It’s Only Words: On Refugees and Liminality
Anna Gotlib

I sit in front of my computer in New York, contemplating how I am going to speak to groups of people about refugees, narratives, and moral luck in two days’ time.  It is not that I am overly worried about what I am going to say, what arguments I will use, or what philosophical claims I might make  —  I have been doing this for a while now.  What is tearing at me is how I will do this without internally collapsing, without alienating my audience, without weeping openly and uncontrollably.

I am usually not the kind of person who does this  —  I can (mostly) hold it together, even if the subject matter is rough-going.  So why am I so worried this time?

The obvious answer, right?  Trump and his nightmarish reign, only days-old, has thus far unleashed at least the promise of innumerable horrors to come:  the elimination of the ACA, the gutting of any environmental protection programs, the racism, the LGBTQ hatred, the anti-science, anti-truth, -anti-reality, anti-….The anti-immigrant and refugee policies.  The unabashed, public, seething hatred of those who are here, or who want to come here largely out of desperation, and sometimes without the proper documentation.  This is what my talk is about  —  it is about the consequences of the words that paint the immigrant and the refugee as “other.”  It is about why we must be so careful with these words  —  both in saying them ourselves, and in allowing those in power to wield them, to weaponize them.  It is about how these words create moral and political realities that shape identities, destinies  —  lives  —  of others.

So what does liminality have to do with anything?  Simply, everything:  To be a refugee is, in many ways, to be in a state of non-belonging, non-citizenship….sometimes, non-personhood.  It is, as Hannah Arendt noted, a state of not being recognized, not even having a right to have rights.  And it does a number on one’s sense of self, on one’s confidence, on one’s notions about one’s place in the world, and one’s rights to make claims  —  it is the periphery of the periphery.  To borrow a fitting film title, it is “the howling plains of nowhere.”

I should know.  I am a refugee, albeit a long-ago one, from the Soviet Union.  To make a long story short and for reasons that I will not get into here, my family and I did not leave the U.S.S.R. quite via the usual Soviet emigre route of the 1980s.  For a while, we were homeless in that particular sense of the term where your future state of belonging-to is not clear, but what is clear is the door that has just shut behind you  —  permanently.  My memories of that time  —  of the chaos, the fear, the strangers, the fear, the uncertainty, the fear  — haunt me to this day, driving a lot of the work that I do, the anxieties about belonging anywhere that are too often unrelenting, lurking in the background of my life as an academic, a daughter, a wife, a friend.

But as difficult as my experiences were, they pale in comparison to the Syrians and others currently trying to flee circumstances that are not just unbearable socially, economically, physically, but are an existential threat.  And while they try to save their lives, they are openly, publicly storied as other, as dangerous, as subhuman by those with the largest megaphones, on some of the biggest stages in the world.  Nigel Farage of Brexit fame, Trump, Le Pen, Putin  —  the list goes on.  Add to this the audiences that all-too-eagerly grant uptake to the dehumanization, the othering, of the refugee….you get the idea.  And now, we can see the consequences:  American plans barring people from particular regions of the world, people of particular faiths, and others from entering the United States.  Le Pen’s statements about suspending all immigration to France.  Putin’s well-known pan-Slavic nationalism.  And on and on….

So we have to talk about it.  Publicly and loudly.  Even if our voices sometimes catch.

Editor’s Note: This issue has been so in flux over the last few months, after years of Syrian refugees seeking entry to European and North American nations, that we recently had another blog entry on the subject.  Check out Kate McKay’s “A Door Slams in the Night” for another part of the picture.

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