The week that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, a friend of mine from New Orleans escaped from the storm and drove, first to relatives in the south, then later up north. I spoke to her as she was driving along a highway. I asked her if she’d eaten, and she said she had bought a breakfast sandwich and had not quite finished it yet. Somewhere in the conversation, I called her a refugee and she bristled at my use of the word. I’ve read of other black folks rejecting the word, too, considering it demeaning and not worthy of being used for someone who’s a citizen of the United States. But why?

Are refugees only people who are beyond the borders of this country? Is there shame in the word?

I was once a refugee. After the Pakistani army cracked down on the striving for freedom in Bangladesh, as a young man, a college student, an activist on campus, all dangerous things to be at that time, I escaped the capital city, first for refuge in my grandfather’s ancestral village – a place I had never seen until that moment — and later, after two abortive attempts, across the border into India. I was fortunate, I was able to stay with relatives in Calcutta. Millions of others ended up in miserable refugee camps.

I never felt that the word itself was a mark of shame. What was shameful was the conditions that drove us out of our homes: the military occupation, the war, the fear of life under those conditions. And what was also terrible, for those less fortunate than I, was the conditions in the camps or on the roadways and along train tracks where many refugees made their homes. India and relief agencies did what they could, but there were so so many. Alan Ginsburg wrote a poem about the trek across Jessore Road and it reveals the pain and grimness of that human emigration. Look it up, it should be available on the web. It’s called "Jessore Road."

I was reminded of Jessore Road and the refugee camps as I watched poor people in the U.S., the richest country on earth, endure similar conditions — and sometimes even worse ones — as those of my fellow refugees of my youth. The destruction and evacuation of an entire city — it is a tough event to wrap one’s mind around.

Yet, in the last thirty years, I have seen the walls of American exceptionalism crumble one after the other. When I came here in the 70s, there were homeless in some parts of some cities, but in the 80s, homeless were everywhere. They are a part of daily urban life. And the same discussions I remember from home — how do you respond to beggars, do you ignore, do you give, is there a solution — I have found the same discussion arrive onto the shores of America. Then with Oklahoma City and 911 in New York, mass destruction by terrorism also came here. And now, with hurricanes, an exodus, they say, that has not happened since the great Mississippi flood of ’27.

The walls separating what happens here and what happens over there — in the Third World — are crumbling. In the 21st century, with all the wealth and progress at hand, is this the best that we can achieve?

I welcome that the language used in this country and used elsewhere to describe the same kinds of things — like refugee — is closing the gap between this place and the rest of the planet. Nature has reminded us that we are all part of the same humanity, and perhaps as we look for solutions to crisis, we will look for solutions that are universal in scope.♦


On a street named Moliere


  1. it was good to read your insights and response to the question of whether “refugee” should be applied to those of us exiled from new orleans. i have used the term. but i also understand the views of those who oppose using the term. in general, i am not so commited to the term that i want to argue with those who do not like using the term. however, i believe the main reason some black folk don’t like using the term is because of feelings of shame — they like to believe they are “better” than what they saw on television, even as they realize that the government views them as just like what they saw on television.

  2. Tony

    An engaging reflection. Very important. I think, though, that your friend’s repugnance to the term “refugee” has a racial component as well. When we consider the context for the label “refugee” (its emergence in this crisis coincided with the recognition that there were mostly brown faces comprising the more helpless of the refugee population), we find a disavowal of the term by those who are, by the definition, refugees and those other Americans who cannot bear to have fellow Americans labeled as such. I think that the pictures from the event, featuring brown people scrambling desperately to survive while the social order collapses around them, dovetails perfectly with events in other countries. But most significantly, I do not believe that we would hear the word refugee if a similar event struck Connecticutt, displacing droves of white faces. Of course, they would have refuge. That changes things. But also, the pictures wouldn’t look those from elsewhere on the globe. What was most shocking to people of this country, I think, is that we could no longer deny that the underclass exists and is tightly bound, still, to race. In other words, the “third world” is within our own borders, in many ways.

