Watch Viet Thanh Nguyen and others speak about refugee crises on C-SPAN

Viet Nguyen (Author of The Sympathizer), Asli Ü. Bâli (Professor of Law at UCLA), and Makeda Best (Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums) discuss the international refugee crisis and U.S. views on and treatment of refugees.

 
 

Here is the transcript:

Saul Gonzalez: Now, how the US treats refugees as seen by the photographers who captured images of refugee communities. They talk about how their work has influenced public perception of migrant communities. This is about an hour, 15 minutes.

Saul Gonzalez: See? Mic works, great. One challenge down. First off, thank you for the generous introduction and that run down of some of my bio, I appreciate that. And thank you all for coming. It’s a beautiful day in Southern California. There are many things you can be doing other than hearing your conversation about refugees and seeing a photo exhibit. I hope you’ve all seen the exhibit, which is fantastic. I saw it myself last week and I come to the photo space as frequently as I can and I tell every visitor to Los Angeles who I know has a friend or a relative, “Go to the Annenberg photo space. You have to see this place. It’s a gem of Los Angeles.” It’s a great way to spend a few hours in terms of their exhibitions, whether it’s on this, refugees, or anything else they’ve covered in the past. So again, thank you very much for being here.

Saul Gonzalez: Let’s turn to the conversation at hand and our guests here today. Starting from just a short introduction and as I told them, in conversations in the Greenroom, if you’re curious about their background, you Google them. They have very, very long resumes, much longer than my own, very distinguished, but I’ll be very brief in my introductions to them. First on the far left is professor Asli Bâli. She’s professor of law at UCLA. She’s the new director for the center of Near Eastern studies at UCLA, a graduate of Yale law school and edited the Yale Law Review. Correct? And she’s particularly interested in issues related to international law, human rights law, and the laws of war. To her right, and in the center, is Makeda Best. She’s a historian of photography with emphasis on documentary photography, war reportage, social activism and photography. She earned her BA at which college?

Makeda Best: Barnard College.

Saul Gonzalez: Barnard College. Got her NFA at the California Institute of the Arts and an MBA at her MA and PhD at Harvard. Correct? And you are working on a project now about the civil war?

Makeda Best: The civil war and the emergence of documentary photography.

Saul Gonzalez: The civil war and the emergence of documentary photography. Thank you. And then to my immediate left is Viet Thanh Nguyen. He teaches at USC. American Studies?

Viet Nguyen: American studies and ethnicity.

Saul Gonzalez: And ethnicity. He is the author of the novel, The Sympathizer, which won a little something called the Pulitzer award. I think I’ve heard of it. And it is essentially just to summarize, it’s about the Vietnamese immigration and refugee experience, but told in the context of a thriller. It is a great read and he is working on another book that’s coming out next year called The Refugee, correct?

Viet Nguyen: The Refugees, yes.

Saul Gonzalez: The Refugees. So check out The Sympathizer. It’s in all quality bookstores or you can order it online or The Refugees next year. Let’s set up the issue with the international refugee crisis as it exists right now. In preparation for this, did a little homework. The United Nations says there is 65 million refugees now in the world. That’s about one out of every 113 people on the planet. It is about the same size as the population of Canada, Australia and New Zealand combined. Or to put in California terms, there are as many refugees now or people have been forced from their homes as there are the entire population of California plus about another 20 to 25 million people. You cannot check out a website. You cannot see a news program. You cannot read a newspaper without hearing something about refugees. Particularly in the superheated environment of the presidential campaign.

Saul Gonzalez: I was at both Cleveland and Philadelphia covering the conventions and certainly in one political convention in Cleveland, you heard a lot about refugees and you heard a lot of fear expressed about refugees and the threat they may pose to America according to some right now. Also Bali, if I can throw this conversation out to you. It’s often described in the context of a crisis of historic proportions. The displacement of people, the people forced to leave their homelands and try to seek out a new life someplace else. Is it?

Asli Bali: All right, thank you so much. I would say that the choice to frame this as a crisis is itself political. What I mean by that is this. Obviously there are very serious threats to the lives of people that are forcing the kind of migration you just described. People faced horrific circumstances in Syria, in South Sudan, in Somalia and Iraq and many other places that are contributing to this massive refugee crisis. And they are experiencing genuine crisis. But when we talk about these numbers, one really needs to put it in a broader perspective. For example, the average European countries- A country like France processes about 80 million tourists a year without any challenges. They’re able to manage those flows and cope with that level of population mobility as an ordinary course of the way in which they run their society. So the question is can we manage the kinds of flows of populations that we see?

Asli Bali: And the answer to that is absolutely yes. If we chose to. If we chose to address this as something which could be managed as a matter of policy, if we chose to determine what we need to put in place to meet humanitarian objectives, the numbers themselves do not represent an unmanageable or uncontrollable flow. But the framing as crisis or the framing as uncontrollable, I think does feed into a set of political choices which are problematic. First because we think of this in terms of crisis, I think we tend to go to the most extreme sorts of solutions rather than thinking calmly about what a manageable policy framework would look like in the face of refugee and migration flows that we’re witnessing. Secondly, the political strategies themselves tend to endorse a way of framing refugees as a burden rather than as a potential benefit to the societies that host them.

Asli Bali: And that in and of itself contributes to a climate of xenophobia, which I think has dramatically exacerbated the problems that we’ve been seeing most recently. So these are challenges I think that we would want to manage without resorting to a framing of crisis.

Saul Gonzalez: And we’ll return to some of those issues, particularly maybe in more of a Western European context, which those countries have really been on the front line at least when it comes to the Syrian and Iraqi outflows of people. Viet, you wanted to say something?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, that figure of 65 million refugees that you cited. I’ve used it too, you know from the, from the UN and the interesting thing was that about a month or two ago I did an event with the UNHCR High Commission on refugees in New York City with Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN. And I was about to use that figure of 65 million refugees until Samantha Powers said 21 million refugees.

Viet Nguyen: So if I understand this right, maybe Asli you can correct me, but I believe the 60 plus million figure is displaced people of whom 21 million are refugees. I wanted to point that out because I think it is a very political term. A very political category. And it gets to the issue of why it is that refugees are considered a troublesome figure. Why it is we want to classify some people as refugees and why in other situations we don’t want to classify people as refugees.

Saul Gonzalez: And just very quickly that 65 million that includes, I mean, we consider the classic refugee, so many crossing borders driven by war, poverty, famine, what have you and people who are basically staying within the borders of a particular country.

Asli Bali: So actually I think the numbers that you’re referencing are 21 million refugees. That’s right. 65 million people facing forced migration, meaning actually crossing borders. And then actually the larger picture is 250 million migrants annually worldwide who are voluntary migrants, people who choose to leave their country of origin and live at least one year outside. That’s the largest figure. In addition, there are internally displaced people, which is the group that you just referred to and those numbers are not included in any of those three categories.

Saul Gonzalez: Okay, thank you. Let me just follow up with you Viet and then Makeda I’m going to come to you about images of refugees through history. You’re a refugee yourself. You proudly embrace that term.

