Utah had to fend for themselves to survive. But today, there are people here to welcome them, to support them and to help them get back on their feet. It’s that spirit of compassion and inclusion that ought to inspire our Days of '47 celebrations in Utah this year. If nothing else, it’s something to ponder as the fireworks are lighting up the sky.