Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some Thoughts on Refugees

Her name is Huda, approximately 40 years old with bright eyes and a warm smile. The pastel blue hijab wrapped around her head and covering her shoulders tells me she’s Muslim. Her light skin tone stands out from the rest of the dark-skinned African refugees queued up in the courtyard of the Falaki building on the campus of the American University in Cairo. “Where are you from?” I enquire politely as I process her paperwork, but my question really isn’t a question at all; I’m merely seeking confirmation. “I’m from Iraq, but I live in Cairo now.”

Huda is a refugee, a person either forced or voluntarily removed from a country for political, economic, or social reasons beyond his or her control. Cairo, with its central location to many refugee crises, is home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Situated in the center of the Arab world and located in the northeast corner of Africa, Cairo is a safe haven for people from such countries as Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Chad, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Palestine, and more recently, Iraq. During the last week, I met people from all of these countries.

Grading the placement tests reveals small details in the personal lives of some of these students. When asked to define the word “job,” one student replied (and this is a paraphrase), “I live in Cairo one year. There are no jobs here.” Another student, while describing his family, wrote, “My father was killed by the Ethiopian government.” One student left her 70-year-old mother in Baghdad and escaped to Egypt. Reading these responses is shocking—they are brutally honest.

Working registration tables has its stories, too. Whenever a student comes to the table, I ask for a passport-sized photo, and inevitably they pull out a small packet full of photos. The image is a sad one. How many times have they been asked to give a photo? How many times have they waited in line? How many times have they reached the front of a line only to be told to go to a different one? How many times have they been rejected? Refugee management is bureaucratic but necessarily so. How else do you manage hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homeland?

As I sat at the registration table last week, I could not stop staring at Huda’s ID. I was captivated—captivated by guilt. As an American, I knew that it was my country that was responsible for the Iraqi refugee problem, and that the U.S. has taken in a pathetic and embarrassing number of refugees (somewhere around 1,500 if I remember correctly). An informal estimate approximates that there are at least 30,000 Iraqis in Cairo. A sickening feeling filled my stomach, and I just wanted to go up to Huda and apologize and say to her that everything was a mistake, that I wish it were different. When I help other refugees, I do so out of kindness and a desire to help those who are less fortunate, but I have no feelings of guilt. I don’t feel any personal responsibility to these people. Iraq is different.

The situation is full of irony. America was the catalyst of a civil war that has sent tens of thousands of Iraqis to Cairo. Now it is the Americans that are trying to alleviate the situation of the Iraqis by providing English language skills and refugee awareness. None of this should have happened, and yet it did. May lessons be learned.

1 comment:

Andy Noverr said...

Moving story, Pablito. Crazy how connected the world is.