When Katrina, in a frightfully furious and maliciously malevolent destructive act of nature gone mad descended on the Gulf Coast on August 23, 2005, she left in her wake tens of thousands of displaced refugees who sought sanctuary and shelter in Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee. One of my closest colleague’s mother, siblings and their families were adversely affected. A long-time resident of Gulfport, Mississippi, my colleague’s mother survived only because Richard, her middle son, settled her in a sturdy chair, set the chair on the dining room table, and held on to both their lives.
The gushing waters swept through the house hurling debris and furniture in its path and slinging smaller objects across the rooms. Had it not been for her son’s strong desire to save his mother’s life, his fast thinking, his physical strength, and his tenacity, Mrs. Wink would no doubt have either drowned or been crushed to death. Pulverized by nature’s fury, the house was a total loss. Richard’s leg was badly injured, and he considered it a very small price to pay for saving his mother’s life. Soon thereafter Mrs. Wink was moved to a nursing home in Arkansas where her oldest son and his wife, both of whom are university professors, reside. And for three years and until her death Johnny taught by example; he would dutifully abide by the tenets of the fifth Commandment by honoring his mother with daily extended visits that included watching and “playing the Jeopardy Game” to help her maintain her mental agility, and until the last week of her life she maintained her sharp wit. I had the privilege of getting to know her and, having lost my own mother several years prior, I started calling this grand lady Mother Wink. In journalistic parlance the tens of thousands of Katrina’s wrath were labeled as internally displaced people.
Because I am all too familiar with the plight of displaced people and refugees – primarily because of my personal experiences with wars and ethnic cleansing — in late September of 2005 I told Johnny the following: “Your mother is a Palestinian refugee.” And every time I see footage of American victims who’ve lost their homes and all their earthly possessions to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires, or mudslides, I tell my wife the same thing: “These are Palestinian refugees.” In recent years, however, I’ve taken to saying “these are Iraqi refugees.” And in the last few months I’ve been saying “these are Syrian refugees.”
As a result of the 1948 and 1967 Israeli /Arab wars, some 5.2 Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza, the Gulf states, and around the world. And as a result of the civil wars in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, many, as Franklin Lamb so eloquently recounts in his CP postings from Syria and Lebanon, have been made refugees for the second and third times, living in a perpetual state of diaspora.
While the U.N. classifies people who are forcibly removed from their countries (as a result of wars) as Refugees, it labels those who are forced to move within national boundaries as Internally DisplacedPeople. In June of 2013 The U.N. reported that worldwide, refugees numbered 45.2 million people, 48% of whom are women, and 46% of whom are below the age of 18. Furthermore, because of the recent unrest and civil wars primarily in Africa and the Near East, 6.5 million people became refugees just in the last year, and the numbers have recently spiked to 23 thousand refugees per day. Refugee statistics are staggering: Pakistan 1.6 million, Iran 868 thousand, Somalia 1.2 million, and in 2012 alone Congolese, Malian, and Sudanese wars created 1.1 million refugees. The war in Afghanistan resulted in 2.6 million refugees, and the two Iraq wars a total of 4 million refugees and internally displaced people. To date Syrian refugees number 1.9 million, 1 million of whom are children. These figures do not account for displaced people as a result of the Libyan adventure.
In the aftermath of the demise of the British Empire in the 1940’s and 1950’s, over a century’s sordid legacy of Imperial British Colonial rule (“Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves”) came to an end. The same can be said for other European Colonial powers, including French, Italian, German, and Belgian powers whose brutal treatment and exploitation of indigenous populations in the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century is a blight on the so-called Western Democratic Values that are waved every time a war is to be waged on a former colony that carried the white man’s burden. Much blame for the ethnic and sectarian violence of the last fifty years in the Near East and Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the colonial powers who divvied up and parceled off countries without regard to regional, national, ethnic, religious, and cultural sensibilities.
