We are All Refugees

Op-Ed by Charlie Grosso

Refugees. Internally Displaced People (IDP). Economic migrants. Asylum seekers. Each increasingly specific term for “refugee” attempts to better provide some level of understanding. And it doesn't stop there. We sub-divide within the broader refugee category with terms like "climate refugees." As if the more specific we get, the quicker we will be able to come to a solution, or determine if they warrant protection and empathy, or not.

What are all the different categories and definitions for? Why are we echoing the practices of World Wars past to categorize humans and their worth? Is it to help the state determine how many of each category to admit into the country and offer shelter and protection? Is it to help us decide how to feel about the influx of foreigners? These ever-expanding and increasingly specific definitions do more harm than good. We’re losing sight of the experiences of these humans and how that experience will fundamentally alter their world here after.

Our current definition of refugees came in the aftermath of World War II, by the United Nations. A refugee is defined as a person possessing “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, [or] membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This 1951 definition is both prescience in its universality and expresses a deep sense of empathy that seems to be rare in the current political climate. When we think, truly think, haven’t we all seen or known fear at some point? Aren’t we all refugees?

The religious persecution a Yazdi family suffers is no less serious than the threat of execution for a gay man in Iran. The fear for one's life as a political journalist working in Russia is as real as a Honduran woman who faces rape and beating at the hand of her spouse. The religious persecution a Yazdi family suffers is no less serious than the threat of execution for a gay man in Iran. An El Salvadorian family's fear of gang violence is as potent as a Sudanese farmer's continued crop failure due to climate change. Fear is a full body experience. It turns your stomach, crawls up your spine, and inhibits your entire being.

Fear and oppression are personal, irrespective of whether it is carried out by a state actor, groups, or individuals. There is no other way to experience fear and violence as anything but personal, it is an attack on one's very person. Which means the fundamentals of our personal identity, our personhood, are always the first at risk, the first line of attack.  

An individual’s self-identity is a marker of who they are and, even more importantly, where they are going. Some are able to fully embrace their self-identity without constant fear of persecution. Others, however, are forced to be more cautious when they display their ID “badge.” Women think twice about what to wear before leaving the house. Muslims must decide whether to don their traditional garb. African American boys must take care when pulling up the hood of their sweatshirts. All too frequently, our identity has been weaponized against us.  And whether you have been the one forced to hide a part of who you are or have been privileged enough to have your identity on full display, everyone has a responsibility to create a culture that embraces the individual. When we recognize the experiences we share—the difficult situations we all face to overcome to display our true identities—we truly understand that we’re more connected than we previously ever thought.

There are more of us who have experienced fear and alienation for being who we are than those who have not. There are more of us who have endured fear and disenfranchisement for our beliefs, our views, our identity. Not all of us felt the need to run, but for those of us who did, from home or country, the well-founded fear was real. Our very sense of self and body were at stake. We flee because to stay is untenable, it would cost us too much. How are we any different? We are all refugees.

Op-EdCharlie GrossoOp-Ed