Hannah Arendt was an assimilated Jew who managed to escape Hitler's regime and move to the United States, in order to find shelter and become an American citizen. Her essay, We refugees (read online) was published in a small Jewish periodical in 1943. In her essay, Arendt deals with the problems of identity and imposed identity, and shows us what it means to be called a refugee. It is actually a great psychological portrait of a very particular collective, as it depicts what it means to be a wanderer and forced to leave one's home.
The propaganda that was spread at gunpoint by Hitler was so horrifying that we needed a new word for it, in order to mark its meaning properly. Today, we are witnessing a raging war, although it's not declared and its use of violence is unauthorized. Therefore, we call it terrorism. In the end, it doesn't matter what we call it, violence is occurring and it's creating severe consequences. It's forcing thousands of innocent people to leave their homes and seek refuge somewhere else.
In her essay, Arendt speaks about how difficult it was for her and other Jews to find peace and shelter, since it usually meant dealing with others who were not that friendly to newcomers, or it meant assimilating with the majority and losing oneself in the process. The experience of the concentration camps was still very much alive and vivid in their memories, and that searching for a new home was actually a form of denial. Even talking about what they had been through was considered a taboo:
Even among ourselves we don't speak about this past.
Still, there was this strong optimism that pushed people forward, and the belief that there was something better waiting for them. Of course, there was another side of this coin: fighting and choosing to survive wasn't everybody's decision. Some chose death and committed suicide, not being strong enough to carry on. Committing suicide gave the illusion of liberty, the only thing people could control:
Perhaps the philosophers are right who teach that suicide is the last and supreme guarantee of human freedom: not being free to create our lives or the world in which we live, we nevertheless are free to throw life away and to leave the world.
All the Jewish people wanted was to live their lives just like anybody else, but for the most absurd reasons – they were denied that right. That right was denied to them by a sick man, drunk with power, who was supported by millions. Arendt writes about the primal force that drives a human being: that is the will to survive. But, for Jews, it meant stripping themselves of their identities:
Very few individuals have the strenght to conserve their own integrity if their social, political and legal status is completely confused. Lacking the courage to fight for a change of our social and legal status, we have decided instead, so many of us, to try a change of identity. [...] Whatever we do, whatever we pretend to be, we reveal nothing but our insane desire to be changed, not to be Jews.
Arendt shows the true face of a refugee, and she tries to stress that people showed little empathy towards the less fortunate:
The natives, confronted with such strange beings as we are, become suspicious.
Even receiving help is hard for the ones seeking asylum:
If we are saved, we feel humiliated, and if we are helped, we feel degraded.
Today, people don't really think about the mental state of the ones who are escaping war and leaving everything behind. This humbling of the Jews and their feeling of lost dignity can’t be far from what refugees today feel. But, it happens too often that they knock on closed doors that will never open; they are rejected, and they are left to their own destiny. The global media covers the everyday tragedies that happen in these great migrations. People respond by shaking their heads, disapproving, but not really doing anything. They are in fear themselves. It seems as if we have forgotten to be humans.
Hannah Arendt’s essay is a complex story, it is like a brief history of one soul within one collective. It does have the problem of identity in its focus, as well as the relevant semantics: what it means to be called a refugee or an immigrant. This problem is highlighted by the specific status of Jews, who were once called stateless. Jews formally founded Israel in 1948, but this essay was written five years before that. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot about power and the need of others to impose their power, the need to dominate and control, to rule and play God. And we owe it to ourselves and to the idea of humanity to rethink the position of today’s refugees, put our fears aside and help the ones who truly need it. We must not forget the horrible experience of wars through history. We must not forget that we are all human beings.
We Refugees by Benjamin Zephaniah
When I was reading some new poems recently, I was struck by how this one showed the universality of people displaced from their homeland. The news reports make refugees into a problem to be dealt with and seldom do we consider their desperation and individual stories. We Refugees has a first person narrator and an almost musical rhythm, so while it deals with serious subjects, it is not full of doom and gloom. There is a tone of regret, thoughts of what is lost and a tiny glimmer of hopefulness that a return could be possible at some point. The narrator could be any age or gender, actually, though my first impression was of a young person. They appear to be from Afghanistan, though it’s never named, but there are references to “a sunny, sandy place” “where girls cannot go to school” and “even young boys must grow beards”. The first part of the poem is a contrast between how the culture and the land itself has changed, the lush forest which is now a field and the dangers of music.
The most poignant part of the poem is the middle:
“We can all be refugees
Nobody is safe,
All it takes is a mad leader
Or no rain to bring forth food,
We can all be refugees
We can all be told to go…”
It points out how random and out of our control circumstances can be that creates refugees. And how timeless, too. The very places that are refusing people now were once full of people fleeing themselves not so long ago.
The end of the poem shows how the narrator is viewed by others:
“I am told I have no country now
I am told I am a lie”
This is how refugees are looked at, as a statistic, not as individual, as if their identity is erased, their family ties and names forgotten from both their homeland and the new places where they seek asylum. The final lines reiterate how it is just luck or good fortune which prevents others from facing a similar situation and offers a wish that those listening to the narrator will understand the connections that we all have, just by being human.
I was shocked that the author was not a refugee himself, but rather a man of Jamaican descent who grew up in the UK. He’s received numerous honors for his writings as both poet and novelist and is an activist for Amnesty International and animal rights organizations. This poem is not the only foray into the issue, his novel Refugee Boy was published in 2001 and follows the journey of a boy affected by events in Ethiopia. It is the mark of a gifted writer who can convey the emotions and experiences that they have not experienced and this poem does it splendidly.
To read the whole poem, please go to this page at Poem Hunter- We Refugees
Photo of children welcoming spring is from the Tumblr page Afghanistan in Photos by Bahar Aaamad