Lesson from the California wildfires: Empathy for others
During the past decade, we have witnessed a significant rise in the number of people displaced globally from their homes and homelands. The Syrian civil war coupled with the continuing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to massive forced migration. People fleeing harsh conditions in Africa continue to escape to Europe by boat at great personal risk. Rohingya refugees are being forced out of Myanmar fleeing torture, rape and death. And some 2 million Yemenis are living in tent cities.
Today, there are nearly 69 million people worldwide exiled because of war and violence as well as a result of natural (though arguably, often human affected) disasters such as fires and hurricanes. Even the casual follower of the news understands what has been going on. Forced migration has evoked sympathy among many, but for others there is derision, especially in the case of Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S.
Now add 150,000 more people to that 69 million: The estimate of the number of Californians statewide fleeing the most recent wildfires. Though the residents of the Chico area in California are not displaced because of war and violence, they are experiencing much of the same anguish as those seeking safety from south of the U.S. border. They are homeless, traumatized, feeling forgotten, separated from loved ones and living day to day not knowing what the future will hold. Images of spontaneously established tent cities in Chico look much like those we see as a result of displacement in far flung places.
Of course, this is not the first time that Americans have been displaced, and in larger numbers than in California. We just need to remember hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Katrina, the last of which killed nearly 2,000 individuals and displaced more than 400,000 people in 2005. The number displaced in Puerto Rico after Maria has been difficult to gauge, but some estimate it as high as 1 million.
To use the terminology of the humanitarian community, these Americans are internally displaced persons, commonly called IDPs. Because they have not crossed an international border, they are not refugees. And they are not asylum seekers because they are not escaping threats of persecution that might be violent. But they are helpless, vulnerable and human beings.
It might be difficult for some Americans to recognize we are experiencing some of the same conditions as countries that have been disparaged as poor, violent and worse by President Donald Trump. The pain that these Californians are feeling can in some ways be compared to those making their way to Europe. I would argue, though, that the uncertainty and trauma of those forced to flee to Europe is more extreme and distressing than that in California, but the similarities are still worth considering.
Maybe ironically, this provides for Americans a connection to the larger global community. We are not immune to crises that test the capacity of governmental responses and the need for private assistance. Our generosity in supporting those in need in California will likely be considerable in the end. There might be current images of slow response, but our local and national capacity will meet the needs in one way or another. Still, these individuals and families are suffering and are vulnerable and this should remind us of the humanity that connects us all.
Helping our own means helping those who share our humanity, not just our citizenship. When the fire season is over in California and affected people are resettled and able to restart their lives, we will still have some 69 million fellow humans fleeing more catastrophic conditions.
What will we do for them?
David J. Smith is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education and teaches at George Mason University. A resident of Rockville, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org