Viet Nguyen: I have to actually forcefully claim that term because so many people want to call me immigrant and talk about The Sympathizer as an immigrant novel and I have to say, “No, absolutely not.” I’m a refugee and this is a refugee novel and it’s a war novel. And I think the reason why I have to insist on these kinds of things is because in the context of the United States, to be an immigrant fits really well with a dominant American mythology about what the United States is; a nation of immigrants. But to talk about refugees throws that into crisis. And I’ll give you just one example. Hurricane Katrina, when that happened some years ago, we saw all these pictures of people who had been displaced. And the question rose, what do we call these people? Some people were using the term refugees. I think you told me, you yourself use the term refugees to this [crosstalk 00:09:22].

Saul Gonzalez:   … Hurricane Katrina.

Viet Nguyen: So it’s really interesting then that both President Bush at the time and Jesse Jackson, both that these people are not refugees. Possibly the only time in history, these two people have agreed with each other, but they both agreed that it is un-American to be- They said, “These people are not refugees because that’s un-American.” Jesse Jackson was racist to call African Americans, because so many of the displaced people were African Americans, to call them refugees as well. So there is something about being a refugee that really runs counter to how it is that Americans perceive themselves. It is not possible for Americans to be refugees as people somewhere else.

Saul Gonzalez: We’ll come back to that. Makeda when it comes to these issues in your field of specialization, when it comes to how refugees and immigrants have been presented in popular culture through photography, how they’ve been presented by the media, what’s the same and what’s changed over the last hundred years?

Makeda Best: Perhaps we can pull up the slide?

Saul Gonzalez: Oh yeah, sure.

Makeda Best:  And we can-

Saul Gonzalez: Hope the clicker works…

Makeda Best: We can see the kinds of images, that Americans would’ve been exposed to in the early 20th century. And the way in which, the kind of mythology that Viet referred to was formulated.

Saul Gonzalez:  So this is your classic…

Makeda Best: This is a classic-

Saul Gonzalez: Immigrant arriving in Ellis Island, going to get his name changed to something that Americans can pronounce…

Makeda Best: Yes, and they are humble, it is an orderly process. You see the ticket booth there, you see the orderly there checking the documents and it’s a very orderly process and people who are enduring it or going through it are very humble. That is not the image that we see now. We see images of refugees and immigrants as disorderly. Often we have these kind of images-

Saul Gonzalez: Is that it?

Makeda Best: Actually this photographer is rejecting the dominant image of what we see in the news, which is the invasion image, people on boats, in hordes, invading this country or another country.

Saul Gonzalez: I think of the photo that was used in the campaign in Britain to leave European Union.

Makeda Best: Exactly.

Saul Gonzalez: There was that very controversial still photo of just a line of people, who knows where they were from and where they were going.

Makeda Best:Where they were going. And something like that is very dehumanizing. These are crowds of people whom we can’t pick out individuals. And here the use of that hand in the foreground immediately brings us into the image as participants, right? We’re not necessarily spectators looking at a hoard invading us. The hand brings us into this space and if we look at these people in this boat, we can see a range of emotions being expressed there and we can pick out individuals and see their reactions to their arrival. And that’s one of the things that Tom discusses also in the film in the exhibition.

Saul Gonzalez: Going back to the Ellis island photo, that was a much more controversial issue at the time, right? We look at that photo now, and say, “Oh, with hindsight, that’s the classic American Success Story. And that man’s gonna make a new life here in America.” But at the time, wouldn’t people have looked at that photo and drawn other kinds of conclusions like, “Oh this is the invasion of America in that era.”

Makeda Best: Well, but if you look back at the photograph, it is a very orderly image, right? These are particular types of immigrants, they are pious. This is just one of many. I mean you have to understand that you’d be looking at more than just this one. But they’re often portrayed as very religious right? So they are the type of people that we quote-unquote “wanted”, right? If there are going to be people coming, they are at least religious people and they’re humble people and they have families.

Saul Gonzalez: Can you tell where there are captions on these images that would help dictate the way that the picture would be interpreted?

Makeda Best: So a caption such as this is something that is applied. The one that we see here is applied later on, but these images will be used in news stories.

Saul Gonzalez: Yes.

Makeda Best: And often by themselves. So at that time you wouldn’t necessarily, as we do today, read a story, we read a new story within a company image. At that time they would just put an image in the newspaper and it might not have any type of contextual information. So it was a different experience of looking at images as well.

Saul Gonzalez: Do you think we sometimes over romanticize how we treat new arrivals to this country? Be the classic immigrants or refugees that, in hindsight, we remember it being an orderly process. We remember the United States welcoming them with open arms, be they Italian Americans or Italians or Irish or Poles coming here or more recently people from the Middle East. But at the time it was a much more chaotic, ugly reception than we may want to think now. I think that now we look at contemporary refugees like Syrian refugees for example, I got an email from a Swiss doctor living in Italy, very educated woman. Saying you don’t understand what it is like out here. We’re being overwhelmed by these hordes. And I look back to images from the 19th century of Chinese immigrants who came here to the United States. And when you look at the political cartoon depictions of Chinese immigrants, from that time, they were horrifying. The depth of racism in American society towards the Chinese was incredible. But now because Chinese immigrants or Chinese Americans are so well assimilated it’s hard for people to believe that that fervor actually existed and that instead what must really be happening is that new immigrants must be much more terrifying than the Chinese back then. But that’s probably not true.

Makeda Best: Those attitudes are certainly there in images. If we scroll forward a little bit to the image of the orphan city, two more. This image.

Saul Gonzalez: What is this?

Makeda Best: We see something like this, the image of the “orphan city”.

Saul Gonzalez: What’s the context?

Makeda Best: The context is Armenian genocide- I was going to speak about it in just a second, but I’ll just talk about the image for a moment and call people’s attention to the fact that this is an image that portrays refugees as a population to be managed and to be controlled, right? We associate the aerial view often with the military, right? You make an aerial view in order to show your organizational skills. And so we see that here in this image of this camp, we see an aerial view. We see people who were organized into different sections. We see people uniform that are all the same. The aerial view emphasizes that and also shows the layout of the camp itself. So we do see an image of refugees as a people to be controlled and that are- It also is an image that implies a kind of criminalization, right? They are inherently criminals. They’re a population in need of some sort of management. But Asli could talk more about the context.

Saul Gonzalez: Asli, do you have anything to add to that?

Asli Bali: Well, I would only say that one thing I find striking in thinking about the current refugee crisis in the wake of the centenary of the Armenian genocide is that basically the same lands are witnessing very similar scenes, a century apart. And one way to think about the benefit, burden dichotomy that I was describing a moment ago of when we think in terms of crisis, we imagine burdens in hordes as Viet was pointing out and so on. You have to think about the sort of legacy of the genocide and its survivors and those refugee populations today, a century later. For example, sitting in Los Angeles, we know that the Armenian American community, which is 700,000 strong in the United States and who are largely descendants of those survivors are viewed as an important element of what makes the city a thriving city and are part of a mosaic that no one today would describe in the language that Viet just attributed to the Swiss correspondent.

Asli Bali: And yet you can imagine that a century ago, the framings echoed probably many of the kinds of sentiments that we see today. And it’s both distressing to see that cycle and maybe enables us to begin to have a window on thinking about refugees and their contribution a little differently. Now obviously we in this country have a advantage in thinking about this. We pride ourselves on being an immigrant nation at some level. And so the framings of migration, xenophobic as they have been most recently in our political culture, have an alternative narrative available that one can make appeal to. This is less true in Europe and I think the distress that refugees face in trying to integrate in some way and trying to flip that narrative to the benefit side of the equation is greater there.

