'Refugee': A Word of Trouble

At the Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, President Bush agreed to use a more accurate term, such as displaced citizens, for victims of Katrina.
At the Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, President Bush agreed to use a more accurate term, such as displaced citizens, for victims of Katrina. (By Patrick Dennis -- Associated Press)
By Robert E. Pierre and Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La.

Tyrone McKnight sleeps in a shelter. His meals come from the kindness of strangers. It's safe to call him homeless, because his house is under water.

What he doesn't want you to call him, or the thousands of other New Orleans residents plucked from floodwater, is this word: refugees.

"The image I have in my mind is people in a Third World country, the babies in Africa that have all the flies and are starving to death," he says, while sitting outside Baton Rouge's convention center, where 5,000 displaced residents are being housed. "That's not me. I'm a law-abiding citizen who's working every day and paying taxes."

Which label to use when describing evacuees might seem trivial when thousands may be dead, thousands are missing, and a major city and its environs have been ravaged.

But at shelters in Louisiana and Texas, workers and volunteers have heard loud and clear from those living there that the government, the media and everyone else should call them something other than refugees.

"We ain't refugees. I'm a citizen," insists Annette Ellis, also sheltered at the convention center with her two children.

Reps. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, raised the issue last week at a news conference called to complain about the slow response to Hurricane Katrina. " 'Refugee' calls up to mind people that come from different lands and have to be taken care of," Watson said. "These are American citizens."

Added Cummings: "They are not refugees. I hate that word."

President Bush got an earful Monday while visiting 800 people staying at the Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, a few miles north of the Baton Rouge airport. He agreed to urge use of other terms, such as displaced citizens.

The president made good on his word yesterday during remarks at the White House: "You know, there's a debate here about refugees. Let me tell you my attitude . . . The people we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens."

So why is the term such a dirty word to some?


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