Refugees by definition

Katrina opens people’s eyes to who refugees really are and what America has in common with the world.

Diana Fu’s Sept. 19 article titled “Refusing refugee status and questioning its implications” concerning the implications of the term refugees as it applies to victims of Hurricane Katrina failed to seriously address what concerns me most about this contextual issue.

I first heard about this terminology debate while flipping past one of those late-night discussion shows hosted by one failed comedian or another.

An excited guest shouted to the audience, “These people are not refugees! They are Americans!” And then the crowd burst out in applause as though she had just defended the honor of wrongly accused and mislabled people.

At this I was shocked and disgusted. Let us forget about the technical designations that the word implies for a moment; the term might or might not be accurate in describing hurricane victims.

Regardless, what is so disdainful about being classified as a refugee as opposed to being classified as an American? Is it somehow better to be called an “American” than to be a “refugee”? Since when are Americans too good to be refugees?

Just because America is usually lucky enough to have relatively minor tussles with nature most of the time and just because we are affluent enough, collectively, to send our massacres abroad, does not mean that some inherent trait of Americans makes these things not ever happen to us.

If bigger disasters or the kind of wars we are so fond of sponsoring anywhere else but on our own land were to hit home, we would be asking Canada or Mexico or Cuba to consider our applications with mercy just as Hmong, Somali and other people do right now. No element of being “American” would exempt us from the same conditions many nations face.

However, Fu is right on about something else. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has opened up a forum for issues like this to be discussed.

So let’s discuss for a moment America’s world-famous arrogance and ignorance. Didn’t you all hear the statements from countries all over the world after the events of Sept. 11, 2001? People in India, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and all over the globe were expressing sympathy for America because such horrifying events have happened and continue to happen to them. They are expressing the same sympathy now after Hurricane Katrina struck our soils and made refugees of Americans.

Their sympathy is real and extremely admirable in light of the suffering we thoughtlessly cause them both economically and militarily. Apparently we still think we are immune to situation such as theirs, and that we are above their tragedies, and ignore the fact that sometimes their hardships are brought on by our tax dollars.

When my father called me less than three weeks ago to express his shock at what was going on along the Gulf Coast, I was finishing up nine months of living in Jordan and in Palestine. He described the scenes of people in stadiums, without necessary supplies, traumatized, without support, and uncertain of even their immediate future.

He said “I’ve never seen such a thing!” Hearing this, I bit my lip. Having just left the West Bank, with its cities smothered by Israeli settlers, its villages enlivened by nightly Israeli army raids, and its interminably temporary refugee camps, I could only think to myself, “I have.”

But I have seen it 57 years and three generations later; the desperation, loss and uncertainty still dragging on. Thankfully, this will not be the case for the “Americans” of Katrina. This does not make their ordeal any less serious, but should still make us think about it with more compassion and understanding. I speak of Palestinians because they continue to endure arguably the most obscene, unstable and degrading situation of all the world’s refugees of which they are one-third. The point is that Americans should think more often about other people.

The state of Minnesota is home to many different sorts of refugees, as many people know. However, most people don’t know much about them. We don’t bother to ask them where they are from, why they are here, or their feelings about their situation. For example, most people have no idea that there is a significantly large population of Palestinian refugees in the Twin Cities area.

Also, many of these people have true connections to the places they have been forced to leave and may not find it easy to fit into the new jargon being used for foreign refugees: “New Americans.” Many people come here not for the “American dream,” but because things like hurricanes and other natural disasters, or wars have forced them to leave their homes behind them. Those wars are sometimes even, as in the case of Palestinians, perpetuated by United States funding for aggressors like Israel.

So from now on when you hear politicians and news dummies throwing around flippant phrases like “the fate of the refugees” in negotiations and so forth, think about what that really means. It means that someone who has been somehow cheated of their life as they knew it is sitting in a city or a suburb or a concrete camp somewhere in the world, possibly even an American affected by Hurricane Katrina is still waiting around for our politicians to recognize their humanity and make a future a possibility for them.

These people have no choice but to know who we are as America. Hopefully the eye-opening effects of Hurricane Katrina will allow us to make more efforts to know who they are. Maybe we will even ask their story and make some attempt to help them pick up what is left of their lives.

Try it. Act on it. For many, our compassion and our choice can mean allowing them either the rest of their life or death.

Anke Davern is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]