Saul Gonzalez: Do you agree with Viet when he said that in our heads we sometimes put the immigrant on one side, the immigrant represents hard work and goodness and ready to assimilate in his or her new country. And the refugee is the more other kind of person and someone who we think of as being more suspicious and we’re more skeptical of. Do you, and I’m crudely kind of condensing what you said, but do you agree that that’s often how it plays out?

Asli Bali: In the world that I inhabit, which is largely about international law, framings and policy, strangely I think there’s a different dichotomy at play. Refugees are framed rather as people entitled to various kinds of protection and migrants are seen as people who are wrongly trying to make claims on the societies to which they arrive. And that framing is deeply troubling and we can speak more about why that is, but there’s a way in which the refugee category is deployed to exclude people from both legal benefits and from material assistance in ways that are deeply damaging. And produces a political struggle to be defined as a refugee as opposed to a migrant who represents this kind of greater threat. The other piece that I think is interesting to think about is we tend to think of refugees as not just vulnerable and needy, but sort of a population defined by its humanitarian needs, which eliminates agency, which removes their ability again to move from burden to benefit in terms of framing and produces a way of thinking about them that requires them to continually perform gratitude in a variety of ways. Which I think is also really stifling for populations-

Saul Gonzalez: We expect them always to say thank you, thank you, thank you for whatever you’ve just given them.

Asli Bali: I mean for deeply traumatized populations being asked to assimilate into quite different cultures, languages, et cetera. Also that expectation of performance is something that is very problematic, so whether all societies share a view of immigrants as deserving. I think again, those may be attributes that in this country, by virtue of our culture of thinking ourselves as an immigrant nation and imagining that to be a narrative of striving and hard work and so on, we have a slightly different framing. But at the international level, this refugee, migrant dichotomy is being deployed in a different and problematic way.

Saul Gonzalez: Hold on Viet. Makeda?

Makeda Best: Is that possibly have to do with how the UN itself literally defines refugee? In this kind of humanitarian message, in this humanitarian way?

Asli Bali:  Yeah so, certainly it has to do with the refugee convention and its history and the ways in which we thought about different legal avenues for safe mobility in the international system. Many more barriers have gone up over the course of the 20th century and now the 21st century barriers are being raised high. Fences and borders. I know that Saul mentioned that Europe represent frontline states. They’re not actually the frontline states. Greece and Italy, to some extent have become secondary frontlines. But the real front lines, for Syria, are in the region of the Middle East and there’s been a deep effort to contain the population there. So as-

Saul Gonzalez: You’re talking about Lebanon, Turkey…

Asli Bali: Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt are the five countries that by far have the largest- Even Egypt and Iraq, both impoverished countries that are going through their own political crises, or in the case of Iraq, a country that itself has produced 4 million refugees, have both absorbed more refugees than for example, Germany has. In terms of actually incorporating those populations on a sort of longterm basis within their borders. Those five countries have been the true frontline states and the response has been to limit legal avenues to continue to travel beyond them. In that universe, refugee status becomes one of the very, very few relatively safe and legal means to travel if it enables you to overcome that barrier. And under those pressures, I think we do have a different kind of international crisis. It’s a crisis of policy and law where our frameworks are not capable of coping with the numbers. Not because those numbers are uncontrollable or unmanageable or represent a challenge that should be a crisis in terms of resources, but it’s a crisis of political will and it’s a crisis of political frameworks.

Saul Gonzalez: And I guess what you’re saying is if the- First off, just in terms of the Turk context, I read like one out of every five people in Turkey right now is a refugee of some sort? Does that sound right?

Asli Bali: No, but that is true of Lebanon. So just to give you some examples, Lebanon is a country of 4 million people that has absorbed more than 1 million, 1.1 million, and that probably figure is out of date. I would guess by now probably 1.25 million Syrians. So the equivalent in the United States would be if over a course of five years, we absorbed 80 million refugees. One in five people, in Lebanon is a refugee. Turkey, which is a larger country, it’s a country of about 75 million, has absorbed the largest absolute number of refugees at over 3.5 million Syrian refugees. But that represents a smaller proportion of Turkeys, large population. So a small country like Lebanon or a small country like Jordan and all of these are of course countries in the developing world. And it bears mentioning that worldwide refugees are housed, 86% of all refugees are hosted by countries in the global south.

Asli Bali: But regardless, the demographic meaning of that of course is very different than it would be for United States or for European Union or for larger wealthier countries to absorb similar numbers.

Saul Gonzalez: Viet?

Viet Nguyen: Can I just go back to the South China Sea?

Saul Gonzalez:  Sure.

Viet Nguyen: Okay. I think that illustrates some of the things that we’ve been talking about. Right now I just saw a newspaper article saying that the United States as now accepted something like 8,000 Syrian refugees out of an allotment of 10,000. But in 1975 the US took in 150,000 Vietnamese refugees. And I think that speaks to the point that I also made that the issue of crisis is a political issue. We could absorb 150,000 refugees if we want to, but we don’t. For various kinds of political reasons. And when we’re talking about Southeast Asian refugees, like the Vietnamese, I think one thing that picture tells us that’s really powerful about the refugee story and images is that on the one hand, it could be construed as an invasion or it can be construed as a rescue.

Viet Nguyen: And that’s how the United States has chosen to see its role in relationship to refugees, especially around the Vietnam War. This is part of where the issue of gratitude comes up that I also raised. The United States sees itself as having rescued, literally hundreds of thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia, which allows the US to forget that it fought wars in the first place that helped to create those refugees. So the narrative of gratitude is a very political narrative that serves both the United States, but also really de-politicizes Southeast Asian refugees in the US who are afraid to bring up that history because they don’t want to be seen as ungrateful.

Saul Gonzalez:  I’m just curious in the audience if we can kind of see you out there. I’m sure many, remember when the Vietnamese arrived in ’75, ’76 and the like and Camp Pendleton had a huge camp there that was temporary for some months. And in Texas too, I believe and… The four camps where Arkansas, California, Pennsylvania and Florida. They had just enormous numbers. And we’re talking really, in the Syrian context right now only 10,000. And it looks like we’re going to hit that figure maybe a little bit more this year according to the papers today, but it’s just a small number compared to what we’ve absorbed in the past.

Viet Nguyen: And because Vietnamese refugees, some of them have become very successful. Americans tend to think of this as a success story in contrast to like Middle Eastern refugees for example. But you have to remember that in 1975, the majority of Americans did not want to accept Southeast Asian refugees. This was a congressional act that was forced on the American people that turned out well. But again, we’ve forgotten that in the narrative of successful refugees.

Saul Gonzalez: When does that fade away? And this is open to any- When does the refugee who doesn’t go back home stop being “the refugee”? In quotes. What do they have to do to reach that plateau or to reach that place?

Asli Bali: And that actually points to two things I think that are interesting to think about temporally. When does someone simply become an Armenian American and Vietnamese American and so on? And I think that’s a generational question. I think typically that the children that are born as second generation persons on the territory become that fully assimilated person. So in some ways the person who’s arrived almost never is able to fully shad the identity of someone who arrived as a refugee, even if they sought asylum, even if they resettled.

