As a reporter for the Takoma Park Gazette a couple years back, I had an opportunity to meet two women brought together through extraordinary circumstances. Allison Hodge and Desiree Feltu lived in New Orleans and had both survived the disaster of Katrina. Both saw what, in April of 2006 when I met them, were still unspeakable horrors in the aftermath of the storm. And yet, for reasons I can’t fully understand, they both bristled at being called refugees.
It was, I suspect, a sign that Allison and Desiree — and the hundreds of other Katrina survivors who ended up in Washington, D.C. — refused to give up hope. By letting themselves be called refugees, it perhaps meant they had lost their communities back on the Gulf Coast for good?
(For what it’s worth, the United Nations defines a refugee as a person who is unwilling or unable to gain the protection of the country where the are located for fear of being persecuted based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.)
I thought about those two ladies this afternoon. Allison (on the left, working with Desiree to put together care packages for new residents of their Takoma Park apartment building), with her thick Guyanese accent, was much more outgoing, even though she had spent eight days trapped in the upper reaches of her flooded house, the sweltering New Orleans heat making the situation that much more unbearable. Desiree, on the other hand, was quiet and physically reserved, her eyes lowering as she talked about what she saw during five days of living Hell inside the Morial Convention Center.
Fortunately, both women were able to find help in rebuilding their lives by taking separate paths to Suburban Maryland. They found comfort in the company of strangers, all of whom were fellow countrymen and women.
So maybe that’s what defines a refugee: someone whose community is yanked away, but who is forced to flee to a land of foreigners? And someone, perhaps, who has no hope; an individual who can only find comfort from the familiar by looking within. People who simply can not return home, like those from Tibet, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Darfur?
What must it do to a person’s psyche to have everything taken away, sometimes fleeing in the middle of the night to save life and limb?
I don’t know what eventually happened to Desiree and Allison, but I have to think they were able to find their way back to New Orleans in the 30-odd months since I met them. The story these two women share spurred an entire nation to action. “Refugees” or not, they were among the lucky ones.
Photo by Brian Lewis/The Gazette