‘Refugee’ Revisited: Rio 2016

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Image Credit: Kirilos via Flickr

The Olympics aspire to inspire. This year, nothing has captured that spirit more than the standing ovation received by the first Refugee Olympic team at the opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

One team member in particular, 18-year-old swimmer Yusra Mardini, captured the world’s attention through her story of having pushed a sinking dinghy to shore, saving 20 lives as she and her family fled Syria.

Through all the (indisputably worthy) praise for Mardini and the rest of the team, less energy has been invested in exploring the conditions that engineered such a team into existence.

International policies are accountable for forcing these athletes, and countless others, into refugee status. These policies were enacted by many of the same countries whose athletes paraded alongside the refugee team. The same culpability resides with transnational bodies such as the International Olympic Committee: How do we, for example, reconcile the paradox of welcoming a refugee team during an event responsible for displacing 77,000 more?

A partial answer comes in recognizing that “refugee” is not a nationality, a flag by which to march under, but a status we as a global community have forced upon these individuals. Continue reading

‘Refugee’ is a Not a Name; It’s Something Done to You. 

Syria Camp
As thousands risk their lives to flee their homes in what has come to be known as “Europe’s Migrant Crisis” the Al Jazeera News Network announced that it will no longer use the term migrant, stating that,

“The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances….”

Instead, Al Jazeera argues, the term refugee better describes the reality of those who are fleeing unlivable conditions for a chance at – not just a better life – but for many, a chance to live at all.

I’ve argued before that naming is important, and Al Jazeera is right to make this consideration. However, in the midst of the refugee vs. migrant terminology debate, I still wonder if either word captures the reality of the situation. 

Both migrant and refugee refer to states of being. Just like fireman or high-school graduate, these terms indicate something you are. When used in the context of this crisis, both words deceptively imply something permanent, even preexisting – as if some people just are, and always have been refugees

Refugee conjures up images of the  dispossessed, struggling in overpopulated camps or at blocked borders. And while these images are often accurate depictions of the present reality, the term does not conjure up images of the stable lives many of these individuals once had – stable lives that were interrupted. Continue reading

What’s in a Name? Words Matter in War.

daesh“This is a terrorist group and not a state. . . the term Islamic State blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims, and Islamists.” President Obama made similar remarks saying, “ISIL is not Islamic . . . and [is] certainly not a state.””

These lines are from a recent article in the Boston Globe. The first quote is from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, explaining why the French government will no longer use ISIS, ISIL, or IS to refer to the increasingly infamous terror organization, and will instead refer to them as “Daesh,” an acronym of the group’s full name in Arabic (which is al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham if you were curious).*

But it’s just a name. Does language matter that much?

George Orwell seemed to believe that it did, once writing that “… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” 

Some say that “The Islamic State” is simply a harmless English translation of the group’s self-designated name. And it’s true that we have a long, rich history of “translating” a group’s name into English, even when it has little to do with what they actually call themselves (when’s the last time you’ve seen a map of Europe with Belgique bordering Deutschland?).

However, we haven’t actually followed this English-translation pattern when it comes to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. If we did, the World Trade Center would have been attacked by “The Base” (Al-Qaeda), leading to a war to depose the notorious “Students” (Taliban). Continue reading