Asli Bali: But that’s an open question for an anthropologist to pursue. There’s a second temporal question though. There are populations in the world who are refugees for multiple generations, three, four, five, more. For example, the city of Yarmouk in Syria is a Palestinian refugee camp that ultimately has turned into a city but never stopped being a refugee camp. And the people there never gained admission. They remain Palestinian refugees. Now they’re refugees again. There were starvation conditions. There was a complete siege of that city. People were slaughtered en masse and some of the refugees that have reached Europe are Palestinian third or fourth generation refugees from Yarmouk, who are now refugees from Syria. Similarly, there’s a camp, in Kenya, the Dadaab camp where-

Saul Gonzalez: I’ve been there.

Asli Bali: You have three, four generations of people still framed as refugees. And the question there, the challenge to people who are working in the refugee framework is, how long can you frame in the ways that Viet described, a population as to be rescued or subject to humanitarian assistance as opposed to in need of, first of all, direct resettlement and political identity. And secondly, development assistance, meeting an investment in their ability to be self reliant and integrated in economies that for the moment continue to exclude them. And the framing of refugee across multiple generations helps basically wall those communities off from that possibility.

Saul Gonzalez: And Makeda, do you think in terms of how we portray immigrants/refugees, that we’re doing a good job now in terms?

Makeda Best: Well, I think that the photographers in the exhibition, and we can go to any of the images, maybe go back to Iturbide, go back one. I think that the images in the exhibition are actively trying to address a lot of the ideas that we’ve just discussed. The image of the refugee is passive as a victim. All of these photographers are actively trying to overturn a lot of those stereotypes. We see in a photograph like this, Iturbide, photographing men waiting for a train. But notice, so this is a landscape that is kind of strewn obviously with lots of debris.

Makeda Best: And these men standing, he’s posing them in front of this tree in order to suggest a sense of resilience for these people. And also to suggest that they are not victims here that they are actively trying to formulate a life for themselves. I think you see that throughout the images in the exhibition. These photographers have absorbed a lot of the debates about how photography shapes our understanding of political events. And they all are examples of photographers trying to work to actively change the way in which photographers have portrayed these types of populations in the past. In many ways they are working in a way that a lot of photographers don’t have luxury of doing, which is, commissioned to do a project.

Makeda Best: And also spending lots of time with their subjects. I should say-

Saul Gonzalez: Then that gets into other issues of leaking off to newspapers now and the media…

Makeda Best: Exactly, exactly. The media. This is not necessarily the first time that the UNHCR has partnered with an organization to produce a photographic body of work. Actually in 1995, a book called Exodus was produced by the UNHCR, alongside a group called SIGNUM which was a group of photographers just dedicated to documenting the lives of refugees. And they produced a book with UNHCR that was purposefully trying to explore life refugees through photography and use photography as a tool. So UNHCR has done this before and they recognize how photography, done in different ways, in new and interpretive ways, can really speak to audiences, and teach them new things about this experience.

Saul Gonzalez: You know what strikes me, as a reporter and as somebody whose job is to communicate the stories of, at least in the context of where we are in Los Angeles, I’m always struck by just how poor of a job we do collectively in explaining these new communities that have arrived. It’s almost like they live in separate universes. Whether it’s a more established community like the Vietnamese American community now or the Armenian community, even older or newer arrivals. And I’m just wondering if you all have any reaction to that in terms of just how refugees are covered in contemporary coverage by the media?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that most Americans don’t know a whole lot about newer communities, refugees or immigrants of any kind. And that’s because American society as a whole is structured to ignore these people. So I grew up in the Vietnamese refugee community, obviously and know it very intimately. And then I wrote this novel, The Sympathizer comes out and so many Americans who are not Vietnamese said to me, “We never knew about this perspective.” Even people who live next to Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese communities.

Viet Nguyen: So the entire way in which American society is structured is geared not to pay attention to people who don’t have power, whether it’s refugees or just poor people. Right? And so there’s so much work that needs to be done on the part of those of us who are scholars or storytellers or artists or whatever who are working on these communities. But the odds are stacked against us because we don’t have access to A, B, C. Or we don’t have access to Hollywood to get these stories out there. And so the stories of everybody else will overwhelm the stories of the unwanted.

Makeda Best: If you go to the Tom Stoddart portrait there you see that this is- I’m sorry, Martin Schoeller. You see that this is one of the things that Schoeller was trying to do, just to put a face to people, to show us that the people that we might see on the street or whatever, there’s a story behind them. He purposely creates these images in a way. You’ve all probably seen maybe portraits of Obama or any of the other politicians or celebrities that he’s photographed and he works consistently in the same way in order to create what he calls a democratic platform. His images treat everyone the same way in order to speak to the kind of the common humanity that we share, but also to insist that there are stories behind each of our faces, obviously beyond each of our public presentation.

Viet Nguyen:  One of the contradictions I think is that we want to argue that refugees have agency, right? That they have power, they’ve made certain kinds of decisions and all that is true. But almost by definition, someone who’s a refugee is excluded from these types of things. So Tom, what’s his-

Makeda Best: Martin Schoeller.

Viet Nguyen: Martin Schoeller, he’s not a refugee he’s taking this photograph and he wants us to empathize, but it’s not the refugees themselves who are doing this kind of work. So by the time that a refugee can actually do something like this, like make a movie or, or write a story, we’re no longer refugees. So we’re already distanced from the population that we once were. So almost by his structural condition, refugees, despite the fact that they have the agency to get on that boat and risk their lives, they don’t have the power to tell their own stories. They’re doing other things. They’re trying to survive and trying to get there and that first dollar.

Makeda Best: But one of the fascinating things that we’re seeing now is that refugees are telling their stories through cell phones. They’re making photographs, they’re doing their own documentation, so we are beginning to see them tell their own stories in their limited time, obviously. But people aren’t doing that through cell phone photography. But it also has to do with distribution. How do those stories get out? And how do we find, we tend to settle upon them much later after they’d been done. But we are seeing those stories start to emerge-

Saul Gonzalez: I should say, by the way, that I have been on the coast of Morocco with people trying to cross into Spain. They’ve come to Morocco from other parts of West Africa, Nigeria, Nigeria. They have nothing. Nothing. Maybe a change of clothes. But a lot of them have cell phones, and know how to replace a SIM card and things like that.

Asli Bali: I was just going to say that I think social media and the ubiquity of cell phones has made images more, democratizing is not quite the right word, but it has meant that there is a capacity to seize on narratives through the eyes of refugees even as they travel. There’s an example today, some of you may have seen in the New York Times of a Syrian piano man, which is a story in which the refugee both has footage that he took during his journey and footage of himself in the home country and upon arrival in Berlin in this case, and describes what that journey looked like and how he’s transformed himself. While at the same time in the accompanying a story, he laments the construction that he feels confined to offer of being a good refugee in an attempt to flip narratives that have taken hold in Germany about the kind of threat represented by Syrian refugees.

