When I worked in East Africa with refugees who had settled in Nairobi, Kenya, I sometimes wondered whether any kind of disasterfamine, warfare, economic woescould ever produce in my own country the things I saw in Africa: long lines for scarce water, frustrated men and women trying to get food for their children, and the fear that no one anywhere has the resources to care for you. Tragically, Hurricane Katrina provided an answer to that question.
Perhaps by the time this article appears, help will have come to the crowds of the sweltering poor huddled in New Orleans. Perhaps by then charitable organizations will have sent the necessary disaster-relief personnel to the Gulf Coast. And perhaps the federal and state governments will have located the necessary helicopters, trucks and buses to evacuate these victims. I hope so.
For now, all I see on television are sights and sounds that remind me of what it was like for millions of people, and what it is still like for millions of people, in the developing world. Sadly, it is the poor who are always the hardest hit. In Africa, where the majority of people live in poverty, there is little many can do to insulate themselves from the effects of famine, disease and warfare. And just as many of the continent’s refugee problems come from war as from natural disasters like drought. There is even a Swahili saying for what happens in the wake of political violence: Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia, When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, too, the poor have suffered disproportionately; in New Orleans, this meant especially the African-American poor. As David Gonzalez explained in The New York Times on Sept. 1, Without so much as a car or bus fare to escape ahead of time, they found themselves left behind.... Apparently, no officials planned for this contingency. The images of dark-skinned men and women weeping, carrying their children, and lugging their few possessions (often on their heads) was a familiar sight.
Refugees (those who flee their countries) and displaced persons (those stranded within their own countries) face difficulties that are unimaginable for many Americans. First are simple poverty and the lack of basic essentials. Added to this is the extreme disorientation of picking up, moving to and living in an entirely new place.
There is also is the immense grief that comes with realizing that you may never see your home, your friends or your family members again. From New Orleans came stories of those who were not certain if their relatives were in the Superdome, the Astrodome in Houston or even alive. Often I met people in Kenya who, when asked about their families, said not, They are dead, but rather, I think they are dead.
And there is the terrible thought, common to many refugees, that you have been forgotten by the world, and even by God.
A few days after the hurricane, a priest in our community celebrated the Mass for Refugees and Exiles. Found in the back of the Sacramentary, it is not a Mass celebrated frequently in this country, but we used it time and again in Kenya. Lord, no one is a stranger to you, says the opening prayer, and no one is ever far from your loving care. In your kindness watch over refugees and exiles, those separated from their loved ones....
The readings for that Mass include the story of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, who tells the Hebrew people, You shall not violate the rights of the alien...for remember you were once slaves in Egypt.... One of the Gospel readings is from Matthew: the story of the perilous flight of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus into Egypt.
After one Mass, a Sudanese man said something that is good to remember as we think about helping the victims of Katrina and turning our atttention to the nation’s growing underclass. The Holy Family were refugees, he said, just like me.