The other lands - the editorial piece I wrote for the 'Samhita' annual magazine

January 12, 2016

 

Few days back, when I was still contemplating what I should be writing about for Samhita, I was quite sure it would be about being away from home during Pujo. It is something we all Bengalis are quite emotional about, no matter how many years have passed since we emigrated from our homeland. I too, remain quite hopelessly solemn about the same, even after 10 years.

There was a time when an inexplicable pain would start right around these days, as if I had an anvil placed on my chest. And my eyes would tear up, no matter how gorgeous the late fall sunshine felt. Fall after all, is a delightful time both here in Phoenix after a long exhausting summer, and in upstate New York. The latter is where I had come to, when I first came to the US. But fall was the hardest time for me, year after year. It was the time when I was reminded suddenly - I am now in another land.

I have moved past that phase, adapted as we call it. But I still find myself unusually emotional in the first weeks of October. So I wanted to write a poignant piece on missing my motherland and the downsides of being in this ‘other land’. The piece I would have written, would have been nostalgic, and not necessarily uplifting, as it would have reflected my feelings during these days.  The days in which I forget that being here in the US is by my choice. A choice I had the good fortune of being able to execute.

But the last months have been hard on this world. Maybe, as pacifists would say; every month, every year, is in some ways or other. We just forget too soon or remain oblivious. Maybe they are right. But the last months – with migrant crises building up towards a catastrophe from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, from the Rohingyas pleading for water on stranded boats to the Honduran children put on buses unaccompanied to benefit from the deferred action plan – culminating last week with a toddler lying face down on the shores of Turkey, has made me, an immigrant, think very hard about the modern world and its borders. And about the people who leave their homelands behind. So the piece I choose to write today, is still in no way uplifting, but is an introspection into leaving the homeland behind.

This is not a simple thing to write, or even talk about as most will argue. There are so many facets to understand before shedding humanitarian tears. But I am fortunate to be a migrant, not a refugee. I didn’t flee war or persecution. I made a conscious choice to seek a better quality of education, higher paying job prospects, and freedom, all of which I believed would provide a higher quality of life. I had the means to act upon my choice legally and feasibly, which renders me further blessed – I am a legal immigrant). Burden of fortune, is a hard one to carry. It renders one helpless with unfathomable guilt. I find it necessary therefore to ask – are they really very different from us? What do they seek when they seek other lands?

This world - now shrunk enough to fit into the palm of our hands with every destination accessible - is really so only for the fortunate few. Whether we talk about Mexicans wanting to come to America or Bangladeshi’s wanting to move into Bengal, the rigid borders and restrictions are as much a reality of the 21st century as is global trade and free economy. Ironically, facilitating the later has caused the hardening of the former. Prosperity gives rise to greater desperation to preserve than poverty does. So borders are tighter now, and countries cautious about letting people in. The post-world war II world has international laws on refugee asylum, but no obligations towards migrants.

Refugees – people fleeing oppression or persecution whom the world is obliged to protect; migrants – people leaving their homeland behind seeking better opportunities for a better life. 

But are the Mexicans fleeing drug cartels refugees or migrants then? How much persecution is enough persecution? What is a conscious choice vs. dire need? How much devastation in enough to qualify the sufferers to flee? Is an active war needed to justify the plight of the Rohingyas? Or are, as some world leaders have indicated, they are crazy to get on the boats. Is perpetual hunger and poverty a risk to life?

 

And then what if the refugees want to have a choice? A question I think a heard a few times buzzing around in the social media over the last few weeks. Syrians being offered refuge in Austria really want to move to Germany. That is where many of them believe finding jobs and prospects will be easier. Why do the Rohingyas not want to stay in Thailand or Philippine, but are hell bent on going to Malaysia even at the cost of dying? How dare they try to become migrants, instead of being refugees?

Does refuge mean just the right to be alive? Or does it imply right to live? The later, inevitably, would have to then consider means to sustaining high quality of life. Choice to seek a land providing higher prospects for better quality of life.

Imperialism is to blame for all of this. An angry friend of mine known to be a hard core socialist pounds his fist with passion. And capitalism is just its evil cousin, he completes his sentence. I ponder nervously. I don’t know if I agree with him, but I do know that it is the wrong debate to have. Granted a capitalist economy doesn’t leave much room for equality. But the issue here seems much simpler to me.

The world today is highly unequal, and just like any principle of equilibrium would predict, requires re-distribution.  Think just within a country – revolutions arise when few have much and many don’t. How is a world different? Whether seeking refuge or a better quality of life, people will move to distribute from the tormented, impoverished regions to Europe, America, BRIC countries and even to the islands of pacific if need be. So what is needed is acceptance of the fact rather than debating what caused the individual crises. We need to open borders and accept. Accept that the 21st century world is for the ‘moving people’. Whether they are called legal or illegal immigrants, expats, migrant workers or refugees, it doesn’t matter. We all are moving people. How desperate we are and what means we have merely decide how and where we get to move.

That could be possibly disastrous, flooding and choking some countries, causing chaos, risk of terrorism and what not. But what if we think as a species and not as states or countries? Will it really be that bad? Will the Homo sapiens – the most superior species – really fail in finding a way to still register people, prosecute offenders and re-distribute if the world was the limit? And if the principles of equilibrium and human interest of self-preservation are allowed time to work without intervention with masses should move into greener territories allowing equalization.

So as I await with a fluttering heart for the arrival of Pujo in the other land I now call home, still missing the land I left behind, I wish and pray for the choices to become easier for the ones who need to choose. I dream naively for borders to open so that whether it is the Syrian boy – in bright red shirt and blue shorts lying face down on the sand, or the Mexican children dying in the desert heat trying to cross borders,  we can turn back time and breathe life into their bodies as we welcome them into the other lands.

 

 

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