Friday, September 09, 2005

Thoughts on Schools, and the "Refugee" Debate

Dear family and friends,

Two Houston schools which closed last year because they didn't have
enough students have opened again, exclusively for young refugees from
Katrina. What a strange set up that will be.

Here in Baton Rouge, the schools are all taking on large numbers of New
Orleans students. I’m currently staying in a house just near St Thomas
Moore, one of the Catholic schools (known locally as ‘parochial’
schools). It’s enrolling 200 refugee students and the influx will change
the racial mix of the school markedly, as many of those from New Orleans
are African American. That’s where Lillie’s niece, Lisa, is going.

Schooling has been a huge stress for families who’ve fled New Orleans.
For most students, the school year had just begun when Katrina hit. In
the US, young people have to go to school a set number of days a year.
If, due to blizzard or a fire burning down the school or a hurricane
wiping out the local school system, they miss some school days, they
must make up those days during the holidays or on weekends or with
longer days. Hence the big focus on getting them back into school as
soon as possible.

One of the many ironies of Katrina is that, after agonising over which
school Lisa should go to for much of the past year (she’s moving into a
secondary school) and taking everything into careful consideration,
suddenly that school is out of operation, and Glenn and Ann and Lisa
have had to decide on a new school in a matter of days. So did tens of
thousands of other families.

Luckily, with some help from Sister Helen Prejean with whom I’m staying,
Ann and Glenn managed to get Lisa and one of her closest friends into St
Thomas Moore, squeaking in at the last minute. The school has been
great, providing uniforms and other equipment, as have many of the
schools around here.

Now comes the tougher job of helping thousands of recently traumatised
young people settle in. I know how difficult it has been for me to focus
on anything other than Katrina-related stuff for the last week and a
half; I don’t think it’s going to be any easier for all those students,
especially the ones who have really suffered, to get into the swing of

On, Tom Munnecke said he’d been talking to Heather Wood Ion
(co-author of Against Terrible Odds: Lessons in Resilience from our
Children) who said to “expect the recovery from the effects of this on
victims and their families to take two generations.”

Although staggering, I found that statement comforting. That’s because
here’s someone who clearly takes what has happened seriously. Really

I know many people are shocked and horrified by Katrina and its
aftermath, but I’m not sure how many people actually “get it”. How many
people understand that it’s not merely an event that has happened, but
an ongoing series of events which will unfold in people’s lives for a
long, long time to come.

One small sign of this is the unwillingness to use the term “refugee”.
We’re told we’re not “refugees”, we’re “evacuees”. Or, preferably, we’re
“Americans” (even though not all of us are Americans). It’s been
suggested that the use of the term refugee is racist.

I think what’s racist is to say “refugee” is a term you apply to those
poor people in Africa, fleeing the genocide in Darfur, but not to US

The UN definition may say a “refugee” is someone displaced from their
own country, while a “displaced person” is someone displaced within
their own country, but as far as I’m concerned, a refugee is someone who
has no home and who seeks refuge. All the New Orleanians I’ve talked to,
white and black, have used the term about themselves because it’s
accurate. Unfortunately, it’s also distasteful to those who don’t want
to think of the enormity of what has happened. “Evacuees” has such a
pleasant temporary feel in comparison.

When you come to think of it, given the UN definition, “refugee” might
be the perfect term for poor black residents of New Orleans. I remember
Helen Prejean saying that when she lived in the housing projects in New
Orleans it was like living in an entirely different country. That there
are two Americas: the mostly comfortable, mostly white one so many of us
live in; and the grinding poverty of that other America, where so many
black people live.

Watching poor black people left behind in overwhelmingly
disproportionate numbers after Katrina, it was starkly clear that there
are two New Orleans. And it’s not just two New Orleans. It’s two
Americas. And so the term refugee seems particularly apt for those who
have been swept out of ‘their part of town’ and herded off to seek
refuge in a different America.

Whatever I am, I’m incredibly busy. The phones here have become worse,
which is hard to believe. Yesterday, neither Lillie nor I received a
single call on our cell phones, despite almost a dozen people letting us
know by other means that they’d tried. And so trying to accomplish a
simple task, such as having the power put on at our new apartment in
Houston, becomes an hours-long nightmare. If we finally manage to get
through, often our calls are dropped after 15 minutes of talking to
people on the phone. Then it’s back to square one. This happened three
times to Lillie with one company. It’s not uncommon to hear cries of
frustration around the house as people lose hard-won connections.

Now that Lillie’s firm has made the commitment to setting up in Houston,
they want her there as soon as possible. That means we’ll have to pack
up house (an absurdly trivial chore these days) and get ourselves there
by mid-week. Lillie’s still hoping to see her dad before then, as she
hasn’t seen him since the hurricane, but that may not be possible. I'm
trying to help the new Death Penalty Discourse Center get established
and online once more before I leave. Once in Texas, I'll be focussing on
managing the Center's Web sites and handling Helen Prejean's blog and
audio blog.


Rose Vines