Okay, I admit it. The two, sin and refugees, donâ€™t normally go together. At least, not officially. Sin is sin, and refugees are, well, theyâ€™re just unlucky.
But the recent events along the Gulf Coast of the United States, and the social fallout that has followed, seems to suggest something different. There’s a subtle battle of terminology that’s been going on under the surface, in the background, upstage, behind the main action played out by FEMA and the President and the Mayor and the Governor, and it’s this: nobody’s all that sure what exactly to call the people who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent floods.
Some people want to call them “evacuees”. Some people want to call them “victims”. Some people want to call them “survivors”. Some people want to call them “displaced”. What is pretty clear, though, is that many people â€” most prominent among them prominent African-Americans â€” are resisting calling them refugees.
Jesse Jackson’s one of those who think that “refugee” isn’t the right word. Al Sharpton’s another. Both believe that to apply the word “refugee” to the New Orleans evacuees is racist. Both justify their positions by making reference to the fact that the victims of Katrina who have been pushed from their homes are citizens of the United States of America. The very obvious implication: Americans are Americans, and not refugees.
Now this does and doesn’t make sense to me. The official definition of a refugee is someone who is forced to leave his or her home to seek refuge elsewhere. In its purest sense, the word refugee has no colour, creed or nationality; it is a word that describes an accident of history, the after-effects of some event or another that is beyond the control of the people affected. This makes the individuals who were forced to leave Montserrat in the wake of the volcanic eruption, the people who leave Haiti on a daily basis to find food and work and cash, and the New Orleanians who fled their own floodwaters members of the same category.
But there’s another definition of a refugee, one that depends on the connotations and the uses of the word, one that isn’t always shared by people in different segments of this earth we cohabit. It’s this; the word “refugee” is generally applied by people in rich nations to people in poor nations who are forced to leave their lands by war, famine, poverty or disaster. It’s a smug kind of word that reminds those people who use it that not everybody is equal. In these terms, it’s not just a word that describes the condition in which these people find themselves. It’s a word that categorizes groups of people into “Us” and “Them”.
And refugees are always “Them”.
The fact that African-Americans share this idea, that African-Americans are sensitive to the term and its connotations, that they may even accept the connotations of the world as real or right (as witnessed by their indignation that citizens of the USA should be called “refugees”), to my mind, simply reinforces the very real inequalities that divide our world. We Bahamians, we like to believe the African-American myth that skin colour unites us all. After all, we are all Africans in our genes, aren’t we? We are all brothers. A mere accident of birthplace shouldn’t make all that much difference in where we stand in the world.
But when it comes down to it, there are times, even in the United States of America, where (as we’ve all been reminded) racism is alive and well, when the lines are drawn, even by our black brethren themselves. What Jackson and Sharpton are doing, whether they realize it or not, is drawing the line for themselves. They may be Black, yes, their ancestors may be African like ours, but they are also Americans. And Americans, unlike the rest of us, cannot be refugees.
You see, there’s a third connotation to the word “refugee” that I haven’t dealt with yet. And it’s the one I started with. Whether we like it or not, or admit it or not, there’s a fundamental moral bias that adheres to the concept of being a refugee. Refugees, you see, are homeless people that we may hate or we may pity, but that we almost never respect. It’s as though being a refugee is a sin, not a misfortune. It’s as though being driven from one’s home is some kind of divine judgement that follows some awful, awful deed. The way we react suggests that we may feel for those “poor people”, but we’ll never, ever reach them. This is what lies beneath the idea that “we” (Americans, Bahamians, the rich) couldn’t possible be refugees. We didn’t share their sin.
When I raised this idea for the first time on a blog (www.ringplay.com), a reader made a comment that took the idea further. This idea of sin and the refugee, he argued, is ingrained in our “Christian” nation from birth. As he says:
The very first account in the bibles of both Judaism and Christianity helps to bind â€œsinâ€ with the â€œrefugeeâ€. The sinners were sent packing from their home â€” that perfect place of peace and prosperity â€” because they didnâ€™t have their act together and did something dead wrong. They became displaced and had to end up catching hell because of â€œsinâ€. Because of sin they lost everything and even Nature turned against them. I mean even Satan was a notorious refugee. And we could go on and on with the examples.
â€œWeâ€ are sure the refugee, the migrant, the evacuee, or whatever we want to call them deserves the mess they’re inâ€¦ at least thatâ€™s what the collective psyche seems to be thinking. And to boot, we donâ€™t want them spilling into our â€œpristineâ€ environment, bringing the bad luck, doom, and godâ€™s wrath with themâ€¦ do we?
Iâ€™m watching Louisiana carefully. Iâ€™m watching the reaction of Americans to their own domestic refugees, their own fellow Americans. The people who want to escape New Orleans are not Haitian or Mexican; theyâ€™re American. But it doesnâ€™t matter one bit. Itâ€™s not the nationality that matters, it seems. Itâ€™s the sin of being a refugee.