I come from a long line of refugees. From Adam and Eve cast out of Eden to the exodus from Egypt and forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, the story of the Jews turns on exile and the yearning for refuge. My own maternal grandparents left Russia under cover of night to escape the pogroms that had already taken my great-grandfather. They ran to avoid my grandfather’s imminent conscription into the Czar’s army, another kind of death sentence for Jews. For me, great suffering attaches to the word “refugee,” but I do not think of it as a dishonorable status, merely a name for misfortune.
So at first, it took me aback to hear so many people displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina take offense at being called refugees. Against being labelled that way, most offered two arguments. Again and again, I heard people say, “We aren’t refugees, we are Americans, we are citizens. Again and again, I heard them say this: “We aren’t refugees, we’re survivors.”
These words have been rattling around in my head for over a week, ricocheting off sore spots. I think I understand what they mean, and it pierces my heart like a knife.
In our media universe, refugees are passive, listless, hollow-eyed families, lying on the hard-packed dust of the Sudan or Somalia, trying with arms sharp as sticks to cradle their starving babies. Refugees are tangles of rags and limbs lashed to a raft in the China sea, burned by the sun till their eyes seem live coals. Refugees spend their days sifting through garbage-heaps for overlooked scraps of food or shelter. They stand in line all day for rusty tins of powdered milk.
We watch refugees on television and feel safe. Their emaciated bodies and yearning faces provide the visuals for telethons: as the camera comes in close, ponderous announcers intone 800 numbers, imploring us to save the children. In our media universe, refugees are analogized as animals. They are very, very far away, and they are absolutely other.
This is not new. Anyone who has seen the footage of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps half a century ago knows the visual language I am describing. But despite appalling contrary examples from the 1940s–refugee ships refused safe harbor, destitute and bereft families turned away at the border–the refugees of my grandparents’ generation experienced human kindness, finding homes and making lives. What’s new is this: today, our policies are creating a permanent class of refugees and it is growing every hour. More than 19 million souls–3 percent of world population–are “persons of concern” to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That figure has grown by 2 million since 2004. The consolidation of wealth and the privatization of social goods are creating refugees the way high-tech factories turn out widgets, and while those trends escalate, there is no way to keep up with the manufacture of suffering.
The Katrina survivors understand the power of words. I believe they are saying this: Your words abandon us. If we are refugees, if we concede our lives to that label, we accept the treatment American society metes out to refugees: fear, contempt, avoidance, indifference. You make us less than human, and we are lost.
I come from a long line of refugees, and I have never been ashamed to say so. But things have changed. In their rejection of the label “refugee,” the survivors of Katrina expose not their own shame, but the shame of our society.