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Refugee, American-Style

by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Kirk Stevens

"I still have family who is scattered," says Kirk Stevens over lunch at the iconic Little Dizzy's in New Orleans, 3½ years after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina blew his family throughout the South.

"My family is scattered," said a 75-year-old woman in Amman, Jordan, half a world away, 5 years after the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq sent her family scrambling. Her husband died during the first Gulf War. Her 3 adult children fled to Sweden and Jordan, her youngest committed suicide. "I brought nothing (except) the death certificates for my husband and son."

"Refugee" became a politically charged word to describe the displaced Louisianans and Mississippians strewn throughout the south. How could an American be a "refugee" in his or her own country? Yet, we don't blink when we use the neutered term "internally displaced refugees" to describe the 2 million Iraqis who have been forced from their family homes but don't have the funds or the desire to leave their home country.

Perhaps the image of lines of people carrying scant belongings on their heads or backs, creeping along crowded roads, leaving a life shattered by brutality and invisibility, corralled into overflowing holding centers, heading into uncertainty and desperation, perhaps that image is too "unAmerican."

Yet, New Orleanians described moving from place to place, sharing their meager food and gas with each other, unprepared for the months they'd be away from their homes, families, jobs and communities.

"I left home with two changes of clothing thinking we'd be gone a couple of days, never dreaming it would be 3 years!" Kirk says over dirty rice. "Our lives are in limbo." It could have been Kirk speaking, but it was every Iraqi I met in Syria and Jordan last summer, who fled their homes 3 years ago during the height of destabilizing violence.

"The Hurricane hit Monday, but I got my family out Saturday night. Me, my wife, my 4 grandkids. My daughter is a nurse at the penitentiary. My son-in-law is a police officer. They had to stay.

"We [drove] to a camp in Brandon, MS, a religious camp. After 2 days, the wind knocked out the power. We were running out of food. We had to evacuate from that camp. People were sharing their gas with people who had people elsewhere [and could] go.

"My daughter had just moved to Atlanta. It was the only place I could go, the only place where I had relatives. 15 of us packed into this little apartment." Kirk recounts his story with the detached weariness I have come to know so intimately from recording other battered refugees' stories of their tattered lives.

"It used to be, you could get anywhere in New Orleans in 15 minutes. Now, my closest grandkids are 80 miles away. I have relatives in Baltimore, Dallas, Alabama. That's just new, new to all of us." Kirk is speaking, but it could have been any Iraqi I've met.

"A lot of people lost their history in the flood. Documents, photos . . . " Desire Street Ministry's Marcia Peterson says, her voice trailing. Kirk describes in great detail his efforts to restore a muddy and moldy video tape of his daughter's wedding. "It's still not right," he says softly.

Lindsey Hammond cleaning Ebenezer Baptist Church in Uptown New Orleans

The Ebenezer Baptist Church in Uptown New Orleans lost everything: "piano, organ, everything," Rev. Lois DeJean gestures broadly, preferring to talk more specifically about the numerous and miraculous gifts that have appeared to restore the historically significant church. At 73, the indefatigable DeJean is just 10 years younger than the church itself. She now works part-time with children of inmates to earn money to rebuild the church.

Our delegation of students from Nashville worked alongside volunteers from out-of-state Baptist churches, painting offices and classrooms and clearing a dusty, rotting shed that will become a youth center.

Rebuilding New Orleans, as in rebuilding Iraq, depends on who stays and who returns. 2 million Iraqis and half of the Ninth Ward's residents - primarily those with the means and ability to leave and the professionally educated with relatives elsewhere - have left their homes with no immediate plans to return.

"Who has means and who has access to things makes all the difference," says Petrice Abiodun executive director of the Lindy Boggs National Center for Literacy. "We talk about the 'right to return.' Those who don't have relatives, don't have insurance, don't have a job, all that affects returning."

And rebuilding.


Kelly Hayes-Raitt is a Santa Monica (CA)-based author writing a book about refugees. Her recent travels have taken her to Syria, the Philippines, Lebanon and Iraq. She blogs at www.PeacePATHFoundation.org.