Asli Bali: He feels the need to tell a story and get it out and he’s succeeding. Obviously to the extent that it’s getting before New York Times readers and clearly many German audiences as a pianist. He’s performing the story that he wants to tell of the good refugee, but it’s fraud. One other example of the use of social media, and this goes back to something Makeda was saying with respect to UNHCR. Another good example of humanitarian or human rights organizations deploying images is that Alan Kurdi case, which is an image that’s included in the exhibit here where you have a very young woman, Turkish photo journalist Nilüfer Demir who takes this picture for the Dogan news agency. Very few of our audience here today will habitually have seen an image in the Dogan news agency’s circulation, but Peter Bouckaert, who is the head of the emergencies team for Human Rights Watch, was present at the beach at the time and also saw the image that she had taken and retweeted it or tweeted it and then it got retweeted dramatically around the world.

Asli Bali:  And so you had Human Rights Watch, which had been attempting to get a message out about the tragedy that was taking place in the Aegean with these drowning children and families managing to frame a narrative, which the image itself becomes of course viral and comes to speak for itself. I think disconnected from the context in which it was launched into social media in the first place. But when you trace these stories, you see how images are being harnessed by refugees, by those agencies that are seeking to act on their behalf. And for a time at least it certainly shifted the narrative in Europe about the arriving tens of thousands of Syrians over the summer of 2015.

Saul Gonzalez: And this is the terrible photo of the three year old washed ashore on the beach.

Asli Bali: That’s right. And that image, which by the way, his corpse washed up on the beach literally, just kilometers from where I spent every summer of my childhood. And in an area where European tourists would come all the time for resort. And so it has a kind of resonance because of its location beyond even what we might appreciate here in the United States for a European audience, in terms of places that they might know as holiday places becoming essentially a graveyard of infants. But also interestingly, I think it’s worth noting that image shows us one picture and has the risk of occluding a broader picture that is a numbing statistic, which is four infant and child deaths in the Mediterranean a day. This summer, which is up, that’s twice the number that was the case in 2015.

Saul Gonzalez: Does that disturb you? Every crisis gets its image or two attached to it, right? It’s almost inevitable. You think of the Spanish civil war and that republican soldier who gets shot and [inaudible 00:37:31] captures him as he falls to the ground. Does that disturb you, that like along with the attention and focuses on the issue, does distribute you that that photo in particular got so much attention or is there a drawback that we may not realize? Anyone?

Asli Bali: Well, I think that what’s different now is the number of images that we see and the speed at which we see them. So we referenced the Spanish civil war, that photograph was the only one of its kind for years. And so we had all this time to kind of meditate on these images. You can choose other conflicts, Vietnam or whatever it is, these images we have all this time to kind of sit with them and to react to them. And what I think is fascinating now is the speed at which things come out and things disappear.

Saul Gonzalez: Right. You can go online and see millions of images of, of families trying to cross the Mediterranean now, that were shot last week or last month. But you know, you still get that one image that just just explodes beyond that in that the globe starts talking about. And I’m just wondering, I think the positives are recognizable because it focuses attention, but I’m just wondering if there are any drawbacks to that.

Makeda Best: Once an image goes viral the photographer loses control. So it doesn’t really matter what the intention of the photographer is. So I think back to the Vietnam war and everybody has seen these pictures, right? There’s an Eddie Adams photograph of the General Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong suspect in the head. And Eddie Adams forever regretted that photograph because he said it was actually justified, but the wat that the world remembers that image is not. And then I think of, Nick Ut’s photograph of the girl burned by napalm. And that image is now literally, is figuratively burned in everyone’s memory. And the positive part of that is that it served a really important role in shaping public opinion about the war, global public opinion.

Makeda Best: But the drawback is that the Vietnamese partially through that photograph are forever fixed in the memories of Americans and people all over the world as victims. And that is really crippling, kind of story that is really hard for Vietnamese people to get out of. And that’s why you have Vietnamese people in Vietnam and in the United States reiterating this claim Vietnam is not a war. It’s a country. And they feel like they have to keep on saying it because in the West, when you say Vietnam, everybody automatically thinks war. And that’s what that photograph does, right? And that’s-

Saul Gonzalez: The 60’s soundtrack in the background because everybody’s seen the movies, right?

Makeda Best:  And you see these common tropes. It’s images of vulnerability. The young girl, obviously. Images of mothers and children, images that resonate, because of the Christian origins of this country. These certain themes constantly come up in these photographs, that people respond to.

Saul Gonzalez: Anything to add? I’d like to make a page turn here.

Asli Bali: Well, one thing I know Peter Bouckaert experienced, the Human Rights Watch emergencies, director that chose to tweet that picture, was a backlash of people saying that there’s something almost pornographic about disseminating this image. And his response was that what was truly grotesque was the set of policies that were forcing people into these dinghies and the decision on the part of Europe to militarize the agin to exclude them and so on and so forth. So the policies that lent themselves to this, and I mean I think that is a place where real tension lies. On the one hand as Viet points out an image has the capacity to fully shape the narrative. If it becomes viral, if it’s seared into our minds, it just will shape the narrative of how we understand the policies.

Asli Bali: And in this case, it indicted a policy that allowed children to be, drowned in the seas around Europe rather than allowing them to cross. And that caused a major shift for that particular moment. But in the broader framing the idea that Makeda pointed out that this is about a framing of vulnerability gets lost at some point and instead it just comes to stand in for the identity of a population. And that’s when you have the phenomenon that Viet is describing that shifts from the immediate crisis that these individuals face to a framing of a whole society as a crisis. And that’s where I think you end up with the problems that we’ve been discussing.

Saul Gonzalez: I should also note that the photos here are on display and it’s to your right immediately when you enter into the exhibit area and it really hits you in the- It really does, I mean there’s just so much power to it-

Asli Bali: I would just say that I do think that, these photographers in the exhibition and many photographers today, do try to actively address their own position of, as we have this saying, privilege is being able to speak for these- The problematic aspect of them speaking for an experience that’s not theirs. A lot of photographers tried to do something about that. And I do think that a lot of photographers in this exhibition are trying to also portray something that you don’t see in the media. There are obviously aspects of each of the images that are problematic, right?

Saul Gonzalez: These images being just sort of normal life, and… The ordinary.

Asli Bali: Each of these photographers are trying to address, like we can go forward to, maybe…

Saul Gonzalez: Pass her the clicker. Forgot.

Asli Bali: No, that’s okay. It’s hard to-

Saul Gonzalez: Tell me where?

Asli Bali:  Keep going. Keep going. Something like this. Diop, a fashion photographer, doing this kind of new imagery, taking a very common image that we see in quote unquote refugee photography of a mother and a child. But here he’s doing something fascinating which is that he is referencing a whole history of African studio photography and self portraiture, right? So when these people sit for his image, they are actually referencing this tradition of self portraiture, in Africa. And in that way showing that they are agents of their own creation. Right? That they are individuals. So you see these photographers actively trying to, do something that we don’t commonly see. Diop is taking quite a challenge himself, he doesn’t usually work this way. And he came up with this idea using blue in particular. Using color.

Asli Bali: The choice of color in a lot of these images is important as well. Color is not something you see in this subject matter because color also connotates life. It connotates action. We’re used to black and white, which connotates crisis and drama and the past and horror. Right?

Saul Gonzalez:  And it’s a smile.

Asli Bali:  And it’s a smile.

Saul Gonzalez:  It’s a grim visage we’re looking at.

Asli Bali: This seems to be their own portrait, not a portrait that he made.

