'Refugee': A Word of Trouble
By Robert E. Pierre and Paul Farhi
BATON ROUGE, La.
Tyrone McKnight sleeps in a shelter. His meals come from the kindness of
strangers. It's safe to call him homeless, because his house is under water.
What he doesn't want you to call him, or the thousands of other New Orleans
residents plucked from floodwater, is this word: refugees.
"The image I have in my mind is people in a Third World country, the babies in
Africa that have all the flies and are starving to death," he says, while
sitting outside Baton Rouge's convention center, where 5,000 displaced residents
are being housed. "That's not me. I'm a law-abiding citizen who's working every
day and paying taxes."
Which label to use when describing evacuees might seem trivial when thousands
may be dead, thousands are missing, and a major city and its environs have been
But at shelters in Louisiana and Texas, workers and volunteers have heard loud
and clear from those living there that the government, the media and everyone
else should call them something other than refugees.
"We ain't refugees. I'm a citizen," insists Annette Ellis, also sheltered at
the convention center with her two children.
Reps. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), both members of the
Congressional Black Caucus, raised the issue last week at a news conference
called to complain about the slow response to Hurricane Katrina. " 'Refugee'
calls up to mind people that come from different lands and have to be taken care
of," Watson said. "These are American citizens."
Added Cummings: "They are not refugees. I hate that word."
President Bush got an earful Monday while visiting 800 people staying at the
Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, a few miles north of the Baton Rouge
airport. He agreed to urge use of other terms, such as displaced citizens.
The president made good on his word yesterday during remarks at the White
House: "You know, there's a debate here about refugees. Let me tell you my
attitude . . . The people we're talking about are not refugees. They are
Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow
So why is the term such a dirty word to some?
"It makes us feel like we're less than everyone else," says Paulette Jolla, a
New Orleans resident at the Bethany shelter who spoke to Bush.
The debate pains Lavinia Limon, president and chief executive of the U.S.
Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. The millions of refugees who have
resettled here from countries including Cuba, Cambodia, Somalia, Kosovo and
Ethiopia are courageous and daring people who stood for something, she says.
They settle in communities, set up businesses and become citizens of the United
"Being a refugee should not be a pejorative term," Limon says.
Still, she says, the people displaced by Katrina can rightly protest the label.
"Legally, refugees are people suffering from persecution based on race,
ethnicity and religion under U.S. and international law," she says. "These are
displaced Americans. They are not people without a country."
Many major news outlets have stopped using "refugees," and now use "evacuees"
News managers say "refugees" is both inaccurate and potentially insensitive.
"They're not refugees," says Mark Effron, vice president of news and daytime
programming at MSNBC. "Given what we're dealing with, there was a sense in the
word 'refugee' that it somehow made these United States citizens, people who
live in Louisiana and Mississippi, into aliens or foreigners or something less
than they are."
The Washington Post stopped using the term over the weekend, unless it is in a
direct quotation, says Phil Bennett, the managing editor. "We're constantly
examining all sorts of labels that may or may not be accurate, like 'terrorist'
or 'extremist.' This seemed to be an inaccurate label that did not fit the
definition. There was also some discussion that this could be used in a
pejorative sense, and we're sensitive to those concerns."
The term has been the subject of much discussion on the Internet among members
of the American Copy Editors Society, a professional group of media wordsmiths.
Brian Throckmorton, copy desk chief at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky,
says his paper has stopped using the word in headlines and display type "to
avoid provoking those who object to it, but our policy is that it is not a
tarnished word and we're allowing it in body copy."
He added, "I do not agree with those who see it as an insult. In fact, I think
they are insulting the world's asylum seekers by implying that it's shameful to
be lumped under the word 'refugee' with people whose refuge is from other people
instead of from nature. Sure, many of the world's refugees are poor and come
from Third World conditions, but . . . there's no shame in being poor and Third
Talk to people long enough and it's clear that the refugee issue is mixed up
with issues of race and class, as well as perceptions about New Orleans as an
unruly place to live.
Some public officials and residents believe that somehow -- despite the
outpouring of generosity -- there is an undercurrent of negativity.
New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas chatted for hours last week
with 10 busloads of residents who he says were turned away from three small
Louisiana towns before finally finding a place to shower and sleep in Baton
Though he doesn't know for sure, he thinks "they were afraid of the reputations
of the black people from New Orleans and the crime they heard about and
lawlessness they heard about on television. But they are starting to see that
there are a few jerks, but that most people are good, hardworking people."
McKnight says he felt an unwelcome vibe from some people in Baton Rouge. "A lot
of people come to New Orleans and we welcome them with open arms," he says. "Now
we need them and some of them don't want us here. They are afraid of the
negative things they have heard about New Orleans."
McKnight is not angry. He doesn't plan to stay in the shelter long. People, for
the most part, are treating him nice and his new neighbors are creating their
own normalcy. Children play outside. Mothers sit on steps braiding wet hair just
across from showering tents that have been set up outside. Everyone is
Residents of Baton Rouge, "they're overwhelmed," McKnight says. Shelves are low
on food. Traffic is bad. Schools risk overcrowding. "I'm willing to give people
the benefit of the doubt."
As long as they don't call him a refugee.
"We're everyday working people that own our own homes," he says. "We didn't ask