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Martin LeFevre: We’re All Refugees

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

We’re All Refugees

Seven Asian young men, dripping wet from just having been in the cold creek, walk slowly along the narrow path that parallels the stream. It’s a warm day, and the first new leaves of spring are bursting their buds on the trees and bushes in the parkland.

I have never been to Southeast Asia, but for a moment I feel as though I’ve been transported there, walking slowly behind a line of people along a narrow path in early spring.

I soon catch up to them; they are a voluble group, talking seemingly all at once, in a language I’ve never heard. The last fellow, a stout teen in knee-length shorts and squishing rubber sandals, turns and says, “Sorry.” His pitch, timing, and inflection indicate a complete command of English.

In the ways the boys are dressed, and the last fellow’s nearly monosyllabic replies, the overlay is American and Western. But the teenagers evoke an ancient culture in the language they speak. After all, languages carry subconscious cultural memories in the minds of their speakers.

“No problem,” I reply, adding an obvious question (though more as an exclamation of surprise), “You’ve all just been in the creek?” “Yeah,” he says. “Amazing, it’s really cold; you must be the first of the year.” He utters another one-word response, though with a trace of friendliness, “Probably.”

My curiosity is not deterred by his diffidence. “Where are you from?” I ask. “Oroville,” he says comically, referring to a town 20 minutes from here. Not sure whether he’s putting me on or not, I persist: “I mean originally.” “Laos,” he says.

It’s my turn for a one-word response: “Hmong?” “Yes,” he replies, at which they all turn around.

In terms of recent history, the CIA recruited the Hmong people of Laos in the early years of the Vietnam War to fight the North Vietnamese in Laos. It became known as the “Secret War.” After America’s ignominious defeat and departure from Vietnam, the Hmong faced persecution and retaliation by the communists, which also took over the Lao kingdom.

Many Hmong refugees fled to Thailand, and in the 1990’s they were forcibly repatriated to Laos, with the support of the Clinton Administration and UNHCR. Under growing pressure, Clinton relented, and allowed many Hmong to immigrate to America. A sizable number settled in the Central Valley of California.

After the debacle of Iraq, the next US Administration will be faced with a similar long-term moral dilemma. Certainly, Bush’s Vietnam will haunt America, and the world, for decades.

Millions of Iraqis have already fled their homeland, but less than 10,000 have been allowed into the United States, despite the fact that many worked for us, and we caused the open wound on the human psyche that Iraq has become. The reason so few are being admitted is because to do so would be an admission of failure and defeat in Iraq.

The lesson of Iraq is not only the tired cliché that those who refuse to study and learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. The larger issue is how much, and how little, the world has changed.

The numbers and problems of refugees around the world are exponentially increasing. But in the deepest sense, we’ve all become refugees in a dislocated world of real and wrenching physical threats, driven by heartfelt and hyped psychological fears. The words of a physician in Baghdad reverberate around the world: “The air has become poisoned by sectarianism, and we have all been breathing it.”

What is the value of identification with particular groups as a primary source of one’s identity, when all that’s left of once geographically distinct cultures are fragments scattered in many lands, and homelands?

The real meaning of the world ‘primitive’ now is clinging to ‘my group,’ ‘my country,’ and ‘my religion’ as the peoples of the world grow more and more interconnected, crammed together onto the sinking ship of a once spacious earth.

Where does one take refuge in a racing global 'culture' embracing secular, consumeristic ‘values’ laying waste to everyone and everything? Not in a specific land, but the earth itself. Not in a particular country or ethnic group, but humanity as whole. Grace flows from wholeness.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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