Refuge, or the Inherent Dignity of Every Human Being

15 January, 2022
Col­lage by Tai Moses com­posed of return address­es from her broth­er, Jor­dan Elgrably, send­ing let­ters par avion.

 

Jordan Elgrably

 

Every­one is look­ing for a place to call home, a place where you are accept­ed, where you can think and be your­self, where your heart rests easy — I know I am. For the exiled, the dis­placed, the fam­i­ly seek­ing asy­lum in a new coun­try, refuge is elu­sive. It rep­re­sents free­dom from war or eco­nom­ic pri­va­tion, or cli­mate dev­as­ta­tion — mil­lions have fled a war-torn coun­try, a cli­mate-rav­aged land­scape, fled famine, pover­ty, polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion, eth­nic geno­cide; mil­lions in our time have run from fear toward hope.

But for many, being accept­ed in a new coun­try, and becom­ing a legal res­i­dent, even a cit­i­zen, is a Sisyphean jour­ney, akin to the epic of Gil­gamesh. There are so many obsta­cles. How many months or years, how many for­lorn office vis­its, how many forms filled out, lawyers con­sult­ed, rejec­tions, even depor­ta­tions, before asy­lum is grant­ed, before refuge is found?

Some­thing in me deeply relates to peo­ple seek­ing refuge. My moth­er’s grand­par­ents fled east­ern Europe dur­ing the first world war and arrived at Ellis Island, seek­ing refuge in the Unit­ed States. My pater­nal grand­par­ents arrived in France from Moroc­co between the world wars, hop­ing to raise their fam­i­ly in com­fort and safe­ty, but fled back to Casablan­ca when the Ger­man army marched into Paris, and the SS began round­ing up per­ceived ene­mies. My father and his sib­lings strug­gled in Casablan­ca in pover­ty until the war was over, then returned to Lyon and Paris, to a coun­try in sham­bles. Sev­er­al Elgrablys even­tu­al­ly emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States, eco­nom­ic refugees from Europe, despite the Mar­shall Plan.

Although I grew up in rel­a­tive com­fort in Los Ange­les, for rea­sons I’m still try­ing to under­stand, I nev­er felt quite at home there, and I was always run­ning away, tak­ing planes to find out why. Through­out my 20s and 30s, I had more than 25 address­es in four coun­tries, includ­ing the U.S., France, Spain and Venezuela. I felt like Hen­ri Char­rière, Papil­lion, except that no one was chas­ing me, but still I remained on the move, look­ing for some­thing, for­ev­er feel­ing there was that prover­bial peb­ble in my shoe, dis­turb­ing my com­fort, push­ing me forward.

As Viet Nguyen writes in his intro­duc­tion to The Dis­placed, The Unwant­ed, pub­lished here in The Markaz Review, “Many writ­ers, per­haps most writ­ers or even all writ­ers, are peo­ple who do not feel com­plete­ly at home. They are used to being peo­ple who are out of place, who are emo­tion­al­ly or psy­chi­cal­ly or social­ly dis­placed to one degree or anoth­er, at one time or anoth­er.” Nguyen, a refugee from war-torn Viet­nam, is right about me, at least, and prob­a­bly about most writ­ers, who live in the con­stant con­di­tion of being both insid­ers and out­siders to our cul­ture, our soci­ety, our group, our country/countries.

Refugees, of course, are insid­ers-out­siders, willy-nil­ly, unable to sur­vive in their own coun­try, and not yet accept­ed in a new one. They come from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syr­ia, Egypt, Pales­tine, Libya, Yemen, from Africa, from Asia, from South and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca — from every­where. (Dur­ing the Trump years, I was a polit­i­cal refugee flee­ing rightwing dem­a­goguery, and an eco­nom­ic refugee from California’s infla­tion.) And yet all peo­ple are inher­ent­ly legal — no one is an “alien,” no one is ille­gal on the good earth, despite all the enmi­ty that immi­grants face, all the arrests, inter­ro­ga­tions, deten­tion and expulsion.

Barack Oba­ma often spoke of the inher­ent dig­ni­ty of every human being. The 17th issue of The Markaz Review, titled REFUGE, is ded­i­cat­ed to that dig­ni­ty, and to find­ing home.

Edi­tor, TMR