A Mere Taste Of The Refugee’s Desperation

In 1990, my visa status in the US changed from ‘student’ to ‘skilled worker’; in the alphanumeric soup of visa designations, I went from being F-1 to H-1. This was occasion to celebrate; I could now legally work in the US, and earn more than the minimum hourly wage. There was a glitch though: the F-1 was a ‘multiple-entry’ visa; I could come and go from the US freely for its duration. The H-1 was a ‘single-entry’ visa; if I left the US, I would have to apply for a visa renewal to gain reentry. Such renewals were not guaranteed. Very soon, a tale of disaster made the rounds. A friend went home to Bombay to attend his sister’s wedding; when he applied for a renewal, his visa was denied. Despite repeated entreaties from his employer (and from my then graduate adviser who wrote in support of his personal qualities and work ethic) he was ‘stuck’ in Bombay. There he stayed.

Very soon, H-1 visa holders began to devise a ‘work-around’ to this problem: departures from the US to Canada or Mexico, which lasted less than a week, were counted as ‘non-significant departures.’ If so, you could leave the US, visit an American consulate in Canada or Mexico, and then apply for a new multiple-entry H-1 visa there. If you were successful, all was well; if not, well, you just went back to the US, and planned something else, perhaps a trip to another consulate somewhere else in Canada or Mexico. (On the grapevine, news spread of so-called ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ consulates; those who were lenient at granting renewals, and those who weren’t.) One reason given for asking for a renewal during a so-called ‘significant departure’ was that the applicant was soon going to be making a business trip overseas for his employer; the length of the trip would be too short to allow the time to apply for a renewal while traveling. This tall tale was supported by a letter from the employer (almost all of whom, quite naturally, supported their employees’ attempts to return to their jobs.)

In the spring of 1992, I desperately wanted to return home to visit my family; I had been away from ‘home’ for almost five years; in that period of time, I had only managed to make one trip home; it had lasted three weeks. Three weeks in five years seemed awfully slim pickings. But if I wanted to make a trip back to India, I’d have to go through the ‘traveling for a new H-1’ runaround. So I did.

In May 1992, armed with my visa application papers and a supporting letter from my employer, I drove to Montreal, to apply for a H-1 renewal. A Canadian friend offered crash space, which I gratefully accepted. I had managed to take a day off from work with some difficulty; I would drive up on a Thursday, apply for the visa on Friday, spend a day in Montreal on Saturday and then drive back on Sunday to resume work on Monday.

The best laid plans of man, etc.

On Friday morning, I submitted my application to the consular officer, and went to wait. A short while later, I was summoned by the consular officer and informed that I would have to return on Monday to find out the fate of my application. (Apparently, Montreal residents got priority, and would be served the same day.) I stared at him dumbfounded; consulates always processed visas on the same day; I could not possibly take another day off from work; this policy seemed exactly backwards for surely Montreal residents could easily return next week while out of town applicants could not. I asked for accommodation; I explained my case and said that I had to return to the US to go back to work; my employer would not let me take another day off; surely Montreal residents could come back on Monday to pick up their visas? And so on.

All to no avail. I was speaking to a bureaucrat, frozen, unblinking, uncaring. As our conversation stumbled into another zone of futility, my vision began to cloud. I wanted to see my mother and my brother and my sister-in-law; I wanted to see my infant nephew and hold him in my arms; I’d only been home for three weeks in five years and now this automaton was trampling callously on those barely expressible desires.

I snapped, and raged; I loudly proclaimed the stupidity of this policy. The consular officer had had enough and called security to remove me. I shook them off and walked out of my own accord, cursing as I went.  Back in my truck, I crumbled, sinking into a teary despondency. I was ‘stuck’ in the US; I would not be allowed to see my family after all.

Compared to the refugees now seeking entry to the US, I was a vastly, monumentally, privileged and fortunate person. I was able to apply again for a visa. (A month later, I made another road-trip; this time, to Quebec City. My visa application was successful and I traveled to India in August 1992 for four weeks.) I was able to visit my family and play with my little nephew, take long walks with my mother, share a drink with my brother, enjoy my sister-in-law’s cooking. The problem I faced at the US consulate in Montreal was a relatively minor one; I could have tried for an extension of my vacation, and after all, I was able to afford another trip to Canada relatively quickly. But that sensation, that sick feeling of being denied contact with one’s family, a kind of refuge–thanks to an impervious bureaucracy–has always stayed with me; it was a peculiar kind of nausea and fear and hopelessness. I can only imagine–very dimly–what those must be feeling who have been denied entry to the US over the past day or so because of Donald Trump’s racist executive order. This one cuts quite deep, quite personally. I’m united–through my differences–with all immigrants, all refugees.

Note: As a reminder: the stay order issued by the Federal Court only applies to those refugees who have already traveled to the US and were denied entry at US ports; those who had not started their journey yet remain in limbo, as so do those who now wait at detention centers at airports, waiting for their cases to be processed.