The vacuum created by the demise of this European hegemony was quickly filled by petty tyrants and brutal dictators doing the bidding of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in what became a bipolar competition for geopolitical and geostrategic clients, and regional wars on behalf of the two super powers pitted one surrogate against the other. In pre and post WWII, the United States provided haven to millions of refugees and political asylum seekers from around the globe. And even though American beneficence to U.N. and international refugee aid groups is no doubt exceptional in its duration and generosity, I fear that Americans’ understanding of the deep pathos and misery experienced by displaced people and refugees is very limited. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eretria, Palestine, and now, Syria???
Most politicians cite refugees as numbers in a con game to drum up support for military interventions and as payback for campaign contributions by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., Blackwater, Halliburton, to name but a few. With few exceptions, the media casts refugees as mere third person statistical numbers in their reports on the hollow political debates that subordinate human misery to esoteric discussions about constitutional powers, boots on the ground, exhaustive reports about weaponry, its make, cost, and the damage these high tech weapons will inflict on “selected targets.” Collateral damage? That’s just the cost of having “to teach brutal dictators not to kill their own people.”
To truly understand the plight of refugees, one must first realize the utter helplessness in which refugees and displaced people find themselves. And by now the tragic script follows an all too familiar pattern.
Forced to flee their villages and towns, families almost always leave their homes with only the clothes on their backs. In the tumultuous chaos of flight, family members are frequently separated from each other; sometimes it takes months or perhaps years to locate a lost parent, sibling or child. The flight itself is undertaken under extreme duress, and the instinct for survival somehow tends to bring out the very best and the very worst in human nature. As though by instinct, this flight takes people away from the certainty of aerial and land bombardment to the uncertainty of what lies ahead. The trickle of familiar village and neighborhood visages is soon joined on major highways or back roads by other groups of haggard and weary-eyed civilians attempting to outrun death and destruction.
Soon one can see masses of people on congested roadways and trails. Hungry, disoriented, and tired, these ghost-like shadows of erstwhile human beings follow the crowds into the unknown. The flight is usually interrupted by a neighboring country whose concern over feeding and sheltering a large influx of foreigners takes precedence over the concern for the tragic and decrepit conditions under which these masses have had to fend for themselves. If the refugees are lucky, the media makes their plight a causecelebre; only then do Western nations begin to deliver food rations, medicine, blankets and the all-too-familiar tents. Thus begins the life of a displaced person. Isolated in large compounds that are soon enclosed with barbed wire, these human beings, now reduced to mere creatures, soon find themselves prisoners of another order. Thus begins a life of uncertainty in the infamous refugee camps.
Initially refugee camps begin as convenient and temporary out of the way locales where their occupants, pacified for the moment, are eventually forgotten. The only tangible link with the outside world emanates itself in the insignia of the U.N. relief agency, the International Red Cross, and the markings of foreign governments on tents, food and staple packages and the meager and frequently outdated medical supplies. And once the relief agencies build permanent distribution centers adjacent to barricaded check points and the barbed wire is reinforced, the occupants’ freedom of movement is restricted and confined to the camp itself. Within weeks the occupants of these camps realize that their displacement is taking on a sense of permanence. And their new addresses are the spray-painted numbers on their tents. Worn out tents that have weathered the elements and have provided a meager protection from sinister scorching summer heat and brutally bitter cold winters soon give way to tin shacks and, if one is lucky, to salvaged concrete blocks. The real sense of permanent dislocation occurs when these once-free people are handed I.D. cards that serve as the only legitimate identity they have; the card becomes one’s passport to the health clinic, the food distribution center, and the dossier necessary for enrolling children in makeshift U.N. sponsored tin shack classrooms.
Plucked from their land and stripped of their identity and pride, the refugees now hold on to their documents because they are the only tangible evidence they can produce to help them prove that they are Ali, Suad, Muna, Tewfic, Ibrahim, or Nuha, and that they have a right to the land they inherited from their fathers, and their fathers before them, a land lovingly tended and cultivated for generations, a land that welcomed generations of their ancestors into the world, a land that yielded its fruits to those who made love to it with shovels, picks, spades and ploughs, and a land that gave their people a final resting place.
