For various reasons, I have been thinking about refugees a good deal lately. I come from Rutland and as many might know, over the past year the Rutland community has been preparing for, and then quickly not preparing for, Syrian refugees. It was my hope that in keeping with the typical role of a community college, CCV could have been (and I hope will be) a part of helping integrate these new members of our community.
When I look at my own ancestry, it takes years of scrolling to get to the parts when members of the family could be called “refugees.” All 1400 some-odd people in my genealogy database seem to have ancestors that arrived in Massachusetts Bay sometime before 1650, and though an argument could be made that almost all of those first American ancestors were refugees (most of them unwelcome or unneeded in England) they quickly stopped longing to return. My family has been in Rutland County since the Revolutionary War. On my maternal side, it seems the family moved up from Connecticut onto the Vermont-Canadian border during the same war because they were Tories and planned to come back to Connecticut and reclaim their property when the British won (News Flash: they didn’t). My first Crossman American ancestor was whipped, branded, and banished to Rhode Island from the Mass. Bay Colony in the winter of 1651 for “blasphemy” (I think he was a Quaker) but I think that is where our family’s refugee status may have ended.
The word refugee comes from a French word, refugié, the noun form of the act of seeking protection and safety. It was apparently first applied to the Protestant French Huguenots who had to flee the persecution of King Louis XIV when he revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. That French word came from the Latin word fugere, “to flee.” I have been wondering lately how Vermonters of the native sort like myself can find emotional ties to the refugee experience when it is not something we see in our family photo albums. I have had to remind myself that just as there are many ways to be poor, there are several different ways to become and to be a refugee. One does not have to be driven out of their country and made to feel unwelcome to feel oneself “displaced.”
Perhaps the national debate about foreign refugees can inspire us to be more conscious of how we all suffer a certain amount of “refugee status” in life. Consider, for example, how we are sometimes “pushed out” of some former condition of health and wellness. I am 53 now and the other day I gave myself a day of skiing for the first time in many years. By the end of the day, I was feeling like a refugee from a former version of my physical self that could ski all day and not be sore. Consider how we can become displaced from a dream we once had for our lives. “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon,” Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”
It is entirely possible to experience tests and trials in life that can dislocate us from former convictions and former versions of ourselves. Some of us may have experienced being exiled, if not actually, then emotionally, from our families of origin, marriages, partnerships, siblings, children, or former friends. Not a few people in the present economy may have experienced being “downsized” or “outsourced” or “demoted” from jobs they may have loved or felt called to. There are many ways that we can feel an identification with refugees if we stop to think about it.
Dépaysement is one of those words that doesn’t have a direct English translation. It’s a French word whose quick definition is “disorientation,” but the more elegant definition sounds something like this: “The unsteady feeling you get when you are away from your home country.” Robert Frost illustrates it in his poem, “The Wood-pile” when he talks about getting lost in a swamp.
Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
Perhaps there are ways in which we have all felt that at some point. Maybe those of us in Rutland and in the CCV community who were looking forward to helping some Syrian refugees find a place to call home can, for now, look around and realize that refugees are all around us. Maybe our classes and offices are just crazy full of “refugees” from something. And maybe there is a refugee inside us all looking for someone to help us feel at home in our new world. It’s worth paying some attention to the possibilities.