The next time you see video of a hateful, vitriol-spewing crowd chanting against allowing immigrants into our country, you might want to think what it’s like to be a refugee.
And with good reason. By the end of last year, civil wars and other violence had forced a mind-numbing 51 million people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. To put that number into perspective, it’s tantamount to the entire population of South Korea pouring out of the country and decamping to other places. And half — half! — of all refugees are children.
Consider these statistics: The United Nations High Commission for Refugees figures there are about 6.5 million people displaced internally in Syria because of civil war, with another 2.5 million squatting in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. That’s about 40% of the country’s total population. In Colombia, 5.4 million have fled their homes, the legacy of internal conflicts that have dragged on for decades. Three million people from the Central African Republic have been displaced by sectarian fighting, some walking for three months to escape to surrounding countries while subsisting on leaves and contaminated water, many bearing terrible wounds from machetes or gunshots. And here in the U.S., 57,000 children have turned up on our doorstep, most of them fleeing gang violence in Central America.
Whether it is internal displacement within your home country, or flight to borders beyond, the experience is nothing less than traumatizing. The decision to leave is usually made hastily, with bombs exploding in the distance or machete-wielding rebels bearing down on your home. You grab whatever you can think of in the moment — bedding, food, cooking utensils, a few sentimental trinkets — and dash. The lucky ones leave in cars. The less fortunate — read: most refugees — head out on foot. Propelled by the violence at their backs, they scurry forward under the weight of their belongings, herding their children, trying to find food and shelter along the way. Fear is the animating emotion: fear of what they are running from, fear of what lies ahead. Think, for instance, of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the 20,000 or so children who were displaced and/or orphaned by civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, and traversed a vast and dangerous wilderness on foot for months, so desperate were they to seek refuge in Ethiopia. Think of the fear and despondency that must impel the Central American children nowadays to make their perilous trek to our border.
The fortunate among refugees will often find shelter with extended family members. It’s a humiliating situation, at the very least: squeezed into someone else’s space, living on their largesse, hoping for their patience and understanding. And that’s a best-case scenario. Many refugees end up living in squalid, fetid camps. Seasonal rains inundate their tents; food is scarce; medical supplies, rudimentary; schooling for the children, virtually non-existent. They sit in these camps for days, weeks, sometimes even years. They have no idea what has happened to the homes they left behind, their neighborhoods, businesses, friends, families. It is impossible for them to know when they will be able to return. They become people with no past and no future — only a present of ceaseless misery.
As a foreign correspondent covering wars, I wrote often about the plight of refugees. It was part of my job description. These were some of the saddest stories I had to report, yet I never fully appreciated what it meant to be uprooted until I, too, became a refugee of sorts. In the summer of 1990, I was living in Liberia with my husband, a career foreign service officer who was charge d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Monrovia. Rebels led by the warlord Charles Taylor were bearing down on the capital in what had become a grisly tribal conflict. Fearing a bloodbath when Taylor entered Monrovia, the State Department ordered all Americans out of the country except for essential embassy personnel. The other evacuees were going on to Washington, but I got off the airplane in neighboring Sierra Leone to sit on a beach until the war ended. I didn’t want to be so far away from my husband.
It was an agonizing wait. Days turned into weeks. I had only radio reports from the BBC to keep me informed of the war’s horrific progress. I had no idea if my husband was safe. (Later, I would learn that a stray bullet whizzing through his office window missed lobotomizing him by about two inches.) I had no idea of the fate of our Liberian friends; of the families of our employees (who were hiding in our basement); of our house; our belongings. I couldn’t work and I couldn’t make plans. Those were among the most disorienting and dispiriting weeks I’ve ever spent. Life itself seemed suspended. And I was lucky. Unlike most refugees, I had an American passport that would gain me entry to just about anywhere in the world. I had a credit card to pay for an airplane ticket out of there, a bank account back in the U.S. to allow me to begin anew (which I would eventually have to do; I was never allowed to return to Monrovia.)
Luck and fortune: that’s all that stood between my situation and the plight of others. Few people have the kinds of resources that we all-too-often take for granted.
We, as citizens, can’t end the world’s civil wars and violence; they require political solutions forged by political leaders. We can, however, recognize that refugees are the flotsam and jetsam of such conflicts. So when you see those demonstrators screaming against the Central American children who’ve crossed into Texas, think about what it would be like to be a refugee. How we respond speaks volumes about us as a people — and as a nation.