By Alicia Wallace
People leave their homes for many reasons. Some leave to further their education, to find work, or to gain experience through training programmes and internships. Some go to foreign lands to represent the land of their birth as ambassadors, athletes and artists. Some take up residence in other countries for love. More people go in search of medical intervention than we realize. More and more people are fleeing to countries that are safer for them, so they do not have to choose between pretending to be what they are not and living in fear. Some people want to have a different experience, a fresh start, or an adventure. Everyone who leaves does not expect it to be permanent, but most find it necessary, for whatever reason, at that time.
On Monday, I immediately thought of “Home” by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. As people question those who make the decisions to leave Haiti, by whatever means, in search of something better, her words come to me in answer.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
This week, after seven days at sea, a vessel struck a reef and split in two in Bahamian waters. Survivors said 45 people were on board. Eighteen people were rescued and 27 bodies were found up to Tuesday. Reactions to this tragedy have varied greatly, from sadness and empathy to annoyance and ambivalence.
For those who make the treacherous journey by boat from Haiti to The Bahamas, there is a hope for a future outside the belly of a fearsome creature.
There is great risk in leaving home. There is no telling if or how you will be received. Will you even make it to your destination? Will you survive the journey? These risks are known to the people who take them. No one boards a boat thinking nothing could go wrong. Getting on the boat means they have considered the odds and decided it is better to take the risk in the attempt to improve their lives than to settle for the difficult lives they had. It is not a miscalculation. It is not naivety. They do not need, as someone suggested, to see photos of the bodies that did not make it safely. They do not need warnings. They are not unaware of the loss of life, or immune to grief or fear. They may choose differently than we think we would, but we are here, guessing. There is great distance between us and them — physical, cognitive and psychological.
“You only leave home when home won’t let you stay”
I have a friend who moved to Canada a few years ago. As a young gay man, he found that Nassau was more than uncomfortable. It felt like the island contorted itself for the sole purpose of expelling him. To save himself, he left.
I recently met a woman whose son lives in the U.S. with his father. There are schools and teachers equipped to meet his specific learning needs. She may soon leave too, to be with her family, in a place where all of their needs can be met.
Another friend of mine is studying abroad. Her plan has always been to come back home. She wanted to get her degree, maybe a year or two of work experience, and return to the place she knows and loves best. After a few years away, she has a life she had never imagined for herself. Now she understands the difference between being alive and living, and she does not know how to forget it. She does not know if this place will want her any more.
“No one would leave home unless home chased you, fire under feet, hot blood in your belly.”
Haitians are leaving Haiti in large numbers every day. We think we know why, but there is still a lack of understanding. It is one thing to know and another to experience. Poverty and corruption are well-known issues. The effects of natural disasters on Haiti are widely reported when they occur. More than half of the population lives below the poverty line and the country relies heavily on foreign aid. Remittances — largely money sent to Haiti, for example, from someone working in another country to a family member — are over 25 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The issues the country faces, however, are not limited to political upheaval, economic turmoil and natural disasters.
Amnesty International’s 2017/2018 report stated that 38,000 people are still displaced due to the 2010 earthquake. Yes, still. It also highlighted the issue of statelessness and internal displacement of people denied Dominican nationality in 2013. In July 2017, almost 60,000 Haitians lost their temporary protected status in the U.S. and faced deportation. Violence against women and girls is a major issue in Haiti that disproportionately affects young people. From May 2015 to March 2017, more than half of the survivors of sexual violence and gender-based violence seen at the Doctors Without Borders clinic were under 18, and 77 percent were under 25.
Even without this understanding, we should be able to see the artificiality of borders and what they have been used to do. Divide, divide, divide.
We can think of key terms and phrases such as slavery, transatlantic slave trade, colonization, rebellion and revolution. Not much more needs to be said. We came from the same place, were deposited on different pieces of rock, enslaved and forced into new ways of seeing, believing and being. In some ways, we allow old narratives to persist and determine today and tomorrow. We are discriminating. We do not trust easily. We understand ourselves to be in a constant competition. We have scarcity mindsets. We set ourselves apart from others. Everyone else is an enemy, wants something from us, and has nothing to offer. To win, others have to lose. These may have been tools for survival before, but what are they now?
We cannot afford to continue in this way. Not only is it morally wrong, but it is also against our selfish aims. We are a sinking nation. We complain every day about stagnation here and decay there, but we are still too good for anyone else and unwilling to share what we have, or to even stand in solidarity with those who have been wronged and deserve recompense. Have you ever asked someone for help and when they could not do it themselves, they found someone who could?
“For now, forget about pride, your survival is more important”
Unfortunately, we are not just figuratively sinking. These islands are not expected to be here in the next hundred years. We take pride in our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but what will happen to theirs if they choose to have them? Where will they go? What will become of Bahamians, all climate refugees as their migrant-free nation disappears? Our neighbours may tighten their borders and ask one another why we did not do more to save ourselves from that fate. Maybe they will point to a history book and find the “reason” Bahamians must suffer. They may say selfishness and greed will house us, much like we say certain practices and histories brought Haiti to its knees and should raise it up.
What will we do when we no longer recognize this place, these people? Where will we turn and whose mercy will we seek? Every departure is not by choice. We, too, may one day run.
“No one leaves home until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave, run now, I don’t know what I’ve become.”