The theme of World Refugee Week in mid-June 2022 was: “Anyone. Everywhere that. Anytime. Everyone has the right to seek security. We have gone through these seven days. They reminded us that the number of people now homeless has risen to 89.3 million. This annual dedication date, June 20, is a tribute to their resilience, also transmitted, discreetly, furtively, as most refugees must.
In these dramatic times, homeless or stateless people are learning to travel light. Living primarily within the bosom of the Earth, our common home, they recognize her as a living being – Mother Nature or Dharti Ma. There is an awareness of her motherly, giving nature. Others well nestled may have lost close contact with her. Perhaps, in their transit to places of concrete, they lost their specific thread in the network of relationships with other earthly species, soil, water, air and sunlight.
Three decades ago, scientist-philosopher Carl Sagan shared a perspective of Earth from an image of our planet taken by a camera aboard a NASA spacecraft – nothing beyond a simple “pale blue dot”. The visual revealed the insignificance of our planet in the limitless infinity of space. Sagan deconstructed the image in human terms. “Everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve heard of, every human being that has ever existed, lived their lives on that speck of dust hanging in a ray of sunshine.”
A misplaced sense of our species’ superiority has led to memory lapses. Natural disasters, droughts and other unpredictable weather upheavals were not thunderbolts. For decades, environmentalists have echoed the fragility of this pale blue dot. David Suzuki reminded us that it is we humans who are grounded in the natural world. What we do to our environment, we do to ourselves. Alternate Nobel Laureate Dr. Vandana Shiva recalls: “We knew that destroying Earth’s biodiversity and shifting to fossil fuels would violate ecological limits and planetary boundaries, disrupt Earth’s climate systems, and lead to climate chaos. The 1992 Rio Climate Treaty and the Biodiversity Treaty provided an opportunity to avoid this perilous path, pushing us towards climate catastrophe. While treaties have been undermined, the climate emergency continues to deepen.
Vulnerability and resilience are both seen as positive personality traits in human beings, but not within geographic regions. The Indian subcontinent is the most fragile land mass prone to climatic disasters. Extreme floods, droughts, melting glaciers, rising sea levels that drown out topsoil, and hurricanes are diseases created by neglected symptoms that led to cyclones in 1999, Amphan and more recently, Fani . Serious bottlenecks around the Bay of Bengal are forcing people to flee these winds and protesting waters that batter the Indo-Bangladeshi coast. The pale blue dot splashes its now muddy color onto the smaller greens, turning food producers into landless refugees. As our relationship with nature continues to sever, economists, data collectors and investigators are providing us with the number of climate refugees, which is growing day by day. “But we are not data. I am a human, not a number,” says student Nujeen Mustafa, now a resident of a detention camp. “We had everything: houses, schools and fields. Our world was not to last.
Invitations for wheelchair-bound Mustafa to share his 4,000km journey from Aleppo to the UK keep pouring in, including from the UN Security Council. Obviously, messages communicated in the first person have higher recall than dry digits. The wounds of the words seep deeper into memory, propelling inspiration and courage into refugee communities.
Creative artists and writers have the ease and empathy to break through the statistics, locating the commonalities we share. Excerpts from Javed Akhtar’s nazm Ghar Wapsi (translated by Dead Man Walking), conjure up images expressing the plight of so-called “migrant labor”, laid off overnight on the Ides of March 2000.
“The two of them in the streets in flames
Melt in the heat
On their shoulders a bundle
Knotted with hunger and thirst…
… They have walked side by side through the ages
And burned also by the raging fire.
Today, two years later, the poet’s verses perhaps evoke the disordered scattering of today’s refugees. Some fleeing the territorial war, and others the ongoing wars between the elements of nature.
In another poem Beghar (Homeless), Akhtar transports us to this in-between, neither day nor night. Despite the dark shapes imagined at dusk, the verses retain their clarity, leaving the reader with a tinge of dread. How we would like to have an answer to his last question, a roadmap to guide the beggar to a shelter, before the approaching nightfall.
“The evening is approaching; the red sun begins to hide behind the sea.
There, a fleet of birds, in line, flies towards these forests,
To those trees where they have woven their nests.
These birds return to their places, to rest and rest.
We are appalled that in this forest of houses
We don’t have a place of our own.
As evening draws near, where shall we go?
Without direction, yes. However, when reading, one feels a sense of solidarity. According to Akhtar, “Songs of hope and sorrow cannot cause revolutions, but they can create a language for movements and raise awareness. It’s like a whisper in the dark, while others remain silent.
Gulzar Sahib portrays Climatedisguised as a gypsy.
Banjarey lagtey hain mausam
Mausam beghar hone lagain hain
Cheel Cheel key chaal zameen ki
Tukda tukda baant rahey hain”
“The climate seems like a gypsy now.
She too becomes homeless.
Stripping the earth of its skin,
Layer by layer, its fragments put up for sale.
This verse reverses the trope of using mausam (weather) as we know it from our movies, where weather conditions are usually suhana (beautiful), specially created for romance, whether in Kashmir or Switzerland. In these lines, written on the inspiration of a film Kadvi Hawaii on climate change, there is no mention of tulips or roses. It’s just man and nature, both equally anxious. Over time, a verse can become particularly catchy, uplifting, or identifiable with a cause. It turns into a hymn much like the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. After being released from prison for an alleged plot to overthrow the ruling government, Faiz fled to Beirut. Living in self-exile, in a mixture of cultures, the desire for a home remained his companion. Dil-e-man, Musaafir-e-Man (My Heart, My Fellow Traveller), is his metaphorical confession of his longing for a home, Lahore.
“Mother dil, mother musaafir
Hua phir se hukm saadir
Ki watan-b-dar ho hum tum…
Har ek ajnabi se poochein
Jo pata tha apne ghar ka…”
“My heart, my traveling companion,
It was again decreed
That you and I are exiled…
….We ask every foreigner
For the return home…”
In their literary art, the poets express an intense search for belonging from the point of view of a seeker of refuge. Who is looking for a new sense of identity for their uprooted psyche? Who is looking for a lost love, be it a person or a place? Who longs to escape an oppressive regime? Who still believes that together a new community can be created, a pale blue dot made brighter?
(This appeared in the print edition as “Climate is a Refugee”)
(The opinions expressed are personal)
Meera Dewan an award-winning filmmaker