Saul Gonzalez: Okay. We only have a few minutes left in this conversation and we can’t, we simply have to address the United States in 2016 and this election year. And the conversation about immigrants, refugees, we have a presidential candidate, I think you know who he is. You might’ve heard of him. Who has said he could look into the eyes of a Syrian refugee child and say, I’m paraphrasing, “You cannot come into this country. Sorry.” I mentioned I was at the political conventions in Cleveland. I heard a lot of people talking about refugees being a front for jihadis coming in, refugees being a way for diseases to get into this country. What do you just- And this is open to anyone, what do you just make of the tenor of this conversation about refugees this year versus years past? Go for it.

Asli Bali: Maybe I’ll start with just returning to where we began, which is this crisis framing really helps entrench these kinds of narratives. By describing a crisis for starters, you can absolutely distort the facts. You can almost throw out anything. We could have said 60 million, we could have said 250 million. It would have been plausible at some level. You can say, for example, there’s a crisis at the southwestern border. Mexicans are flooding in as repeatedly, the same presidential candidate has said, when in fact it’s the case, there’s a net out migration of the Mexican community from the United States. It doesn’t matter. Because if the crisis is something that we all accept as the best way to understand this, and then the question is what solutions can we come up with? Walls, barriers, exclusion and so forth. I think it really points to the need- Obviously, crisis models are constantly deployed for political, strategic purposes and we’re witnessing that and there’s nothing new about that.

Asli Bali: I don’t think there are many shocking things about our current political moment, but the deployment of crisis language and the depiction of migrants and refugees as viruses, as threat and so on resonates with our ordinary politics unfortunately. So that isn’t a piece to my mind that’s extraordinary. It’s just the depth of the toxic xenophobia that we see and it’s not only in the United States, it’s really in the west. And perhaps even globally. There I think we do have this challenge of can we start thinking about global migration? It’s worth noting that the future trends suggest that migration patterns are only going to increase. Mobility is going to increase largely as a result of climate change more so even than conflict. And we know this now, we can address it by trying to come up with rational policies or we can do the kind of ad hoc dance that has generated the toxic politics that we’ve seen in the United States and Europe on a continuing basis. And I think that that would be a very poor choice. Our current political moment helps illustrate just how ugly a choice it can be.

Saul Gonzalez: Makeda?

Makeda Best: I think the current climate reminds me that images matter and that our passive consumption of images of immigrants and migrants and refugees as hordes of nameless, faceless people kind of invading, that those images even though we may passively consume them, that they have an impact on a lot of people and that it’s important for us to seek out and to support other venues that are showing other representations. Our everyday media does not have the space or the time supposedly to show images like what we see. You might find it on a special section in New York Times called the Lynn’s blog, but that’s kind of a special area, right? But how do we find the space in our everyday media to look more deeply and differently at these types of issues?

Saul Gonzalez: Viet, anything to say?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I go back to history. I mean all those things that you say that Donald Trump is saying that Syrian refugees or other refugees will do. Bring in contamination, be a religious threat, be a mortal threat to the United States. If we go back historically again and look at just even the Chinese, those were the same things that were being said about the Chinese in the 19th century that they would bring vice, evil, they would destroy the American family, they would undermine the American working man and that they were considered completely antithetical to American culture. So I really don’t believe that simply because Syrians are Muslim somehow they are different than other populations that have come to the US before.

Viet Nguyen: Another thing about history that I think is important is that typically, Europe and the United States have played a major role in shaping the historical conditions that have produced refugees in the first place. And you go back far enough in history, the role that the US has played and Europe has played in the shaping of the Middle East. That has led to the refugee crisis. But we don’t like to think about those kinds of things. And the fact that we’re supposedly in economic crisis today, if you believe that. The crisis of globalization and of Neo Liberalism. We are putting the blame for the economic fallout of those things on refugees, when refugees are only themselves the product of those very same kinds of economic decisions that the US and Europe have made.

Saul Gonzalez: Let me challenge you very quickly and this will wrap it up. Does anyone have any sympathy for the argument that a country, no matter how wealthy can really only sustain so many people coming in over a certain period of time? Certainly that’s maybe the larger conversation now at least in terms of western countries in Germany. Is there anything to that and the concern that you let one person in, in this outflow and that guy decides to put on a suicide vest, there is a risk there. No? Are they completely just loony to even have these concerns.

Asli Bali: Any society may have a sort of threshold of what it can do in terms of resources, in terms of its political contexts, social, demographic, economic and so on. But I think the to look at here is that we need an international framework of responsibility sharing. The current international framework places the responsibility for any crisis on those who are most proximate to it. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon had far less to do with the circumstances that have led to the unraveling of Syria than the United States for the reasons Viet was pointing to earlier. If we look at the three largest refugee flows that we’ve seen over the last 10 years, they’ve been out of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. So it’s one thing to say that societies may have a threshold, in order to acknowledge and embrace that, one has to come up with a framework of sharing responsibilities that doesn’t place the burden entirely on the immediate front line states.

Asli Bali: Had there been a transfer of resources to those countries, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt commensurate with what the UNHCR was calling for, as an example, you probably wouldn’t have had the onward migration that you saw en masse into Europe, but until that onward migration occurred, there was no migration crisis. There was no acknowledgement that there was a refugee crisis associated with Syria until the Syrians started showing up on the shores of Europe. And so long as that determines resource allocations in the international system, the question isn’t “Do individual countries have a threshold that or Germany or the United States”, but where is the breaking point for the global south?

Asli Bali: To what extent can a Lebanon of 4 million people absorb another million and another million after that? Because Greece and Italy need to raise their barriers very high. If that’s the world we want to live in of fences, then there’s going to have to be a massive resource transfer to enable people to survive because these aren’t people who are traveling to make a better life. These are people that are traveling to stay alive and so long as the conditions for them to be able to maintain basic subsistence are absent from the places they can first travel to, they will continue traveling and questions like, what’s the threshold are not going to be the determinant of whether they keep trying to move.

Saul Gonzalez: All right. I’d like to thank all three of you for the fantastic hour of conversation about so many issues related to American refugees. And of course the Annenberg space for photography and this fabulous exhibition that sparked this conversation and so many others, so many other conversations like this are part of this exhibition. Again, if you haven’t seen it, I hope you do walk over there and see it and you come back and you talk to others about these issues. Certainly this is the year to do it in the United States. As we face, elections in November. Emma, I’m sorry, are we taking questions and answers?

Speaker 5:  Good evening, everybody.

Saul Gonzalez: I guess we are.

Speaker 5:  We are taking questions. So that concludes our lecture for the evening. Brings us to Q and A. There will be two people with microphones, myself and Kirk to my left. If you have a question, please raise your hand if your question is selected, try and make your way to the end of the aisle so we don’t have to reach over your neighbor. Remember, this is being recorded so if you can please talk clearly into the microphone. First question? We’ve got a question right over here to the right.

Speaker 6: I’d just like to know why a large segment of the world is, seems to be exempt from a consideration of all these factors you’ve discussed tonight. Like Asia. How many refugees or immigrants are heading towards Asia? Are they welcome? Are they not? Japan, I know doesn’t take anybody. Vietnam, China, South Korea. Why aren’t they on the news?

