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.♦