While their plight is debated at the U.N. and behind closed doors in various capitals around the world, these refugees listen intently to the news and find hope in the smallest utterances. In the meantime, well meaning missionaries send clothes, care packages and Bibles. One wishes that freedom, dignity, self-worth, and protection could be packaged and sent, for they are greater needs. And before long a new generation is born, a generation that sees the parameters of the refugee camp as the geographical boundaries beyond which lie dignity, freedom of movement, aspirations and opportunities for the future. And the only knowledge this generation has regarding its ancient roots is the knowledge acquired through frequently narrated accounts by the older members of the family. In these refugee tents fancy takes flight, and reality and fantasy intermingle to create rich and idealized tapestries of former and better times when youth, and weddings, and births, and harvests, and feasts and graduations were celebrated in accordance with age-old traditions on one’s beloved land. To hear the voices of the elderly and middle aged engage in nostalgic accounts about their native soil is to hear the same elegiac overtones one hears in the dirges that are sung at the death of the young bride, the brave lad, or the young child, and the loss of a homeland is likened to the loss of youth, the loss of a spouse, the loss of dignity, the loss of roots, the loss of identity and the loss of life itself.
In 1988 my wife and I travelled to Jordan, the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel with members of the National Executive Committee of the American Coalition for Middle East Dialogue (unfortunately now defunct), an organization that aspired to bring Americans of Arab, Jewish and other backgrounds together for a constructive dialogue whose purpose was to build understanding that would lead to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. While in Jordan, we visited the Bakaa Refugee camp that is located on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan’s capital. Since I was the only Arabic-speaking member of the group, I was asked to translate. While standing in an 18 by 25 foot compound that housed a 22 member Palestinian refugee family originally from Safad, Palestine, I came face to face with the plight of my people.
No more a stateless person, I had been living in America for over 23 years, and I had forgotten what it meant to be a refugee. In the mother’s face I saw what years of agony and suffering can do; in her eyes I saw her fear for her children and grandchildren’s welfare; in her sad voice I heard her yearning for a better life, a life that would take her family away from the unpaved and dusty alleys whose open sewers carried death itself. In her late fifties, the woman implored us to tell her story to the American people, all the while believing that after 40 years in a refugee camp she would soon lead her children to their ancestral home before she died. In the woman’s voice I heard the plight of every refugee mother around the world, and in the beautiful faces of her young children I saw the faces of millions of refugee children around the world. I saw youth robbed of its innocence, robbed of the buoyancy and lighthearted juvenescence which are the birthright of every child. I saw the timid smiles of miniature adults as they listened to every word their mother uttered. Did these children believed their mother’s promise? Did they believe that 16 nicely-dressed foreigners could effect a change in their miserable conditions? Had they heard missionaries, U.N. officials, human rights activists and others make similar promises from which nothing resulted? Had they not heard successive U.S. presidents lie to them — repeatedly?
In a post war speech Bush Senior told the nation that we Americans can now take pride because, among other things: “We are about decency.” I doubt that the four million Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite Iraqi refugees agree with him. And I doubt that the relatives of the more than 150 thousand collaterized damage agree with him. And I doubt that the victims of white phosphorous and depleted uranium bomb survivors, especially the young children who are born with all forms of cancer and deformities, agree with him. And even though the millions of Iraqi, African and Latin American refugees do not have oil wells with which they could buy their return passage home, their plight deserves the attention of the world and the U.N. Only then we can say that America is for decency in the “new world order.”
As one person recently stated: “As I watch the heart wrenching news of the plight of the Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, I am forced to once again reflect on my own experiences as a former refugee and stateless person, and I am reminded of the fear, frustration, anger, uncertainty, despair and sorrow that become a part of a refugee’s daily fare.” And, while western TV audiences might view a few minutes’ worth of footage that depict hungry, shabbily dressed and disoriented masses, they are denied the opportunity to comprehend the root causes and flawed foreign policy their leaders practice. Above all, they are not afforded the opportunity to grasp the magnitude of this bitterest of human tragedies. Viewed collectively, the refugees of this world have become anonymous extras in a terrible drama whose denouement is still being written by authors whose plots keep going awry.
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said it best:
What’s the worth of a man
Without a homeland,
Without a flag
Without an address
What is the worth of such a man?
To which I say: Next to nothing.
Raouf J. Halaby is a naturalized US citizen from Jerusalem, Palestine. He is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. firstname.lastname@example.org