Saul Gonzalez: Saudi Arabia. If you were to take a very wide scope of West Asia? Okay, Kuwait. Anyone like to tackle that?

Asli Bali: Well, I can start with a point you made about the gulf countries. So the gulf countries make the claim that they actually host a very large populations of expatriated Syrians, Palestinians and others, but not as refugees. And they don’t recognize resettlement as such. Also for what it’s worth, they do pay- So unlike China, unlike some of the other countries that were raised by the actual questioner, they do pay into a system of trying to at least create some resources. But anyway, that isn’t to excuse the Gulf countries or any of the other parts of the world that have absolutely not participated there. Only 26 countries. I participate in the UNHCR’s resettlement program. One of the reasons that people don’t head to other countries, for example, in Asia, for starters, they do.

Asli Bali: So as you may know, there was a major crisis, again, of people fleeing in boats, who were leaving Myanmar, Renga Muslims and also Bangladeshi Muslims. And they were basically trying to go anywhere that they could land. Anywhere in Asia, they would have been willing to go. So in the moment of extremists around violence, people flee to their immediate neighbors. They don’t try to go to the United States or Europe. They try to go to Lebanon, they try to go to Thailand, they try to go to the place that is nearest where they hope to find some kind of safe haven. But the truth is that those are the societies that are already in the global south at the breaking point in terms of their economies managing a set of very challenging social and economic circumstances in which the likelihood that a large refugee population arriving is going to be able to integrate and maintain lives where they can actually have any hope of meaningful longterm subsistence is more limited than in the countries that have larger resources.

Asli Bali: So understandably the motivations of populations that are fleeing in an attempt to secure the conditions to stay alive are to move to places where those resources are more likely to be available. That isn’t to say that refugee populations from Asia are flowing to Europe or the United States. They’re trying to go to Australia. And at the beginning Saul described what kind of constraints they’re facing, in that attempt. But in any case, every region of the world has a set of destination points and almost always the destination points are best described in terms of their relatively much greater resources. Why those other countries aren’t being required to join the resettlement program is one of the questions that, what I am suggesting, a responsibility sharing framework in which international responsibilities for what our global crises are more fairly allocated. That would have to be part of that conversation for South Korea, for China, for Japan, for Saudi Arabia, for a whole host of countries that have relatively large economies and relatively small refugee populations.

Saul Gonzalez: So although people may not settle there, they could do more, they’re wealthy enough, obviously and prosperous enough to play more of a role in solving this issue. Yeah. Okay. Am I calling the questioner?

Speaker 5: We have another question right here to the right end.

Speaker 7: Hello? Thank you for coming. I’m hoping you could talk a little bit about the violence in Central America and Mexico and also why that’s not being framed as a refugee humanitarian crisis in the same way when you think about the cartels. And also related to photography, I often wonder, getting back to like violence and so-called gratuitous photos. When does something become pituitous versus actually showing the reality of what is happening? I think I worry sometimes that people here don’t really understand the level of violence that’s happening. And maybe if we saw these photos more regularly on media, it would actually wake people up a little bit more.

Makeda Best: One of the fascinating things about the photography of Graciela Iturbide, is the way in which she addresses the history of violence in Mexico while at the same time telling the story of the migrants. If you look at her images, she’s often staging her subjects in very specific locations. And if you read her captions, you see her reference a particular historical event. So one of the things she’s trying to do in her photography is to remind us of the history of that violence that migrants have faced and that could possibly endure and what it takes to do what with these individuals do. So that history is there I think it’s being interpreted in ways that respect as what you’re saying this issue of gratuitous images of violence, which is very common in images of conflict in Central America and Mexico. Lots of bloodshed. She’s trying to do something different by referencing this history without actually showing that gratuitous violence.

Asli Bali: If I could offer one additional thought, the refugee convention frames those who are entitled to legal protection and material assistance when they flee violence around a well-founded fear of persecution that is connected to five recognized categories, which are religion, race, political opinion, nationality and membership in a social group. And the challenges for those who flee violence, like criminal gang violence and so forth, to find a way to fit that framing. And historically they have not been found to fit the framing so they’re not, although they’re fleeing persecution, they’re not fleeing persecution that entitles them to legal protection under the narrow framing of the refugee convention. One way to understand the challenge that I’ve been trying to describe to the international frameworks that are available is that we have a basic instinct and understanding that anybody that is fleeing and has a fear of persecution and violence that is a risk to their life is entitled to some form of protection.

Asli Bali: There are two possible ways to rethink our framing. One would be to reopen the current refugee convention for negotiation. Most experts agree that if we did that it would probably involve a scaling back of protections instead of an expansion of protections. And I think what probably your question is motivated by a desire to see an expansion of protections. So a second strategy is to develop, sort of what is called soft law or guidelines or guidance that suggests that the refugee convention remain as it is, but that subsidiary forms of protection be adopted by countries. The United States, for example, has something called temporary protected status, which is a kind of protection from being returned that does not involve asylum or permanent refugee status, but nonetheless offers protection for individuals that are fleeing a circumstance of deep instability. And because as I mentioned, the sources of global forced migration are as much natural disaster or will be in the near future and climate change as violent conflict, the urgent need to come up with a framework of broader subsidiary protections that entitle anybody who is at risk of their life, should they be returned to a place, to protection is acute.

Asli Bali: So one thing is to develop that political will and that involves individuals, especially in a powerful country like the United States, which is convening a summit around the UN General Assembly meetings in September in New York on the question of forced migration and population mobility. That conference could take up this topic of subsidiary protections, but given the political climate we’ve been discussing in our country at the moment, there seems little appetite for a groundswell of support for those arguments in the United States. And without that leadership, it’s difficult to come up with a broader framework of expanded protections.

Saul Gonzalez: I would just very quickly, I would also assume that when we think about migrants from Central America, we think there’s issues of how that gets commingled with just coming purely for economic reasons and to find a better life. But if a Central America gang member is trying to kill you, you’re just as dead as if it’s a Syrian soldier. Right? I mean you face the same degree of lethality there in the world you live in. So, but it’s a good point. Next question? Left side. Third row?

Speaker 8: Yeah. I’d want to follow up on that last question on what Professor Bali said because, I think it’s something that a lot of us don’t even realize. Last fall, I was one of a group of attorneys that went to a place called Dilley, Texas where women and children from Central America have been held there. When I came back to Los Angeles, most people said, “Oh, did you go to Europe and help the Syrians or not?” I said, “No, you know, we have refugees crossing the border into the United States.” Just a couple of things since we’re at the Annenberg. Number one, I thought it was interesting.

Speaker 8: They didn’t let us take cameras or cell phones in, so we couldn’t actually take any pictures of the people. There were a few people that got freed afterwards and I took pictures of them and posted it. But I think that’s one of the reasons that maybe, it doesn’t get as much press coverage as it should. The other thing is what the professor said, there’s only five basises for asylum. I mean, the fact that you’re going to die or some gang member is after you, doesn’t necessarily mean that you qualify for asylum in the United States. But having interviewed dozens of the women there, the typical story I heard was this. Outside of their homes, they would start a business, they would have a restaurant, they would sell clothing, they would do something like this.

