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Why run from the word "refugee?"

? Way down yonder in ... N'awlans. |


| An editor looks to duck duty: Will teachers please blog? ?

September 05, 2005

Why run from the word "refugee?"

Stephen Baker

Reader Harriet Garner objects to calling the displaced residents of New Orleans "refugees." If they object to it, I'll avoid it. But I think part of the problem is that we associate refugees with foreigners in hellish parts of the world. If there's one good thing to come out of this tragedy, it might be that we start to see that other refugees, whether in Africa, Asia or Latin America, aren't so different from us after all.

11:08 AM


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? No hard feelings, Tom Petty from The Media Drop

Over at BusinessWeekOnline's Blogspotting, Stephen Baker writes about how a reader of that blog doesn't fancy so much the use of the term "refugee" to describe those individuals who have lost their homes and ways of life in the Southeastern... [Read More]

Tracked on September 5, 2005 05:37 PM

? Katrina: now even a semantic war zone from Apartment 47

When journalists and bloggers have exhausted their thought about Hurricane Katrina's violence and victims the crisis turns into a semantic war zone [Read More]

Tracked on September 6, 2005 12:48 AM

The picture that is in our mind isn't just PART of the problem, IT IS the problem. Maybe the picture changes down the road, but for now, there must be better ways to describe the community most affected: citizens, neighbors, friends.

If there is a positive to using the term "refugee", you point to it. It's not a good label to put on anyone - but especially not now, especially not with fellow Americans.

Posted by: Mike Sansone at September 5, 2005 11:41 AM

So refugee is a bad word. Let's reframe it. Remember that some of the most vibrant and successful communities in our country are peopled by former refugees. Political refugees from Cuba turned Miami into a world class city, and the financial capital of Latin America. In our elite universities are the high-achieving sons and daughters of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran and elsewhere. I could go on and on. Consider what Jewish refugees from Nazism accomplished in this country and elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with refugees. They're people who need a place to stay and rebuild their lives. If we use words like citizen or neighbor to describe them, we'll have to add another word, like displaced, to make it clear what kind of neighbors we're talking about.

Posted by: steve baker at September 5, 2005 01:07 PM

WordNet (Princeton University) defines refugee n: an exile who flees for safety

Marriam-Webster defines refugee n: an individual seeking refuge or asylum; especially : an individual who has left his or her native country and is unwilling or unable to return to it because of persecution or fear of persecution (as because of race, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion)

American Heritage defines refugee n: One who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution.

I think we should all agree to give anyone a 'pass' for using the word, but perhaps avoid it if possible.

Posted by: Alexander Muse at September 5, 2005 02:26 PM

Of course the WORD refugee is not bad but it is the images that it brings up in many of our minds. Those who are NOT American but are displaced. In the literal sense of the word the people affected by Karina are refugees but it sounds better in AMERICAN MEDIA to use other words.

Ramon Ray,

Posted by: Ramon Ray at September 5, 2005 04:37 PM

Refugees are displaced nationals, who remain isolated in camps, for 3, 5, or 30 years, and they are not allowed to enter into the local population.

A lesson from Silicon Valley, when employment vanished for 200,000 skilled workers, they relocated themselves, they went and connected with family and friends in other states and started new employment.

We have here our own citizens, who will not have housing, or employment to return to, and so must relocate. They will only be refugees, if we encamp them without hope or action. I hope that families, employers, and states services, will welcome these new neighbors.

Posted by: Mike Reardon at September 5, 2005 04:57 PM

Mike, you are defining mistreated refugees. Andy Grove was a refugee from communist Hungary. He was not put into a camp. He was encouraged to mingle with the American population. He ended up joining the team that founded Intel. My point: There are all kinds of refugees, and their stories hinge largely on whether the communities they end up in are open and generous. I think we all agree that that should be the goal here, regardless of the wording.

Posted by: steve baker at September 5, 2005 05:36 PM

Working in PR in Houston, my staff and coworkers have already been advised not to use to word "refugee" and to use "evacuee" instead. I think refugee is a more descriptive and truthful word for the people who survived Katrina, but will use evacuee, as instructed.

Posted by: Paloma Cruz at September 6, 2005 01:13 AM

It doesn't take a teacher (much less a rocket scientist) to take a gander at the dictionary.


n : an exile who flees for safety

Source: WordNet ? 2.0, ? 2003 Princeton University

Posted by: Alicia Purdy at September 7, 2005 02:52 PM

While it is certainly true that the word "refugee" is indelibly linked to media images of poor people from Third World countries who have been forced to flee oppression with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, that does not mean that we should shy away from use of the word when appropriate. Here, the people of the Gulf Coast have indeed been forced to flee from their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. The problem with alternative words is that they are less precise and do not properly evoke the full nature of this catastrophe. The word "evacuee" can just as easily be used to refer to someone who suffers the mild inconvenience of being asked to move inland for 12 hours while a storm passes. To me, that captures one aspect of what happened to the people of the Gulf Coast, but completely misses the rest of the picture. Similarly, the term "flood victim" is so vague that it tells you nothing other than that this person suffered some loss as a result of a flood. That loss could be as little as some minor property loss or as major as death. On the other hand, the term "refugee" really does convey the fact that an entire population of people have been forced to leave not only their physical homes, but their entire city and region, with little more than the clothes on their back, have suffered terrible misery as they fled to safer locations, have been split up from their family and friends, have lost their jobs and worldly possessions, and have been scattered around the country. No other word better captures the gravity of what has happened. My personal preference would be to refer to the people of the Gulf Coast generally as flood victims, and to refer to the people who have been forced to flee the region entirely as "hurricane refugees", which is a term that is the most precise and evocative of the truth of the situation.

Posted by: Tony Forte at September 7, 2005 04:10 PM

with all f the disasters in florda all of the whites were never addressed as refugees. remember ths alotof the people you identify as refugees lived in ths racisist country before you were born.

Posted by: tommy r at February 7, 2007 08:00 AM

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