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'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)

"It makes us feel like we're less than everyone else," says Paulette Jolla, a New Orleans resident at the Bethany shelter who spoke to Bush.

The debate pains Lavinia Limon, president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. The millions of refugees who have resettled here from countries including Cuba, Cambodia, Somalia, Kosovo and Ethiopia are courageous and daring people who stood for something, she says. They settle in communities, set up businesses and become citizens of the United States.

"Being a refugee should not be a pejorative term," Limon says.

Still, she says, the people displaced by Katrina can rightly protest the label. "Legally, refugees are people suffering from persecution based on race, ethnicity and religion under U.S. and international law," she says. "These are displaced Americans. They are not people without a country."

Many major news outlets have stopped using "refugees," and now use "evacuees" or "victims."

News managers say "refugees" is both inaccurate and potentially insensitive.

"They're not refugees," says Mark Effron, vice president of news and daytime programming at MSNBC. "Given what we're dealing with, there was a sense in the word 'refugee' that it somehow made these United States citizens, people who live in Louisiana and Mississippi, into aliens or foreigners or something less than they are."

The Washington Post stopped using the term over the weekend, unless it is in a direct quotation, says Phil Bennett, the managing editor. "We're constantly examining all sorts of labels that may or may not be accurate, like 'terrorist' or 'extremist.' This seemed to be an inaccurate label that did not fit the definition. There was also some discussion that this could be used in a pejorative sense, and we're sensitive to those concerns."

The term has been the subject of much discussion on the Internet among members of the American Copy Editors Society, a professional group of media wordsmiths. Brian Throckmorton, copy desk chief at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, says his paper has stopped using the word in headlines and display type "to avoid provoking those who object to it, but our policy is that it is not a tarnished word and we're allowing it in body copy."

He added, "I do not agree with those who see it as an insult. In fact, I think they are insulting the world's asylum seekers by implying that it's shameful to be lumped under the word 'refugee' with people whose refuge is from other people instead of from nature. Sure, many of the world's refugees are poor and come from Third World conditions, but . . . there's no shame in being poor and Third World anyway."

Talk to people long enough and it's clear that the refugee issue is mixed up with issues of race and class, as well as perceptions about New Orleans as an unruly place to live.

Some public officials and residents believe that somehow -- despite the outpouring of generosity -- there is an undercurrent of negativity.

New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas chatted for hours last week with 10 busloads of residents who he says were turned away from three small Louisiana towns before finally finding a place to shower and sleep in Baton Rouge.

Though he doesn't know for sure, he thinks "they were afraid of the reputations of the black people from New Orleans and the crime they heard about and lawlessness they heard about on television. But they are starting to see that there are a few jerks, but that most people are good, hardworking people."

McKnight says he felt an unwelcome vibe from some people in Baton Rouge. "A lot of people come to New Orleans and we welcome them with open arms," he says. "Now we need them and some of them don't want us here. They are afraid of the negative things they have heard about New Orleans."

McKnight is not angry. He doesn't plan to stay in the shelter long. People, for the most part, are treating him nice and his new neighbors are creating their own normalcy. Children play outside. Mothers sit on steps braiding wet hair just across from showering tents that have been set up outside. Everyone is adjusting.

Residents of Baton Rouge, "they're overwhelmed," McKnight says. Shelves are low on food. Traffic is bad. Schools risk overcrowding. "I'm willing to give people the benefit of the doubt."

As long as they don't call him a refugee.

"We're everyday working people that own our own homes," he says. "We didn't ask for this."

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