Speaker 8:  So let’s say they started a restaurant and some guy would come there for lunch every couple of days and they knew he was a gang member. But he’d say something like, “Isabella, your little five year old girl, she’s so cute, and, I always see her going down this boulevard and then she turns left to go to school. Oh, and by the way, we have a little organization that’s trying to help the community and you’re doing pretty well with this restaurant. Maybe if you could donate $100 a month or something, that would be good.” And they knew that that meant that their daughter’s life was in danger if they didn’t come up with that $100 or whatever it was a month. They cross over to the United States. They don’t try to sneak in. They immediately look for the first border patrol agent, turn themselves in and then they end up in these camps.

Speaker 8:  Some of them at the time I went there, some of them had been there for over a year in the camps. And I think it’s something that we really should be cognizant of because they’re right here in this country. And nobody’s afraid that Central American women are gonna go into a bus and blow everybody up or something like that. So it’s purely are we going to provide safety for these people or not? They’re not a threat to the US.

Saul Gonzalez:  Anyone? Response to that? No? I guess it just relates to what you were saying earlier in terms of how people are described and categorized and the need to revisit that. And the fact that I think with this woman who opened the store and people like her, I think the issue is there is a recognition that she could be just as dead by that gang member who kills her versus the Syrian child who’s killed by a soldier of Assad. Right? It’s the same level of threat and the feeling of I have to leave this place because I could die and my kids could die. Even if it’s not a strict, even if the international community doesn’t see that as a civil war or you know, an event that’s worthy of refugee status anyway.

Viet Nguyen: Oh, I think one thing to say is that the idea that these camps exist and that Americans don’t know that they exist for the most part is not unusual. I think most countries have these kinds of camps, these detention camps, border camps, these places where people can live in a semi-permanent or even permanent or even and multi generational state of statelessness, is something that’s unknown to most citizens of many countries. But yet together they comprise, as you were mentioning from the UNHCR report, the 24th largest country in the world. And so that’s actually structurally a really crucial part of many people’s existences. But if you’re a citizen, you’re invested in not knowing that your country has these places where people can just be put away.

Saul Gonzalez: Well, in addition to that, we also don’t understand how our immigration courts system work where you don’t necessarily get representation at all and you have five and six and seven year olds who go into that courtroom all by themselves with no lawyer at their side. Anyway, a different topic. Next question.

Speaker 5:  We’ve got our following question to the right front.4

Speaker 9: Thank you for being here today and sharing in this very, very important topic. I wrote a screenplay about World War II refugees, and put a very human face on the story of the refugee. And they went through very difficult circumstances and ended up in China. In Shanghai. To follow up your question about China. My question pertains to how do we light a fire up under our nation to- And it includes the story of the St Louis. I don’t know if anyone’s familiar with the St Louis where we turned away a boatload. [crosstalk 01:07:02]. People who went back to face the atrocities there. What can we do as citizens to continue this conversation? How do we get a room full of people having this conversation that will perpetuate change?

Saul Gonzalez:  I’m gonna turn that over to much smarter people.

Asli Bali:  There is almost no substantial organized political voice in the United States arguing for the United States to resettle larger proportions of refugees. I think that would be the starting point of lobbying your elected representatives for that. And because really the numbers that the United States are willing to take in are just such an absurdly small as we’ve just discussed, 60 million people or 65 million people are in circumstances of displacement. Let’s put it this way. And we’re prepared to take 10,000, 15,000 in crisis alleviation mode. That’s really, an absurdly low figure clearly. And that’s the figure that’s taken on the Syrian case. So one could make an argument for broadening protective status to, for example, extend to Central Americans. I think the story that we just heard is typical. And yet at the time, and again, this is what I mean by the crisis framing encouraging a kind of distortion, there was actually a description of a crisis at the southwestern border, of Central American arrivals.

Asli Bali: The numbers, I mean, the notion that those numbers represented a crisis is absolutely absurd in a country with the size of population and economy of the United States, but they actually became an entrenched national framing that authorized extraordinary action to deport basically summarily huge numbers of people. In order at each step to resist the political tendency to do the expedient thing in the face of these framings requires organizing. Even if it just means organizing yourself to contact your elected representatives, but even better would be obviously organizing together with your friends, community members, people who attend events like this one in order to engage in more meaningful political action. But basically it’s a grassroots story of religious communities and civic associations and others pressing a case. Because at the top of our leadership at the moment, the political climate we’ve described several times now on this panel is one that is really not propitious for an improvement in the kind of responses our country, and it is a leading country both in the causes of producing the kinds of instability that have generated the crises that we see, but also it’s a leading country in authoring the frameworks that determine how we respond to them internationally. So it’s I think a heightened obligation for citizens here to act.

Saul Gonzalez: If I could add, talk to immigrants, talk to refugees. It relates to what I was saying earlier. We live in these parallel universes here in a city like Los Angeles were people who were born abroad, who come to this place in all kinds of different situations. We don’t know them at all. And I think it’s just really important just to get outside and talk to folks. I mean that’s a no brainer to me. And then also talk to people who think the next immigrant could be the next jihadi and they’re obviously wrong. And people who, there’s a lot of Americans, I’ve been with them in recent months or a lot of Americans who just have some pretty extreme views about the threat immigrants and refugees pose to this country. And I think conversations with them are equally important.

Saul Gonzalez: So we’re not in our separate political camps as well, and that may be even a more important conversation to have than with an immigrant or refugee. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.

Asli Bali: But it’s also important to support cultural organizations such as this are telling these stories because people do listen when people show up. So lobby stories are being told in many ways in many places, but people don’t come. People don’t buy the book or people don’t buy the magazine or they don’t support it. So a very easy way is to actually support these things.

Saul Gonzalez: Yes, yes. But I would guess there probably aren’t a lot of Donald Trump supporters in this audience, I must say. And I think it’s important that, maybe there are, but I think it’s important to reach out to those who you don’t agree with and talk to them about these issues and talk to them about the future of this country and the place of outsiders in this country. And if you are Donald Trump supporters, my apologies. I know- And you should give your views back. Anyway… Left side last row.

Carlina S: Hi, and thank you for this very interesting talk. I have to say first, I’m very grateful to see that this was a sold out conversation and to see how much interest there is on refugees in our city. My name is Carlina Scheinfeld. I’m the chair of the Refugee Forum of Los Angeles. And I wanted to respond to your question in terms of what can we do here locally. People don’t know that we have one of the largest humanitarian, community of agencies here working in Los Angeles and the Refugee Forum has 21 agencies at this time that include not only resettlement agencies but also legal service providers in LAUSD, LAPD and other in school districts as well. I just want to point out that if you’re interested, definitely go see the exhibit because it’s very educational, but then also reach out to the agencies if you want to volunteer, if you want to participate in additional activities. In September there is going to be happening in, welcoming week starts on September 16 so look up for information on that, about events around the city and then world refugee day every year around June 20th. There’s also a lot of public events, so I hope people stay informed and engage in. Thank you for being here.

Saul Gonzalez: Yeah, it’s certainly a ton of organizations with the Central American communities. There’s CHIRLA, there’s CARECEN, there’s Catholic charities that works a lot with that community. So no shortage of great groups here in Southern California that help the refugee and immigrant population.

Speaker 5: All right, folks, that concludes our lecture for the evening. If you guys can all join me in thanking the panelists.

Category: Interviews

 

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