Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
What does the term refugee mean to you?
A seeker after refuge. A creature of life seeking shelter, a sheltering space where this living being might return to wholeness.
Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?
There are so many forms of poverty in the world, as there are refugees that are just not named that way, aren’t there? For example, isn’t the contemporary European youngster departing his or her shores to escape economic difficulties and the lack of a future to find shelter and refuge in Angola and Mozambique not an economic refugee too? In addition, not enough is said about the refugee character of persons euphemistically termed ‘expatriate’. The idea that a certain wholeness and realisation of personal ideal is to be realized in a place other than home speaks to a deep human impulse that needs to be better contemplated outside of the lenses of a pathological and deceitful political orientation. To be human is to move, to leave a toxic environment, as with any organism, in order to find solidarity, community and air to breathe. I do not believe it is a question of ‘legitimacy’, that is political sophistry, but of human values and valuing.
And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?
Same answer as above, and likely to get worse.
When does one cease to be a refugee?
When one finally steps out of the journey of life by way of death, I imagine, assuming the journeying stops at that gateway. If not, never.
Is there a natural right to asylum?
It requires a sophisticated society, a kind of elegant way of being human and a capacity to be able to express a solidarity with this humanity to be able to feel confident enough to open heart, mind, home to a creature in temporary distress. I would like to imagine that the past has such examples, for example, the area that was known as the Global Monsoon Complex centres around the seas, evolved a shared language (Kiswahili) refined a people, (Swahili) and put forward the word: Ubinadamu and the associated codes and protocols of being hospitable to the stranger and turning him or her into a citizen. It would require a brutal honesty that no society in the world seems to be capable of right now, to be able to recognise how that society is itself implicated in the mess that causes people to flee; Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya are examples of that adage: choices have consequences.
If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?
This I would suggest is not a matter of law, it is a matter of how profoundly a society, culture and people sense, understand and live being human; the sense of their own humanity is mirrored in the manner of receptivity of another human being, particularly one who is in deep distress. Hospitality is forfeited when the covenant of trust is broken, when stated intentions for seeking shelter/belonging are destroyed by either host or guest.
Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?
Wouldn’t the answer relate more to how and what a society understands is the human being? Beyond ‘refugee’ the community stands in front of a human being. What then does such a society feel about human vulnerability, brokenness, fear and forced movement? To what does such a society regress, including scapegoating the stranger when a crisis descends on it? The locus of ‘refugee’ is the perfect crucible and mirror of what a society and civilization actually is, how it performs the reality of its limits and capacities too, how it ‘speaks’ out its uncertainty. Is it confident in the resilience of its own culture and sense of self to withstand this surprise? How does it articulate, reiterate, circulate and amplify what it fears most about its existence? How does it deal with the discomfort of suffering—its own and those of others? How does it demonstrate its own sense and meaning of being human. If fear predominates and splatters mud on the myths it holds about itself then, naturally, its hospitality to and solidarity with the stranger who arrives with no fixed abode or date-of-departure will be profoundly constrained.
If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?
Answer as above. The line is drawn as low or high, as a society, in its collective imagination, understands the strength (or vulnerability) of their own humanity.
Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?
Yes. The ones called ‘expatriates’ are more privileged and welcomed. The narrative of who they are and the myths of why they have come to live among us eases their entry, presence and existence among us, which includes a tax free life and hardship allowances, in some cases.
Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?
No, they do not all receive fair treatments. Our guests in distress who are assigned to Kakuma and Dadaab camp have so many of their freedoms curtailed. Most are denied absorption into and belonging to the wider Kenyan society.
Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?
What are the requirements for successful integration?
- on the part of the refugees?
Reflect on and answer the question: what does it mean to be human. Sit before the host and talk, listen, absorb, dream. State intent in act of ‘covenant’: Why have you come? The covenant is also ‘to cause no harm’. Remember the Kiswahili saying, with many variations in all cultures: Kazi haina ugeni. Work has no guest.
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?
Reflect on and answer the question: what does it mean to be human. If these strangers are here because of war, how has my society contributed to their fate? Sit before the guest and talk, listen, absorb, dream, listen too, to the fears of the host population without burying these in political correctness. Dare to speak truth: for example, “We are selling weapons to these groups, which have been used to displace these people who have come to us from their lives, homes and history.” Then activate an intrinsic human code and protocol of hospitality to the stranger. But hospitality is not forced; a culture either has it or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, admit cultural and human wretchedness, say outright that there is no room at the inn, feed the stranger and move him or her on his way without harming, humiliating and further crushing them, as is happening in Hungary now.
Do you know any refugees personally?
Yes, I am close to several former strangers, visitors and wanderers who have become intimate friends and my windows to a greater world.
Do you actively support any refugees?
I do, mostly, as a good, I hope, friend, sister and protector.
What advice would you give a refugee?
I hope I would not be so damn condescending. If I should open my mouth to deliver assumed gems to people, please shoot me off any self-constructed pedestal at the first squeak.
How will the refugee situation in your country develop
a) over the next two years?
People will come and go. The numbers may vary.
b) over the next two decades?
People will come and go. The numbers may vary.
Can you imagine a world without refugees?
Of course not. A character of human history is its dependency on the movement and flow and exchange of peoples and creatures. Moreover, as long as supposedly civilized societies persist in creating wars in obscene acts to support their flailing economies rather than do the harder wok of finding more human solutions, as long as human wars are justified and excused, and on top of that the uncertainty of world temperature changes make themselves felt, no populations in the world are exempt from the risk of one day having to move in a hurry with neither a fixed destination, nor a definite date of return.
If yes: what does it take?
Have you or your family ever been refugee?
Temporary refugees. We travel the world. All travellers depend on the kindness of strangers to navigate their ways.
Do you think you will ever be a one?
Yes. I am human. Nothing human is alien to my existence.
- If yes: why?
I travel. The world is in flux. There are few certainties on the earth. Most of the world of nations is made up of the descendants of those who moved, its citizens are the offspring of refuge seekers.
- How do you prepare yourself?
Be kind to the stranger, to the wanderer, to the lost and I constantly ask myself what does it mean to be human so that I can be for the stranger what I would like the stranger be for me.
- To which country would you take refuge to?
The place, space and people among whom my heart would feel sheltered. I would seek after a people who have the courage to gaze into my eyes and find the human being. Fortunately, for now, I can take refuge in my country Kenya. I do not take its existence for granted, particularly since my ancestors, immigrants from another place themselves, travelled far to found refuge in the land.
How much “home” do you need?*
As I grow older and more conscious of temporality and my mortality, and also the simplicity of the humus to which the human corpus must return, an indefinable sense of what your people call ‘fernweh’ or is it heimweh? (Welsh, hiraeth, Portuguese saudade, Kiswahili huzuni) takes a deeper hold of my life. My present and gentle struggle is with letting go of the temporal. In this I suspect (hope) that my innermost heart shall find its deepest and yearned for home and hearth unfettered.
*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.