On Being a Refugee

I never expected to become so heavy of heart as I have found myself recently. I suppose it should not have come as a surprise, though it did. When we are growing up we are imbued with optimism. Our parents telling us “God has a wonderful plan for your life” and our elementary teachers echoing that sentiment “You are the future leader” or perhaps the more mundane “You can do anything you set your mind to.”

“Oh the places you’ll go,” says Dr. Seuss, somewhat more realistically perhaps – a wooden cutout I have hung on the wall of my little boy’s room. Yes, I am guilty of it too – how could I not be? Nobody is going to tell him “Watch out, or you’ll be homeless – a drug addict or worse — infinitely worse — a refugee. Worse because it’s a disaster not of your own making. There’s a certain amount of disdain we have for those suffering from a misfortune of their own making.” The homeless who approach us in front of the McDonald’s, HELP WANTED poster emblazoned above the battered cup extended looking for a handout.

But this does not extend to victims of a disaster not of their doing. This morning I read of Maria de los Angeles, a Venezuelan woman thrown out of the USA after having arrived following the perilous trek which took her through the Darien pass in Panama, across waters and over mountains and through jungles and deep forsaken deserts only to sit now, a cup of free coffee her last living possession staring up at the concertina-wire crested divider the last but most formidable challenge to her question “What will become of me?”

Maria de los Angeles fled Venezuela, because there is nothing there for her. What was a political problem that brought us the smirking wickedness of Hugo Chavez, became an economic problem and onward, it is now a humanitarian disaster. I once wrote about Venezuela’s suicide – but the decisions that caused the national suicide are now far in Venezuela’s past. The revenge-election where the ‘have-not-quite-as-much’ thought they could get back at the ‘have-a-little-bit-more’ through organized theft at the voting booth is now ancient history. Maria de los Angeles did not vote for the theft. She was not enraptured by the wicked cunning of the caudillo. She was not goaded on to steal by those who said they had found a legal path. Perhaps her parents were the problem – perhaps they voted for the despot in the heady days of revolution. Who knows; and who cares. It’s ancient history now.

Maria de los Angeles now sits on the curb of a foreign land, having spent all she had to get to another foreign land. She has no right to be in either, to be sure. That’s what a refugee is – somebody wholly dependent upon the charity and goodwill of strangers; and worse of foreign bureaucracies. That doesn’t make the desperation any less – but much more.

Misery does not love company, like the old saying goes. Sure, perhaps the miserable like to know they are not alone and there is certain safety in a group. Especially a group of refugees. But nobody loves it. The only miserable who loved the mob were those who started the suicide in the first place; and who bequeathed upon their children a lifetime of despair. But there is no way to judge them. And there is no point. Fools make foolish decisions, and rarely admit the error of their ways, even if they see it. And it is facile to point it out. Because there are more than 100,000,000 people now fleeing from one place to another.

What do we do with that kind of misery? How do we process that level of suffering? Does not the earth even weep? Do not the ancient trees of the Darien store somehow the memory of those who made the trek, as the silent sentinels witness to the heartache? I suppose so. None of that means anything to Maria de los Angeles. This afternoon she is there, a 25 day order by the Mexican government to leave – but go where? The compassion of a Baptist missionary her only ointment, but it does not soothe.

And we the safe? I’d venture to guess we are complacent – do not we have our own problems anyways? The mortgage comes relentlessly at the end of the month, whether Maria de los Angeles sits on the curb or not and after such a season as we all have had, the crust we grew on purpose around our heart as necessary protection to put one foot in front of the other makes it hard to consider Maria de los Angeles among the masses always on the move. It’s hard to not feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of such tribulations as our crowded tired world is seeing.

More than twenty years ago I started working on issues like these. Work that took me to Uganda and Chad and Mali and Nigeria and Pakistan and Venezuela and Armenia – and to and from Washington. I thought then that things would get better – I had swallowed Fukuyama’s blue pill and even believed people who said “Things on the macro level are improving”. I’m not sure I feel that way anymore. Not that I give up – I’ve never been that type of person. And not that I allow it to break the perfect veneer for my little boy – because I am not raising a Greta; that type of child abuse is too common these days. He will make up his own mind, in the future, and the world for him until then will be one of wonder – stargazing and hayrides and pumpkin carvings.

But on a windy Sunday in October, on the other side of an impenetrable wall from where Maria de los Angeles sits and weeps, I can’t but feel somewhat melancholy. And that’s all I have to say.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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2 Responses to On Being a Refugee

  1. “heavy of heart”….the malady of all who confront the irony of life.


  2. Dalo 2013 says:

    Sometimes as we get older, we get frustrated by seeing the same errors, bad decisions/superficial changes repeated, and it rocks the soul. “I had swallowed Fukuyama’s blue pill and even believed people who said “Things on the macro level are improving”. I’m not sure I feel that way anymore.” While you see this malaise at a level I could not imagine, it does permeate throughout other areas of life, but I always hold out hope for the younger generations to continue caring and making changes (even if microscopic in nature) so one day…


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