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Monday 17 December 2018
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Commentary

From refugee to congresswoman

The various memorial services held last week to mark 100 years since the end of World War I (WWI) should have acted as an alert to those who seem hell bent on sowing the seeds of discord that can lead to war.

The world is never without war but WWI, known as the Great War, and then WWII two decades later are the ones that make the mind boggle because of the extraordinary number of casualties. It is hard to fathom that over 16 million civilians and military personnel died between 1914-1918 and the number of casualties ran to an estimated 37 million. In just one battle – The Somme - about one million men were killed or injured. When I first read about this, as a teenager, I remember reflecting that it was almost tantamount to the total population of TT being wiped out in about four months. Wilfred Owen, the celebrated poet of the Great War wrote these opening lines in his famous Anthem for Doomed Youth:

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”

He was a just a young man himself when he died at the front just a week before WWI ended. The stark reality he captured in his war poems has kept his work alive and treasured.

The trench warfare of WWI, in which opposing armies existed like vermin in thousands of miles of stinking ditches for the period of the war, escaping only to walk into battle, outfitted with a rifle, bayonet and hand grenade, gave way to the more technically advanced WWII. In those six war years somewhere between 50-80 million civilian and military personnel died. No one knows the exact number but to get it into some scale, Russia alone lost 24 million people, a huge percentage of its population. I still cannot wrap my head around those numbers but I imagine that since the beginning of recorded history and man’s warring, the casualties in each era would be equally astounding. In many modern wars civilian deaths vastly outnumber the death of soldiers and other fighters. Today’s commanders-in-chief and presidents would want to convince us that it is easier to hit your military target and avoid civilians but the real victims of war are the ordinary people because their cities and towns are the new trenches. Right now there are millions of people, worldwide, on the move, seeking refuge from war, famine and destruction and with little hope of ever returning to the land of their birth and culture.

That is why we should be as amazed by the victory of the 36-year-old Somali civil war refugee, Ilhan Omar, who grew up in a Somalian refugee camp, moved to the US at age 12 and was voted into the US House of Representatives in last week’s mid-term elections. Somalia, which came into being at about the same time as TT independence, has been locked in civil war for nearly two decades. According to UNHCR, roughly three million Somalis have been displaced internally and internationally. The USA has over 85,000 people of Somali origin through a resettlement programme but that was closed since President Trump declared Somalia one of the countries in his Muslim ban.

The rise of Ilhan Omar is all the more important for being a rebuttal of the hate talk that was part of the Republican president’s campaign only two years ago in Minnesota. The Washington Post reported him warning local voters that, “large numbers of Somali refugees [are] coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval, and with some of them then joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world.” He reportedly told them that they had “suffered enough” as a result. Obviously the people did not care for that rhetoric because Omar won 78 per cent of the vote last week, making her the “first Somali American, first Muslim refugee and first hijab-wearing Muslim woman elected to the US House of Representatives. “She also became the first woman of colour to represent Minnesota in Congress,” the paper pointed out. “When people were selling the politics of fear and division and destruction, we were talking about hope. We were talking about the politics of joy,” she told those Democrats who had voted for her.

Right now we have our own refugees from Venezuela, where people are fleeing economic crisis, and from Cuba. They are among 68 million of the world’s migrants. Omar’s example sends a message to anyone interested in hearing it: immigrants or refugees are not de facto criminals, and human beings can be extremely resilient. Migration could be an asset for countries prepared to change their mindsets to see its value.

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