The Journalistic Use Of The Word “Refugee”

Judy Dothard Simmons says:

The people stranded in New Orleans are refugees in that they
are human beings fleeing danger and discomfort in search of
shelter and succor. This includes not only those who were
snared there by flood, but also those who left days earlier
and whose homes and businesses no longer exist. The millions
of people who are moved to aid storm victims-displaced
persons-evacuees-refugees do so because they recognize and
empathize with people seeking refuge.


The words “refuge” and its derivative, “refugee,” have a
history and connotations far older than the post-World War
II, UN Convention meaning of political displacement in
another country. The words have deep metaphysical
connotations as well, and resonate mightily within religious
and spiritual lore. The root sense comes from the F
réfugié,
past participle of the word réfugier (to take refuge,
i.e.,
shelter or protection from danger or distress), which
derives circa 1645 from the L refugium. Proposing to limit
its meaning to last fifty years of human history seems
hubristic as well as impoverishing.

The people stranded in New Orleans are refugees in that they
are human beings fleeing danger and discomfort in search of
shelter and succor. This includes not only those who were
snared there by flood, but also those who left days earlier
and whose homes and businesses no longer exist. The millions
of people who are moved to aid storm victims-displaced
persons-evacuees-refugees do so because they recognize and
empathize with people seeking refuge.

These events have the tragic scope that the word
“refugee”
connotes for me, and the implication that addressing the
need is a global responsibility, and we should be accepting
Cuban doctors and Venezuelan oil, and German money, and
Canadian expertise, the same way that the world cooperates
to relieve survivors of natural and political disasters in
Indonesia or Mexico.

Our (that is to say, black) sensibilities are engaged with
the labeling probably because of our constant wounding by
language. No matter what the label, nothing will erase the
sense many of us have that mountains would have been moved
much sooner for a white population. We’ll never know that
for sure, and seeking some kind of redress through imposing
a reportorial vocabulary won’t alter that situation.

I would also say that reporters/journalists are engaged
primarily in conveying factual information, and for that
reason may wish to define narrowly. Transmission of
information is only one aspect of language use, though, and
for the myriad other usages of the written and spoken word,
we need the historic nuances and experiences that accrete to
every word. So, fine, that in the context of U.N.-type
considerations there are distinctions made between refugees
in country and refugees out. That is the jargon of a
particular segment of human affairs. We journalists aren’t
writing U.N. conventions and foreign-aid manuals.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines refugee as
“a
person taking refuge, esp. in a foreign country for war or
persecution or natural disaster.” Webster’s Ninth New
Collegiate says, “one that flees; esp : one who flees to
a
foreign country. Wikipedia’s discussion: “A refugee is a
person seeking refuge (or asylum). In common usage, the word
refers to a person seeking asylum in a foreign country in
order to escape persecution. Those who seek refugee status
are sometimes known as asylum seekers and the practice of
accepting such refugees is that of offering political
asylum. The most common asylum claims are based upon
political and religious grounds. The term has also been
informally used to describe those fleeing natural disasters,
such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”

Obviously, the jargon meaning is included in all these
dictionary definitions. Perhaps in another 50 years (or
maybe right now if this “motion” to standardize passes) the
rich history of the word will lose out to the specific
political contextual sense. As poet as well as journalist,
as a lover of words in their artistic splendor as well as
their utilitarian role, I ask that we not hasten the process
of impoverishing and limiting language; in doing so we limit
our ability to think, name, and express, and to reach each
other. Since each of us uses and responds differently to
words and meanings (this discussion bears that out), we are
better served, I think, to encourage the broadest range
expression, from the inarticulate compassion of Kanye West
to the scripted pronouncements we have to use the secret
decoder ring to decipher.

Let each of us tell the stories the best way we can.

Judy Dothard Simmons is an award-winning writer, editor and
broadcaster with national media whose recent work appears in
American Legacy Woman, Black Issues Book Review and
Africana.com. She lives in Anniston, Ala.

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Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

One thought on “The Journalistic Use Of The Word “Refugee”

  1. Judy,

    I’m glad to see you’re still kickin’! And I gather doing well. I see you’re in Anniston taking care of your mom, and I am in a somewhat similar situation here in Limassol, Cyprus, with my wife, Pola, as she takes care of her mom — also with Alzheimer’s — and her grandmother, 98.

    Pola misses New York sorely, and we plan to return when her caregiving is done. She’s here for love’s sake.

    I have a new grandchild, a beautiful brown-skinned boy (I haven’t been able to get back to the states to see him yet); you remember my little daughter, Lisa? She’s 32 now.

    Returned in December from northern Kenya teaching south Sudanese men. Remarkable experience.

    I’m still writing. In the deeps now, but with a good keel, sail, and compass.

    I’d love to hear from you.

    Steve

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