  3. Janella

    I enjoyed your thoughts on the term “Refugee”

    I too was taken back by the media’s use of the word after Katrina hit. I even got into a debate with my fiancé regarding the appropriateness of the word. Being a by-the-book type of guy, he stood by the official definition. In short, for him, any individual taking refuge is by definition a refugee. For me that seemed too simple. It ignored the long history that word has had in our vocabulary. It did not acknowledge the pre-Katrina images and feelings that went along with the word refugee, such as hopelessness, despair, hunger, lost children, death, anger, violence and the need to depend on strangers and/or former enemies for protection. But I finally had to ask myself: Isn’t that what they are? Isn’t that what they are experiencing? I could not believe that this was happening in the US. I tried to hard to fight the images that flooded my mind. I tried to find a more appropriate term…evacuees…. escapees…. less fortunate, but none of those words captured the whole picture. Even though it was difficult to accept I came to term with the fact that there are refugees in this country.

    As to the question of what term would have been used if this event occurred in a predominately upper-class area? The real question is: Is it right to use the same word to describe a person that flees to a neighboring city, buys a home, furnishes it, enrolls their child in school and begins working either through remote access or gets hired on at a local office as it is to describe a person who flees with nowhere to go, living in a shelter, church, or a friends home, has no job, no possessions and no real prospect for earning a living? I don’t think so. Not to diminish what people with means went through, but the word Refugee is too strong of a word to describe them. They were forced to find a new home to settle down and raise a family. The word refugee embodies too much pain and hopelessness to accurately describe their situation. Maybe they are better suited for the terms evacuees or escapees.

  4. I’d been using the word refugee when talking about the people who have been disposessed by Katrina and it’s aftermath for days when I started hearing complaints about it. Seems to have something to do with us not being real americans if we’re refugees. I would say that what happened in the aftermath of katrina showed what kind of americans we are, no matter what word we use.

    It reminds me of the way we went from being colored to negro to Negro to black to African American and who knows what next, as if a word is going to change our reality. i wish we’d quit quibbling about what we are called and deal with what’s happening. when a city full of white folks is scattered to the four winds with only what they could grab in a plastic bag, i’ll call them refugees too.

    Something that did irratate me was people saying “It looks like a third world country down there.” My community looks like a third world country. Much of Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, etc looks like a third world country if every time you see a large group of dark faces you think “third world country”. Me, on the other hand, when I see photos of third world countries, I think, wow, they look just like us.

  5. I didn’t think the word ‘refugee’ had any negative connotations to it when it was used. I still don’t. Whether it is refuge from a natural disaster or a political situation or anything else, I fail to see how a person seeking refuge is something to be ashamed of or derisive in any way. If it affects folks the wrong way, it’s just a word and I don’t mind switching another word that is more acceptable.

    I was led to believe more than a few years ago that it is politically incorrect to use “third world” and “developing nations” (or countries) is preferable. So I was more surprised to see that term being used. I did, however, think that they were referring to the living conditions when they said that rather than the color or race of people who were affected by the disaster.

  6. Mahmud

    Great discussion.
    On the usage of “Third World”: When I came of age in the 70s, “Third World” was popular in usage to denote the countries of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. It was also used in progressive circles to refer to people of color in the U.S. In academic usage, the appearance of the term went back to the 1950s or early 60s. While people generally agreed upon what the Third World referred to, you may not have found agreement on what the First and Second worlds were; there were contending theories on the subject. Few if any of us back then ever saw “Third World” as offensive, and perhaps reflecting our involvement in 1970s era activism, many of us still use it now and then. While it may not be the most accurate phrase and there are clearly other phrases in use (“the South” has come into use, alongside “developing countries”), I do not believe it is a phrase that should be taken as offensive. It may deserve a fuller discussion.

  7. has an interesting take on ‘third’ as the ‘hoping for a third way of doing things’.

  8. Mahmud

    That was an informative link. The piece did get to the crucial problem with all these terms: “Ultimately, all terms are misleading: they suggest everyone on their respective side of the economic equator is floating around in the same boat. In truth, there is usually an elite minority in most countries of the Third World that has more in common with the wealthy of the First World – in terms of standard of living, at least – than with the majority of people in their own countries. And vice-versa. There are those in the North who have been left out in the economic cold.”

  9. refugee means force to leave country and seck shelter to another country, In 1971 many people of our country force to leave country, they took shelter to another country, they got no medicine to cure, they got no food to eat, they had to die helplessly,,refugee is a threat for humanity

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