Immigrants Angst

Many Cannot Speak of a Past That Forced Them Away From Home and Country in a World Filled With the Displaced

10 December was International Human Rights Day. There was little recognition of this fact in the USA or in much of the world. Six months ago, I wrote about the overwhelming fact of migration: how the tide of human movement across national borders has been the major unacknowledged reality of the 20th century. Sohinee Roy, a former student of mine at Jadavpur University, wrote me a letter in response. It was so moving that I think it fit to address it here, in the same public forum that occasioned it. The letter begins: I read your essay about forced relocation and it made me wonder about the event that transformed the lives of my grandparents and their descendants. My great grandfather was a zamindar in Bangladesh. But after Independence my grandparents were suddenly strangers in a land they and their forefathers had lived in, the only place they had ever known. They and their four children had to leave behind everything and flee.

There are millions today who could tell the same story, whether the land they fled was Pakistan, India, Bangladesh - or Rwanda, Kosovo, Timor, Cambodia, or Guatemala. For the descendants of emigres and refugees, there are always the stories of what was left behind. I can remember such stories, told me by my father and mother, both refugees who found a new home in America from the savage butchery of Europe's past. As Sohinee writes, I came to know about all this from my grandmother who would tell me the tales of her home: home for her even today is Bangladesh. But surprisingly little was said about their feelings when they had to leave behind their family, friends, relatives and familiar way of life to fly to a new land. They left amidst riots, for a place where they had to build everything from scratch. This recollection of the distant past and its transmission to new generations growing up in a new land strikes a familiar chord. The story is the narrative of displacement and renewal, one of the great master narratives of the past century.

As always, those who hear the narrative learn to read between the words that are uttered to hear other words comprising another narrative: the story of life before the way it is now, and why it changed. Now, many years later, I realize the pain and the uncertainty they faced when they traveled by trains and boats to a new country.

India had just gained independence and was dizzy with freedom. Our school history books present the independence as a beginning of a new era, a time of joy and excitement. It was that, but for thousands there was no time to experience this joy because it meant the end of a way of life. A time of sorrow, loss and horror.

What is most striking about Sohinee's letter is its description, not of what is told, but of what is left silent by the refugee generations. At home, we discuss a lot of contemporary events, but these cases of relocation and displacement are never alluded to.

If they are ever discussed, the focus is not on dislocation - something they can connect with - but on the political nitty gritties or something else. There is a profound truth here, if only we have the courage to look at it steadfastly. These cases of relocation and displacement are never alluded to.

Injustice and violence loom large in the world we inhabit. Too often, those who have suffered them so directly are forced to flee or are unable to address the past directly. But surprisingly little was said about their feelings when they had to leave behind their family....

In a world filled with immigrants and refugees, many cannot speak of a past that forced them away from home and country.

Partly, I think, the pain is too great. Having escaped the worst of calamities, their new existence - sometimes satisfying, often not - is so fragile that it would be imperiled by a recollection of the old.

When we suffer great pain, we humans, we forget it as best we can. The body tries to forget wounds, physical suffering, even the painful contractions of childbirth. The psyche submerges the difficult memories of childhood powerlessness, the humiliations of school, the calamities of adolescence and emergent maturity. When social existence is similarly painful and the pain is outlived, the tendency may well be to forget the anguish. What is to be gained from supplanting a new security by memories of a disaster so great that one fled it once before? Sohinee suggests a coping strategy behind this effort to glide past the agony of the past: They probably sought to come to terms with their loss and grief by turning it into an adventure story for their grandchildren. As a child I found these stories thrilling.

To her credit, she, as so many young people I met, wants to know what happened, what history had to teach: not just a thrilling adventure, but a recovery of that which should not be forgotten.

The great danger, as one makes a new life, as human existence moves ever onward into the future, is that oppression, brutality, hatred, will be forgotten, that the injustices done in the name of religion and class and caste, of nationality and sex and gender, will slip away from human consciousness.

In this arena - man's inhumanity to man - loss of memory, historical silence, can only lead to history repeating itself. That the saying today is trite does not make it less true: Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Sohinee concludes her letter by stating with simple but moving eloquence, Thank you for talking about this silent undercurrent of forced emigration.

It doesn't speak very highly of our times, but I feel ignoring it is not the best way to deal with it. How right she is! If we do not speak of the brutality that impels one group to drive another into submission or flight, such brutality will arise again and again. If those who have been abused by history do not speak about what has been done to them in the past, the future will repeat the pattern of abuse and flight, abuse and flight.

We need to remember the past not to relive it - antagonisms and hatreds should never be our permanent dwelling place - but to make sure that it does not repeat itself.

10 December was International Human Rights Day. There was little recognition of this fact in the USA - or, for that matter, in much of the world. Indeed, in the USA, where I reside, a new campaign is underway to deny humanity to the emigres of the world.

In the name of combating terrorism, President George W Bush has moved to take away their basic human rights. Following his executive orders, no longer need immigrants in America be apprised of the charges against them, be jailed only for a specific offense, have full right to muster a legal defense, be judged by a jury of their peers. These civil liberties, these basic human rights to fair treatment, are only guaranteed to citizens. All others need not apply.

Those more fortunate need to be reminded constantly that those who are homeless and stateless are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. That they themselves, but for historical accident, could be fleeing an unjust regime or sectarian hatred.

That the surest protection of one's security is to protect the security of others who have even fewer protections. Will the President of the world's most powerful nation have the capacity to hear such reminders? There is reason for those who have been drops in the tide of human flight, emigration, and resettlement, to speak of what they have experienced.

It is essential that all of us - the secure and established, but also the children and grandchildren of refugees - comprehend that a human being does not surrender her humanity because she has fled the place where she was born.

A mother in exile is a mother still, and loves her child nonetheless - and perhaps even more, given the difficult circumstances that make survival contingent on luck and the kindness of others.

A worker does not need to work less because he or she is stateless and a stranger in a new land. Hate speech wounds the displaced and defenseless even more deeply than the brutal and callous who utter such words can ever know.

One does not surrender one's right to the dignity of human existence just because one has left behind the country of one's birth. Only if we speak - in the family, in our social dialogue, in our political discourse - of displacement and exile can we move toward a time when exile will be less painful and less common than today.

Only if we all, rooted and displaced alike, remember past pain and humiliation will the refugees of the globe reach a day when, as the American poet Wallace Stevens wrote,

The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain.
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

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