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Mourning for New Orleans

Jordan Flaherty, Suheir Hammad
Date Published: 
September 09, 2005

Its been six days since I left New Orleans, and I miss my home so much. I'm still in a daze, its hard to hold a conversation or to think straight.

People ask if everyone I know is ok, and I don't know what to say. There are so many stories, so many rumors, so many people dispersed around the US.

So many of us may never see each other again. I don't think any of us are ok right now.

One friend, a teacher, was searching the Astrodome while holding up a sign, looking for his former students. Another friend says she fears she'll never see New Orleans or her friends from there again. Another friend found temporary comfort with family in Houston and then got kicked out. A lot of friends are working in shelters, providing assistance, medical care, whatever they can. We are already spread across so many states, trying to pick up the pieces of our lives.

I can think of at least thirty people that I have no idea where they are. In some cities it seems like when people meet they give out their email address or weblog or friendster or whatever. In New Orleans, a lot of us only know each other only by first names. There are so many people I would see at least once a week that I don't know how to get in touch with at all. Even cel phones from the New Orleans area code have been nonfunctioning for most of the last two weeks.

New Orleans is a word of mouth town. The way you would find out about parties, secondlines, jazz funerals and other events is from hearing about it from friends. I always liked that about New Orleans. In an increasingly disconnected world, New Orleans felt different, more real and concrete. Now that we aren't seeing each other regularly, our elaborate communication network has broken down.

But when people ask I just say, yes, as far as I know everyone is ok. I can't really bring myself to think about it further than that.

Those with the least to begin with are the ones we worry about most now. Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children is a grassroots organization with a long history of fighting for New Orleans' most vulnerable. Since hurricane Katrina, they have been on the front lines of relief, spending time in the shelters, helping advocate for the refugees of New Orleans, and trying to find out what happened to both adults and children who were locked up while New Orleans flooded.

There has been a lot of media hysteria regarding those who were locked in New Orleans' prisons during the hurricane, stories that make it sound like a Hollywood action film where murderers use a disaster to escape and wreck havoc.

This is exactly wrong. The truth is that tales from the imprisoned population of New Orleans are among the most heartbreaking stories of the past week. Families are still looking for loved ones lost in the system. According to organizers with FFLIC, of approximately 240 kids in state custody, as of a couple of days ago only 6 or 7 parents had been able to track down their children.

According to statistics compiled by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, at least 78% of New Orleans' incarcerated youth were locked up for nonviolent offenses. The detention center in Jefferson Parish reports that 96% of the youth held there in 2000 were for nonviolent offenses. At least a third of youth in prison have been sentenced to three or more years for nonviolent offenses. In New Orleans, 95% of the detained youth in 1999 were African-American. Louisiana taxpayers spend $96,713 to incarcerate a single child, and $4,724 to educate a child in the public schools.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, "the state of Louisiana has one of the highest rates in the country of children living in poverty and children not in school or working. Large numbers of children, especially black children, are suspended from school each year, sometimes for the whole year. Approximately 1,500 Louisiana children are confined in secure correctional facilities each year...In response to the question,"what would you most like to change here?", virtually every child at all of the facilities responded that they would like the guards to stop hitting them and that they would like more food. Children consistently told us that they were hungry."

Some people have been hurt to hear people of New Orleans called refugees. This hurts me too, but it hurts me more to feel that we have been treated as refugees. In a way, the people of New Orleans were refugees before hurricane Katrina ever came. We were abandoned by a country that never needed us, unless they needed a cheap vacation of strip clubs and binge drinking and cheap live music.

One of the things I love about New Orleans is that it always feels like another country. Now we see that in the eyes of the federal government we truly are residents of another country. A poor, black country. Instead of insisting that the displaced of New Orleans are not refugees, we should use this as an opportunity to look at why the idea of US refugees is so discomforting.

The transformation of the people of New Orleans into refugees is a large part of what has captured the imagination of people from around the world, especially those who are refugees themselves. I've received emails from Ghana and Cuba and Peru and Lebanon and Palestine. In New York City tonight, a group of artists, initiated by Def Poetry Jam star and Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, organized a benefit called Refugees For Refugees. That title beautifully and poignantly captures the feelings this man-made tragedy has generated around the world.

In her most recent poem, On Refuge and Language, Suheir writes:

    I do not wish
    To place words in living mouths
    Or bury the dead dishonorably

    I am not deaf to cries escaping shelters
    That citizens are not refugees
    Refugees are not Americans

    I will not use language
    One way or another
    To accommodate my comfort

    I will not look away

    All I know is this

    No peoples ever choose to claim status of dispossessed
    No peoples want pity above compassion
    No enslaved peoples ever called themselves slaves

    What do we pledge allegiance to?

    A government that leaves its old
    To die of thirst surrounded by water
    Is a foreign government

    People who are streaming
    Illiterate into paperwork
    Have long ago been abandoned

    I think of coded language
    And all that words carry on their backs

    I think of how it is always the poor
    Who are tagged and boxed with labels
    Not of their own choosing

    I think of my grandparents
    And how some called them refugees
    Others called them non-existent
    They called themselves landless
    Which means homeless

    Before the hurricane
    No tents were prepared for the fleeing
    Because Americans do not live in tents
    Tents are for Haiti for Bosnia for Rwanda

    Refugees are the rest of the world

    Those left to defend their human decency
    Against conditions the rich keep their animals from
    Those who have too many children
    Those who always have open hands and empty bellies
    Those whose numbers are massive
    Those who seek refuge
    From nature’s currents and man's resources

    Those who are forgotten in the mean times

    Those who remember

    Ahmad from Guinea makes my falafel sandwich and says
    So this is your country

    Yes Amadou this my country
    And these my people

    Evacuated as if criminal
    Rescued by neighbors
    Shot by soldiers

    Adamant they belong

    The rest of the world can now see
    What I have seen

    Do not look away

    The rest of the world lives here too
    In America