Fifth annual Florin Manzanar Pilgrimage A vital journey into understanding

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A Pakistani American high school student from the city of Elk Grove, an adult education teacher from Berkeley, a World War II Military Intelligence Service veteran from Merced, a Nisei draft resister from Galt, and two peace activists from Davis. What could bring such a hodgepodge of people together? The Florin Manzanar Pilgrimage — a vital journey into understanding the tragic episode of America’s mass “racial profiling” and imprisonment of Japanese Americans.

This awareness-raising journey beginning April 23 took travelers from the Sacramento area 350 miles to the high desert Manzanar National Park on the far side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The three-day pilgrimage was sponsored for its fifth year by the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Council on American Islamic Relations–Sacramento Valley (CAIR-SV).

Seventy-seven adventurous travelers boarded the imposing, double-decker bus at the Buddhist Church of Florin. This was the very site where local Japanese Americans first gathered to hear the news of their pending incarceration after Japan’s Dec. 7 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

An amazing mixture of former internees (15 from all 10 major camps!), students and youth from surrounding schools and colleges (33), Muslim Americans (11), educators, Japanese American family members, and people who support civil liberties and civil rights today all joined in. What a recipe for adventure.

The pilgrimage included visits to the reconstructed Manzanar gymnasium (now a first-class museum that houses a theater, bookstore and barrack), walk to the guard tower, afternoon program at the former cemetery, interfaith service and Manzanar at Dusk internee panel and discussion groups. They provided a truly rich experience. Many of the activities were organized by the L.A. Manzanar Committee for their 41st annual pilgrimage drawing over 1,200 people that weekend.

One of the most enlightening parts of the Florin pilgrimage was seeing the15 former internees, now spanning in age from their 60s to their 80s, generously sharing their stories and experiences. They opened up their hearts, especially to the 33 engrossed youth eager to hear and learn. The vital living history unfolded during Florin’s Friday lunch bunch discussions, the Saturday Manzanar at Dusk program, and dozens of individual heartfelt conversations.

Muslim American travelers added an invaluable dimension to the Florin pilgrimage. The parallels after 9/11, the cloud of suspicion, scapegoating, hate crimes, discrimination against immigrants and arrests all mimicked steps taken against Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.

Our appreciation goes to Muslim friends on the Florin pilgrimage. CAIR-SV civil rights coordinator Adel Syed, CAIR founder Rashid Ahmad, Santa Rosa religious leader Imam Ali and his wife Jaleelah Siddiqui, Assemblyman Dave Jones’ Muslim outreach coordinator Sara Moussa and others pitched in.

This year’s walking tour of Manzanar and lunch in the mess hall led by Ranger Richard Potashin was struck by tragedy. As one of our former internees and Florin Manzanar Pilgrimage coordinators, Bob Uyeyama, finished sharing his stories as a kid in camp, he collapsed from a heart attack and later died in the local hospital. Our deepest sympathies go to his wife Masako and his son Jason.

Bob was such a good friend to so many of us; he was so hard-working, kind, fun-loving and generous. He helped found the Florin Manzanar Pilgrimage five years ago, and was dedicated to sharing the camp experience and connecting with students.

On the bus ride back to Sacramento, students John Kanemoto, Alice Tse and Fiona Potter, led by Annie Kim Tomita Noguchi, sung Bob’s favorite pilgrimage song, “Don’t Fence Me In,” in his honor. Bob always coordinated our talent show and shared his great singing and harmonica talents with us. He explained that though “Don’t Fence Me In” was a cowboy song, it struck home with the internees. Traveler John Onate led the pilgrimage talent show as a tribute to Bob.

Our Florin Manzanar Pilgrimage counts so many fun, creative and community-building activities. These include origami paper crane-making, traveler’s trivia, Japanese folk dance lessons, custom-designed Manzanar T-shirts, BBQ Social, Sushi Saturday Night, bus DVD programming, Saturday bento specials, pilgrim’s Morsbags and more. The rest stops at Lake Tahoe, Mono Lake Interpretive Center and Mammoth Lakes Visitors Center were a refreshing kick, too.

As our bus swung back into the Buddhist Church of Florin parking lot at the end of our three-day trek, it was a fitting conclusion. We had traced the journey of Florin Japanese Americans to their Manzanar imprisonment and back to Florin again. We understood a little better what they had endured, the challenges facing America after 9/11, and how we need to stand up for other innocent Americans in need. The vital journey into understanding had just begun.

Andy Noguchi writes from Sacramento and serves on the Nichi Bei Foundation Advisory Council.

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