Refugees Are People, Not a Crisis

Refugees Are People, Not a Crisis March 22, 2016

APTOPIX-Hungary-Migra_HoroSometimes the horrors in the news are so overwhelming that I’m left speechless. This is how I feel now—have been feeling for months—about what is being called Europe’s “refugee crisis.”

Refugee crisis. Encapsulating massive human suffering in those two simple words strikes me as demeaning: a slap in the face of every refugee from the endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya….

I imagine a woman who was evicted from the French refugee camp at Calais, sleepless with worry over the sick toddler she holds in her arms. I imagine her staring at me in numb despair when I read her a news story about “the refugee crisis.” I hear her scream back, “I’m not your crisis; I’m a person, a person who is pouring all my energy and money into trying to save my family from the brutalities of war and the indignities of being classified as a low-class refugee.”

I have no answer for her. I share her pain—to the extent that it’s possible for a comfortable U.S. citizen to share the pain of a despairing country-less person. But I don’t have the words to express my sharing.

When this happens—when I’m speechless at the world’s relentless cruelties—I turn to poetry.

In this particular case, I turn to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Business,” with its epigraph (apparently the caption for a photo in a news story):

“Syrian refugees go about their business in a refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan…”

The poem then purports simply to describe the refugees’ daily business:

Ropes on poles, jeans & shirts flapping in wind.
He sits on a giant bag of rice, head in hands.

Too much or too little, rips & bursts & furrows.
Something seared in a pan.

If you knew a mother, any mother, you would care
for mothers, yes?  No.

What it is to be lonesome for stacked papers
on a desk, under glass globe,

brass vase with standing pencils,
new orders. 

How quickly urgencies of doing disappear.
And where is the child from the next apartment,

whose crying kept him awake
these last terrible months? 

Where do you file this unknowing?

This is the entire poem. “Business.” The poem’s opening line simply images the daily business of laundry. Line 2 is simply descriptive as well, though its final three words—“head in hands”—describe a gesture of pain, so they bring us inside the man’s being.

And then all at once, in line 3, we’re deep inside the experience of being a refugee:

“Too much or too little, rips & bursts & furrows.” We’re experiencing something like an earthquake of sensibility. No stable objects. Instead, the torn-apart sense of things not right, not in proportion. If I let myself get too far into the words of this line, I begin to feel nausea.

Then, just as suddenly, an external reality is sensed: “Something seared in a pan.”

Suddenly, again, the point of view shifts—to us, the readers of this poem, of this news story. First the assumption that knowledge of the refugees’ situation will move us: “If you knew a mother, any mother, you would care / for mothers, yes?” Then in a single harsh negative, we turn our backs: “No.”

Then the poem returns us to the refugee’s viewpoint, incisively contrasted with the stuff of our own daily business. Refugees are “lonesome” for the ordinary things that we take for granted: stacked papers, a desk, brass vase, pencils. These are the stuff of our “urgencies of doing.” Can I imagine my daily life without my desk, my pencils, my papers, my computer? Of course not. Yet for the refugee, “How quickly urgencies of doing disappear.”

And right in this stanza, something—someone—even more urgent has disappeared:

How quickly urgencies of doing disappear.
And where is the child from the next apartment,

whose crying kept him awake
these last terrible months?

It’s the refugee’s sudden realization that, in the midst of all these losses (of things, of comfort, of dignity), there is the terrible loss of a child’s crying. This crying that had been simply annoying, keeping the refugee awake, becomes precious through loss.

To the refugee’s mind, the lost child stands in for all the human relationships lost in the dreadful flight from home, and the continual tearing apart of new relationships formed through the terrifying journey that has not ended, that seems to have no end.

Then comes the poem’s devastating final line:

Where do you file this unknowing?

Silently, the “you” merges us readers (us outsiders) with the refugee’s inner self. Silently, “file” conflates the stuff of our own ordinary life (those papers to file) with the refugee’s lonesomeness for it. Silently, “this” unknowing swells to include the infinite unknowings of a refugee’s life: the all-encompassing unknowing, uncertainty, helplessness. No wonder the unnamed “he” of the opening stanza sits “head in hands.”

The end of a poem usually returns me to its title. “Business.” Isn’t this—everything that the poem so painfully depicts—our business? All of us?


Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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