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The Forcibly Displaced Lead the Way Through the Pandemic

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

We like to believe that we have agency, that we can pick our way through the world. We like to believe that by being good people, helpful to others, that we will be likewise treated. We like to believe that our future will be a (slightly better) facsimile of our past.

Sometimes that comes to pass. Many people, maybe the majority in the developed world, live with little fear of imminent death to themselves or their loved ones. The progress of humanism, science, and reason has even victimized us with success and in turn we have taken for granted our physical security and been overcome with all too real mental anguish.

For my age cohort (young Gen X’rs or old-guard Xennials), SARS-COV-2 is the force bucking these happy global trends. There has been no world war or draft, relative peace in our times; prosperity in middle-class, midwest, mid-meritocracy America; so given the right situational squeeze-play a land-grant engineering or programming degree stood you in good a stead–comparable to a boomer machinist. But now, Mother Nature is all in, and it’s apparent that no one will get out without a scratch.

Privilege, unearned and even unappreciated, is a societal and not biological force. While there is still greater pandemic hardship in Black, Indigenous, and communities of people of color, largely because of economic class’s unequal access to healthcare and personal protective equipment, the infectious agent is agnostic to race. Go to a grocery store or a college kegger and you run the (very different likelihood) risk of infection, hospitalization, suffering, and death.

Terror and physical distance is the right reaction to such a deadly force, but that is an equal and opposite reaction to our human desire to race toward someone suffering, to comfort a sick child or beloved grandparent. We are caught in between, touching our face, mindful of our unsanitized appendages, hypochondriac about chance and transmittal.

Swimming in COVID, I fear you’ll give it to me. Stand further away. My luck could run out on the next door handle I touch.

But most of the people of the world have not been–and continue not to be granted–luck of the kind that assures a reasonable shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Experiences are more suffering than happiness. This is certainly the case for those most unlucky people–the forcibly displaced–those fleeing for their lives under the wheel of a state or local force intent on squeezing all the resources and livelihood out of their people.

Imagine one day that all the people whose name starts with N-Z start to commit atrocities against all of those with names starting in the first half of the alphabet. Or visa versa, to throw you into the victimized batch. You are caught out. First, disbelieving that it could happen here, where your parents or grandparents built the community; next, anger and if you make it through ignorance and the reptilian response with your life, you flee.

Running is not easy work, running for your life is a maze of pitfalls. Safety is hundreds of miles away, traversed with children clinging to your side, with hazards around every turn, arriving eventually alongside thousands of others for a period of waiting likely to extend for years, even decades. There are 79.5 million people displaced in the world today, a population greater than California, Texas, and Washington state combined.

As a Development Director for the non-profit I co-founded, Women of the World, I aim to lead all of our grants with the theme of success and overcoming challenges, not the suffering and needs. For our programs to be successful, our clients have to become self-reliant through efforts large and small, collaborative and individual. These successes are thankfully frequent. Everyday women lead their families out of dire poverty, learn English, get an education, build community, and serve locally and back in their home countries where liberated and strong women are the remedy for the violence and despondence facing their homes. However, forcibly displaced people living among us as our new neighbors have even more to share than grit and smarts. They act as a mirror to our humanity and offer a perspective on fear.

Kindness to the less fortunate, to those seeking refuge, is the humane response. There is an optimum number of displaced people any nation state can let in, but our posture must be one of understanding the role that luck–and luck alone–had in the shoes being on the respective foot. This philosophical thought-experiment is known as the “veil of ignorance” and supposes that you make moral and political decisions before you have knowledge of your gender, racial, and socioeconomic identity. Obviously only a man would create the Taliban, only a White person would create the Confederacy, and only the landed aristocracy would create feudal Europe. A moral political response to the modern refugee crisis is a humane one that addresses the unrest, supports neighboring nation states that bear the burden of the flow of displaced people, and offers a relief-valve worldwide to resettle refugees and asylum seekers for the benefit of BOTH parties.

“Running is not easy work, running for your life is a maze of pitfalls. Safety is hundreds of miles away, traversed with children clinging to your side, with hazards around every turn, arriving eventually alongside thousands of others for a period of waiting likely to extend for years, even decades.”

Our humanity and policies will continue to be tested as the climate cancer makes more land uninhabitable causing at first wars implicitly related to equatorial warming and eventually explicitly related to the climate cancer. These mass migrations will require solutions that do not imperil the unlucky survivor of war nor the lucky nation less impacted by illiberalism, war, and a collapsing climate.

Which leads to the second way that I have found the forcibly displaced to be an example–in how they overcome fear and work the problem. A collapsing climate, social unrest, unseen viral pandemics, and the ordinary hardships of being poor cause legitimate disquiet, depression, and fear… none of which is beneficial to cognitively working the problem and figuring out how to act with humanity, dexterity, and direction. We have to reduce the static and see the problem and the path clearly. Only then will we have a chance at solving the issue and marshaling the resources to fix it.

I have seen many refugee women cut through their fears and find a path for themselves and their kids. They have literally run for their lives, so they don’t fear social gracelessness in learning English, nor do they mistake asking for help for helplessness. They cut through the fear and find the space open to problems AND their solutions, they let their eyes adjust to the darkness and open their hearts to the light.

This is not an easy skill. With all of the discord, social media outrage, and racism, it is easy to fight back with righteousness and disdain, shoring up embattlements, and striking back with equal force. But solutions require creativity and calm, the ability to measure next steps against resources, and make the boldest possible step along the long arc of history toward justice. Like the forcibly displaced women I know, we must strike out along the most reasonable path to solve the issue in front of us, persevere to the next problem, and the next, until our practiced problem solving is our purpose.

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