Odyssey in Blue

Now I have the United bastardization of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stuck in my head.  This comes from listening to the same recording approximately a quarter-gazillion times while on hold.  I expected to awake this morning in Denver, but instead I learned a very valuable lesson about refugees.  It went down like this: yesterday’s east coast storm over-performed while United Airlines under-performed.  Seeing the forecast, I changed to an earlier flight to try to beat it out of Dodge.  I arrived in Newark only to have my flight incrementally delayed until it was cancelled around 9:30.  By this time all the hotels within 11 miles of the airport were booked solid from earlier cancellations.  Taxis were running into Manhattan only.  Access to New Jersey Transit was not possible.  I’d been awake since the 4 a.m. text alert from United that said bad weather was on the way.  Finally, around 1 a.m. I found an unoccupied piece of floor and slept next to total strangers.

The experience opened my eyes to the plight of refugees.  Weary airline employees (probably worried about getting home themselves) were not friendly and didn’t welcome questions.  The line for rescheduling flights was, by no exaggeration, at least 400 individuals long, one of whom told me this morning she’d waited 8-hours to talk to someone.  Since cancelled flight baggage is not checked, it had to be retrieved, and the line for doing such was equally as long as the rescheduling queue.  United was under-staffed, stressed, and not in control of the situation.  Nobody wanted to listen to you.  You were just another stranger with a sad story and all of us have problems, don’t you know.  The refugee has no place to go.  Nobody to care.

With my aging cell phone dying, my lifeline to those who cared was fading.  The shops closed, cutting off access to food.  Ground transportation was not responsive.  Hundreds and hundreds of people were stranded, relying on their own wits (or in my case, lack thereof) to decide what to do.  I just wanted someone to say “Go here.  Do this.”  Instead I found myself wrapped in tweed, using my carry-on, Jacob-like, for a pillow.  I felt for the strangers around me.  They were suddenly friends as we were all in the same category—displaced people.  This nightmare lasted under 24 hours for me, but I am now keenly aware that it never ends for some.  Refugees need a caring glance.  A kind word.  And it would help if the powers that be would leave Gershwin alone.

Huge or Not?

The word “refugee,” I recently learned, was originally coined to refer to the Huguenots. As the Reformation began to take hold in Europe, although mostly associated with Germany and Switzerland, many French believers left Catholicism and became known as Huguenots. Early modernity was a time when religious persecution was rather openly practiced (as it still is in parts of the world) and many Huguenots were forced out of their homeland where Catholicism was the state religion. The word used to describe these unfortunates was “refugee.” For whatever reason, the plight of the Huguenots has never really captured the public imagination the way that many groups of displaced individuals has. We seldom hear of Huguenots any more, but generic refugees are daily in our news.

800px-Print_entitled_Horribles_cruautes_des_Huguenot_en_France_16th_century

While it is hardly a mark of pride or accomplishment to have Christians persecuting Christians as the origin of the term “refugee,” the fact that refugees are becoming more common rather than less so should be worrying. Borders, all of which are artificial, no matter how high we build our walls, lead to closed opportunities. Every once in a while, I ponder the phenomenon that none of us has any control over where we’re born. We might be fortunate enough to find ourselves in an affluent democracy (so I’m told) or equally beyond our control in a repressive totalitarian military state. The ability to see things from another’s point of view is essential to the concept of the refugee. Can we imagine what it is like to be persecuted for religious belief? For being born female in a chauvinistic society? For being poor when money seems to be everywhere for those who know how to extort it? Have we no sympathy for those who find themselves conceived under trying circumstances? If it were me, I’m sure I would think differently about it.

Historically, and by the numbers, the Catholic Church has been by far the most successful form of Christianity that the world has known. Claims to the title of “Christianity” are hotly contested, but the continuity, in some form or other, has hung together for a couple of millennia. In times past, those who differed, such as the Puritans in England and Huguenots in France, were encouraged to leave. The world was plenty big enough. Were the borders of today erected in early modernity, the plight of the Huguenots, like that of many untolerated religious groups, might have been far more dramatic. Largely assimilated today, the Huguenots are not much on most people’s minds and yet refugees still regularly approach the borders beyond which a more humane life awaits. Religious persecution gave the world the word; could its opposite provide the solution?