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Letter from America

  • Published at 06:41 pm July 18th, 2018
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Syed Zakir Hossain

When I left my post working with the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar to return to the US this June, I was hoping for some peace of mind. In my head, the New York City I’d left the year before was a safe, welcoming, well-ordered place. After six months of working in the Jamtoli refugee camp in Ukhiya for the humanitarian organization Christian Aid, after six months of witnessing unanswerable trauma and unrelenting need, I wanted an antidote to the brutal inhumanity that characterized the Rohingya’s present, past, and future. I wanted to believe again in the possibilities of a just and civilized world.

Instead, in the US, all the news was bad news and everyone was miserable. The Justice Department was busy tightening US asylum laws. The Supreme Court ruled in support of the “Muslim Ban.” The Trump Administration’s new “Zero Tolerance” border policy meant that asylum seekers crossing into the US illegally from Mexico (after dangerous journeys from their homes in gang-torn Central American countries) were thrown in jail. Hourly, my phone bombarded me with alerts — stories, photos, audio footage —about the administration’s unofficial “family separation” policy, which had children as young as four months taken from their mothers and put in foster care or holding centers while their parents were detained as criminals. These holding centers could be tent cities or chain-link fence enclosures. Like the Rohingya, the families seeking asylum were fleeing violence, in fear for their lives. Maybe the ‘tent cities’ on the US-Mexico border are better built than those in Cox’s Bazar, but the existential condition of being a refugee is the same everywhere. Limitless insecurity, indignity at every turn, and very little hope.

According to the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, there are about 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, resulting from conflict, natural disaster, famine, economic change, or — like the Rohingya and other demonized folks through time — campaigns of genocide or ethnic cleansing. Eighty-five percent in developing countries, and 53 percent are children. For Americans, movements of forcibly displaced people tend to be a distant problem — something happening in Syria, Nigeria, Bangladesh, etc; but not at US borders. So the notion of tent cities and the images of small, vulnerable children facing off again uniformed ICE guards fed into a reckoning into the soul of the American nation. “What kind of country are we anyway?” people everywhere were asking.

In the US, opinions about refugees and asylum seekers differ by party, with Republicans more likely to display hostile and xenophobic attitudes. According to a PRRI report, 90 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 54 percent Republicans believe that US should be “a refuge for vulnerable migrants.” That 36-point difference between Republicans and Democrats is telling, as well as this figure: 52 percent of Republicans support a law barring refugees from America.

In Bangladesh, opinions are also divided. When the onset of violence prompted the August 2017 influx, bringing a deluge of Rohingya over the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, our response was a testament to the better angels of our natures. The host communities of Ukhiya and Teknaf were the first responders. The day labourers, fishermen and farmers of Cox’s Bazaar (one of Bangladesh’s poorest areas) offered shelter, food, clothing, medicine. Then, as newspapers and the TV screens across the nation filled up with images of the ragged Rohingya families who have survived week-long journeys through rain and mud, strafed by military helicopters and chased by mobs of machete-wielding Rakhine villagers, ordinary Bangladeshi people arrived from all over the country to offer help. On a CXB-Dhaka flight in September, I met a Dhaka businessman who had flown down with 20,000 taka in his pocket to buy hot meals and distribute cash. He listened to the Rohingya’s testimony, held their hands, offered shelter on his property. This nation welcomed the Rohingya people with open hearts and open hands. According to the ISCG July 5 report, an estimated 919,000 forcibly displaced Rohingya now live in the Cox’s Bazaar area as guests of the Bangladeshi people — almost wholly dependent on humanitarian aid for survival.

And yet, as the crisis drags on, our humanity fades. What ails America ails us too — a miserly constriction of empathy; a mindset of scarcity that posits that there simply aren’t enough resources to provide for both ‘Us’ and ‘Them’; an ancient tribalism that positions the outsider as undeserving of what we believe is rightly ours. Our hearts harden and become mean.

In the US, the anti-migrant contingent paints immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers as would-be-takers of state largess, who contribute nothing except crime and the dilution of the national character and values. Political rhetoric portrays them as criminal or backwards —thus essentially unworthy of largess. In Bangladesh now, despite the nation’s generosity, the language begins to tilt in a similar direction. “We have our own problems!” one girl posted to my sister’s Facebook page. “Let them go back where they belong.” There’s concern among the general population about the long-term implications (particularly security-related), and an increase in hostility in the host community where the Rohingya now outnumber the local people by more than three to one. Mass environmental degradation is ongoing, wages have gone down, while the prices of basic goods have gone up.

None of this is to be discounted. And, yes, the solution to this problem is political and lies in Myanmar. It will take international pressure on Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s government from major international powers to ensure safe conditions for Rohingya repatriation. There are many economic, security, and environmental factors at play. And, as many Rohingya at Jamtoli camp told me themselves, they want to go home. No one wishes for the life of a refugee. In the words of British-Somali poet Warshan Shire, a first generation immigrant:

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

Ours is a brutal world. I was a fool to believe that returning to the US could help me forget this harsh truth, help me unsee what I had seen in Cox’s Bazaar, unhear what I had heard, unknow what I now know. But some things are inescapable: meanness, tribalism, scarcity, injustice, abuse of power. There is no place on earth you can go where you will not bear witness to these forces; technology and social media only amplify the reach.

In the face of so much ugliness, we have a choice to make: What kind of country are we anyway? What kind of people do we want to be?

In Bangladesh’s approach to the asylum-seekers at our border, we have shown more humanity than Trump’s United States. We, who are so used to thinking of this country as lesser in status and power and resources, have so much of which to be proud. We have taken in nearly one million people in less than a year while, during the world’s worst refugee crisis, the US has admitted only 5,225 refugees in 2018 so far, a 65.8 percent drop from the first three months of 2016.

We may be poor in terms of GDP but Bangladesh’s response to the Rohingya crisis is evidence of a greater kind of wealth. Like the beggar in the Tagore poem, it is in the moment when another needier than we are comes to us for alms that we discover how much we actually have to give:

I lived on the shady side of the road and watched my neighbors’ gardens across the way reveling in the sunshine.

I felt I was poor, and from door to door went with my hunger.

The more they gave me from their careless abundance the more I became aware of my beggar's bowl.

Till one morning I awoke from my sleep at the sudden opening of my door, and you came and asked for alms.

In despair I broke the lid of my chest open and was startled into finding my own wealth.