Punjab, Palestine, Israel: Refugee Resonances

The way I first heard the story of the Jews from my mother it was about refugees, endlessly wandering from expulsion to expulsion, who had finally found a home. The first history of the creation of Israel I read introduced me to the Palestinians; they were refugees too. And I had learned, long before, that I was a Punjabi, from a land which had been divided during the Great Partition of India in 1947, that my ethnic demographic included many who had become refugees during that bloody and violent movement of peoples, that I lived in a city–New Delhi–whose population had grown to accommodate many who had moved there from the former West Punjab, now part of the newly created nation of Pakistan. My father’s family had moved from their older home too, not quite in the dramatic way that refugees moved during the Partition, fleeing murderous mobs: my grandfather had found employment in Central India and moved, calmly and sedately, in 1930; his brothers followed. They were all safely across the border well before 1947. My mother’s family was from the East Punjab; they did not have to move, but they lived through bloody riots in the city of Amritsar on the eastern side. But my father’s family still lost lands–agricultural and residential–in our old home; and so as I grew up, moved around India, and then later, migrated to the US, I could still say with some fidelity to the facts, “My family is from the part of the Punjab now in Pakistan; we were displaced.’ It granted my otherwise rather humdrum biography a little frisson. (There was one refugee story I was told about a pair of my father’s cousins, a boy and a girl, a sister and a brother, who had traveled back by train together but alone during the Partition. The train was stopped by mobs before it could cross the border; the girl, just older than a toddler, hid below the seats, while dead bodies piled up around her. She was pulled out, covered with blood and barely breathing, at the next station. Her brother was beaten and left for dead; so many bones were broken in his body that he never regained the full use of his limbs and had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.)

So I found, at some level, the story of Israel and Palestine lay particularly close by; I did not need to move too far in the space of my affective responses to find one that lined up for Israel and Palestine. I was primed to read the story; one part of it–of seeking home–is universal, but other parts are only available to those who have traveled and lost, who can speak of another place other than ‘this one’ as being ‘home.’ Later, I exiled myself voluntarily to another land, losing one home and beginning the hunt to find another. I became another kind of refugee–seeking refuge in an ‘outside’ into which I had cast myself. Stories of refugees were always more meaningful to me than those of other kinds. But not all came to me in the same way.

When I first encountered the story of the Palestinians in the history of the creation of Israel, I skipped past it. I did not want to face up to the grim reality of their refugee camps, of the story that lay behind the black and white photographs of a grimy-faced boy and girl, clad in rags, visible through the barbed wire of the new homes created after 1948. Somehow, I felt overburdened by their tragedy; could it really be possible that the creation of a homeland for a people I knew as refugees would have turned another people into refugees? Israel and the Jews made a powerful claim on my attention and sympathy, drowning out the call of the Palestinian displaced; it left no space for them. The history of the Jews, the Holocaust, the stories of their suffering–they seemed to demand all the empathy I could muster.

But the Palestinians would not go away; they were refugees after all. I heard their stories–at some only dimly perceived level–in my descriptions of myself, in my invocation of a village, and its waters and food and peoples and summers, endlessly and glowingly talked about by my grandfather and my grand-uncles, in the way I would and could claim ethnic solidarity with Punjabi Pakistanis, who now, thanks to a geopolitical tactic, bore a different nationality than me; they all reminded me there was, in my family and life, the touch of the displaced. I had left home too to move to this land of people from elsewhere, who could all, in the right circumstances, dream nostalgically and wistfully of places other than this one. If the Palestinians could not find sympathy in me, living here, in this land, soaked with the tales of the dispossessed and their searches for a place of rest of repose, then where else would they find it?

 

The Post-Apocalyptic World Of The War Refugee

A year or so ago, in writing about classroom discussions centering on Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, I had noted that the homeless–whom the Man and the Boy most resemble–live in a post-apocalyptic world of their own:

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk….the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered…they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night….the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

There is another way to think about the Man and the Boy in The Road: they are refugees. They have lost their home; their family is devastated; they are fleeing violence; they are seeking shelter and food and warmth; they are, as their name implies, seeking refuge. The world they knew is no more; they seek another world, one in which they might, perhaps, begin life anew.

It is easy to imagine–as we voraciously consume products of the post-apocalyptic genre in literature and film–that the post-apocalypse is a fantasy, a possible world about which we can safely speculate from a distance. But we forget all too soon that apocalypse stalks this world of ours; it is present in the lives of many. For zones of  war are zones of apocalypse. ‘Normal’ life is no more; daily existence is subsistence. Homelessness and sudden, violent death is the norm for civilians. Abandon all hope indeed, ye who enter here, and ye who dare escape.

It is worth reminding ourselves of this as we think about this war-stricken world’s refugee crisis. And in particular, of course, about the refugees fleeing the four-year old Syrian war. Over four million are now displaced, and many more will be, for the conflict shows no sign of abating. Most, if not all, have lost loved ones; all have lost their homes. They too, have passed through landscapes not too dissimilar to the ones depicted in The Road. Their life is reduced to the most elemental of all missions: food, shelter, clothing.

Perhaps this world might stop fantasizing about survival strategies in an imaginary post-apocalyptic worlds, and think about how it might address the problems of this all too real one.