Home Depot: Reliable Spaces to and From Familiar Places, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Dec

A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended. Ian McEwan

He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none. Madeline Miller

One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone. Shannon Alder

There can be few situations more fearful than breaking down in darkness on the highway leading to Casablanca. I have rarely felt quite so vulnerable or alone. Tahir Shah

The UN spent the week meeting in far-flung corners on issues that in some key ways would have fit nicely together.  In New York, a special event called to mind the special needs and special potentials of persons with disabilities.  Despite the fact that as many as 1 billion of our species has a recognized (if not always recognizable) disability, we continue to organize the world around those who can demonstrate more than a modicum of mobility, emotional restraint or sensory normalcy.   Even more insidious, we still look upon persons with disability through the lens of that disability, as though they could somehow be reduced to the “thing they don’t have,” as if “normal” was the objective to be aspired to rather than placing the unique set of skills one does possess – sometimes in abundance – into productive use in the world.

The failure to accommodate persons who don’t, through no fault of their own, conform to some arbitrary notion of “normalcy” has implications beyond access to education, employment or social services.   Indeed at two major events “off campus,” the reluctance to factor difference into our planning was on display, specifically our reticence to recognize that our current, severe and common vulnerabilities provide distinct opportunities and challenges for persons who perhaps “can’t keep up” in one sense but can contribute much in another.

These major events – one in Poland (on climate change) and the other in Morocco (on migration) could well have been organized in tandem as the failure to satisfactorily address one crisis directly exacerbates the other.  While there was some attempt to address issue linkages, especially in some of the Poland side events, it isn’t clear that the international community completely grasps the degree to which severe storms and unprecedented drought (not to mention bombs and landmines) drive often dangerous and chaotic migration flows of persons who can no longer make a go of it in the places they call home.  The Global Compact on Migration, which is scheduled to be signed by many high officials as this essay is being posted, is not completely silent on climate and disability challenges, but neither does it recognize the degree to which our planet has become a starting gate of sorts for all kinds of persons racing (if they can) towards borders and makeshift ports in the hope of escaping the effects of lakes turned to sand, schools and hospitals reduced to rubble.

If they can: There is no wheelchair access at the embarkation points.   There is no foam to brace the falls from clumsy ascents of border walls on legs that simply cannot hold the weight.   There is no security for those forced to run from border guards but who cannot see the flimsy trails to freedom or safety.  In every respect the desperate path to the possibility of a better life is made more difficult, more treacherous, more frustrating, more dangerous by “difference.”

And while the Global Compact’s concern is with establishing consensus principles of migration governance (which it does well by the way), it is less focused on persons for whom migration is essentially coerced, driven by circumstance at least as much as by voluntary will.   On one afternoon during an exposure in Marrakesh with Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM), an event on the margins of the Global Compact signing, we sat with a courtyard full of (mostly men) who had fled from violence and economic uncertainty in several African countries, but primarily from the Anglophone regions of Cameroon where I have spent some good time in the past.  The circumstances in the courtyard were dire, but the people themselves were not.   While they waited for blankets and basic provisions with a stoicism that occasionally leaked anger and frustration we talked about the places they had come from, the places they hoped to go, the skills they sought to share, and the myriad of obstacles that seemed to block every point of potential access.

The mood in the courtyard, despite the remarkable efforts of the local church staff, was subdued, even resigned.  Were it not for the few children running around, making up their games, the life energy of these people would have suggested that they were at an impasse – unable to go further and yet unwilling for now to go back.  They all shared scars from violence endured and family support forfeited but the blind and the lame were not among their numbers.  This was not a journey for them to make.  They have little choice but to remain behind with hopefully enough of a safety net to keep them afloat until the political crises abate and the soils regain their fertility.

The people who made it to the courtyard were described as alternately angry and frustrated, in part because they were persons of some honor before their world caved in, persons who likely never imagined they would find themselves in an alleyway waiting for someone to distribute a few provisions so they could make it through another cold Marrakesh night. Even if these people had not been torn from their communities by a state and security establishment that couldn’t leave well enough alone, it is still disconcerting to discover that doors are more often closed than ajar – doors to basic necessities but also to the jobs and dignity they left behind many miles ago.

While some of us in Marrakesh tried to think through our responsibilities to a world increasingly pushed out of homes and livelihoods, the news coming from Poland was little short of grim.  We are not making our collective climate targets.  Indeed, due in part to influential climate skeptics and the millions who continue to live as though massive storms and mass extinctions are mere anomalies, this past year set a dubious and dangerous record for emissions.  Despite all the warnings, despite weather maps that resemble Hollywood-produced alien invasions, we mostly continue on our merry way, keeping our credit lines open and our borders closed.

Our CWWM event had moments of good policy insight though such were sometimes buried in the clear and present responsibility to meet the needs that manifested themselves (in this instance) at the church door, to feed and cover and comfort and refer, and even to make the stories of those on almost unimaginable journeys speak to the unconvinced or merely indifferent, journeys in this age of climate shocks, state-sanctioned violence and discrimination that are only likely to increase in number and dimensions of difficulty.

What most of these journeys have in common is that those making them exhibit limited trust levels, occasionally of the churches and other caregivers, certainly of governments and their multilateral Compacts.  To be fair, this Compact certainly has some wise referrals, including to fulfill our 2030 Development responsibilities so as to minimize the incentives for people to leave their homes as well as an injunction to do more to make a public case that, as with those in the Marrakesh courtyard, most migrants have skills that can contribute much to sustainable development whether in transit, at their intended destination, or back in their preferred communities.

But in this current matrix of mistrust, NGOs and churches are left to do what they so often try to do – fix the broken, bandage the wounded, satisfy some of the empty stomachs and even emptier souls, doing just enough to address the miseries and fill the voids such that government officials and their five-star entourages don’t have to feel too badly about migrant-related agreements that are largely government driven, government negotiated and –when it suits their purposes– government neglected.

Many at our CWWM event have often been in this difficult place, with needs staring us in the face while the responsibilities to make good policy that can impact the many beyond the courtyard also beckon.  We are not so callous that we can step over and around those facing acute need, even with the consequence of enabling governments to care less in the process. But neither can we leave policy entirely to the governments, the same governments who claim a sovereign right to keep internally displaced persons out of the Compact’s protections, the same governments that hesitated to meaningfully integrate special accountability for migrants with disabilities and others facing acute vulnerabilities, the same governments which relegate churches and NGOs to meeting the needs of those in their gaze while state officials grant themselves de facto permission to turn their own gaze towards other “pressing” matters.

The lessons for me this past week are clear:  We must provide care as best we can but not enable other persons and entities to withhold their own.  We must protect the right of movement but also do more to ensure that those wishing to stay in their homes can do so.  We who are able must contribute more to policies of protection and accompaniment for displaced persons remaining within national borders and not only people crossing over.  And we must ensure that persons with disabilities and others facing multiple vulnerabilities are given special attention, that their “right to migrate” is also honored.

We all have our scars; we have all faced metaphorical abandonments on dark and lonely roads.  Moreover all have contributed in some way to a violent, over-heated world where so many need “mending,” need accompaniment, need tangible reminders that they are more than the provisions periodically extended to them. These messes we’ve made; these vulnerabilities we’ve ignored; these will become the tests of our collective character, our collective attentiveness, our collective promise to heal as best we can the wounds of the legion of persons from many cultures and walks of life now on the move.

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