I recently watched an NBA benefit game for Hurricane Katrina victims. My ears perked up when announcer Charles Barkley irritably noted that we shouldn't call the people who had been affected "refugees."
I've spent the last five years advocating on behalf of refugees, and my first reflection was that legally speaking, Charles Barkley is absolutely correct. Refugees are defined in law as people who have fled not only their homes, but also their countries, due to persecution. Because they were fleeing within America, the people in Houston's Astrodome were not refugees.
But what term should we use? Technically they are "internally displaced persons," "IDPs" for short. Charles Barkley, however, thinks we should call them "evacuees." He's not the only one
So, why are people so hostile towards the term "refugee"? After all, while it may be legally inaccurate, it's not linguistically so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a refugee as a person seeking refuge. Refuge can be sought from a storm as much as from persecution.
Besides, people's reaction to the word is not about its legal or linguistic definition-- it's visceral and outright hostile. Representative Elijah Cummings said "I hate that word." Hate. That's hardly a term warranted by legal inaccuracy. Jesse Jackson said that the word was "racist." He has a point. Many of the most visible, and vulnerable, people fleeing Katrina are black. Referring to them as "refugees" identifies them as outsiders in America. But the problem is that this line of thinking implicitly affirms that it's OK to distinguish between Americans and non-Americans in terms of who should get help.
Representative Diane Watson said the term "refugee" called to mind "people that come from different lands and have to be taken care of." She most likely was not insinuating that the hurricane victims don't need assistance. So I think she was referring to the fact that "refugees" are seen as people who can't take care of themselves. They aren't action-oriented Americans. She along with many in this country, thinks refugees belong in camps in Africa and Asia, where they get handouts-while Katrina victims are entitled to their aid.
This is a false dichotomy. Refugees accepted as such in the US can and do receive ad. Maintaining this distinction robs us f the chance to apply what we have learned from helping actual refugees, to Katrina victims. The whole debate has understandably hurt actual refugees. n the simple words of a Siera Leonean refugee, "they think refugee is a bad word. But it's not." How have we, as Americans, come buy into this? After all, this country was founded by refugees. The UN lists Isabel Allende, Madeline Albright, Frederick Chopin and Albert Einstein among its gallery of prominent refugees. Refugees are often targeted in their home countries for being the best and the brightest.
Those who lost as a result of Katrina have shown resilience and the capacity to act for themselves. That resilience has probably received too little attention. But refugees do the same thing day after day in America and around the world. They get even less attention.
So: you say refugee, I say evacuee--let's call the whole argument off. This isn't Scrabble. What we should be focusing on are the similarities between Katrina refugees/evacuees/IDPs and asylum seekers and refugees from other countries. We should focus on getting both groups the tools that they need to rebuild their own lives, not diverting our attention and energies arguing about the distinctions between them.
In New York, I'm Olivia Bueno.