A Lament for the Displaced

By Durkhanai Ayubi

Both the scale of, and the general response to, displacement and displaced people in our world today, I fear, reveals a deep laceration and dismembering in our collective spirit. Levels of displacement triggered by conflicts, and increasingly intertwined with a confluence of other factors like climate and economic breakdowns, have reached unprecedented proportions. And for the masses of people who this fact describes, who must abandon all that once was, in the pursuit of a delicate and quivering skim of hope, their grief is compounded by a confounding response of being ricocheted between a state of hyper-visibility and invisibility.

Amongst the global cries of crises and amidst the frantic building of protective walls (both material and emotional), it is worth pausing, to ponder why displaced people can be both simultaneously seen and unseen. The question in my mind which begins to explore this, and which I believe forms the basis of many of our present dilemmas, is a philosophical conundrum of our times – how can such grave suffering take place, during an era which is being defined foremost by advances in human capability? 

Evolutions in capability and the amplification of human ingenuity are underpinned, in a cyclically reinforcing relationship, with leaps and bounds forth in scientific and technological discoveries. From the liberation of increasingly powerful energy stores, to the ubiquity of the internet and the platforms layered upon it that have transformed how we define ourselves and interact with one another, to the decoding of the human genome, to the power of the data and algorithms that are increasingly regulating our lives – ours is the age of the Anthropocene. In this epoch, we are so powerful that the knowledge we have liberated has altered the reality of our world in irreversible ways. 

We have never been so able to  be informed. We have never been so  connected. We, along with our ideas,  have never moved faster or further.  We have never so closely resembled  the gods we once worshipped.

And yet, when I say we, I cannot possibly be referring to us all. For in this very same advanced, enlightened and interconnected world, there are many who we have rendered forcibly meek and then forsaken.

The price of human capability,  it seems, is a hardening against  vulnerability – an erasure of the  very essence of what it means  to be human.

Closely related to, and further stratifying, this capability-driven trend towards dehumanisation, is our gradual transformation from operating within market economies, to being seduced into becoming market societies. From deciding the shape of our democracies and the mandates of our social institutions, to crowning a glorified elite with centralised wealth and unchecked power, market forces now have disproportionate and destructive claims over every facet of our lives. And as the chasms between us widen, the majority battle one another with swords of varying biases, forged and chiselled in the hand-me-down heat of perceptions of scarcity and doom. We are slavishly building a world unfit for human expression. 

If the future is here, only unevenly distributed, as posited by American author William Gibson, then perhaps it is the world’s most vulnerable who are today being distributed a disproportionate share of tomorrow’s distress. In one of the least cryptic examples of this (and the dystopic reality it generates) that I have encountered, during a recent visit to a refugee camp in Jordan, I was unnerved to see the high-tech processes surrounding the experience of being a refugee. As refugees from surrounding lands stream into Jordan – a relative oasis in a region largely reduced to a hotbed of conflict, climate breakdown and defunct economies – they must undergo iris scans to be registered as a UNHCR refugee. Iris scans are then used at teller machines to access money, and to pay for goods and services. 

The troves of biometric data collected are distributed amongst service providers, with little to no oversight or agency of those who have been biologically profiled, and, who incidentally also happen to be amongst the world’s most vulnerable. There is, in my mind, a deep and sad irony in having your eyes, the portal to your essence, be enlisted, in the end, as the means with which your dehumanisation and publicly secret violation is amplified. In this way, all refugees are strictly observed – their biology used and machinated into a river of binary sequencing that controls and restricts their manner of living – whilst simultaneously being more drowned out and less human than ever. 

In my mind, this is but the natural conclusion of a long-cultivated logic which rationalises the irrational – the fall out of which is applicable only to those our culture has conditioned us into rendering disposable. We are amputating displaced people and their human suffering out of our narratives, using a scalpel fashioned into existence through the paradoxical approach of both seeing and denying. Displaced people today are rendered hyper-visible when most dehumanised – vilified into dangerous beasts or pitied as critters – and then must disappear from our psyche in all other human forms, in order to maintain a myth of advancement and progress unladen by the cost of human suffering. 

But what this blind march towards an entrenched impersonality has deluded us into negating, is that we are, and always have been part of a collective conscious- ness with connections between us upon which our existence depends. When we follow ourselves into our own depths, we enter the ancient oceans of empathy in which the essence of all that lives morphs indistinguishably into one, before crashing upon the shores of the universe of which we are made. In such an intricately interwoven circle of existence, severances without consequence, are impossible. 

For as long as the suffering  of displaced people remains openly  and globally visible but always unseen  – my lament for the displaced is a primal wailing for us all.

For we are each one another, and the erosions of humanity dislocate and displace us all. And so, my quietly persistent hope, rests on the capacity for an expansion of the same imaginations we have used to conjure our fragmented world into being. It rests upon a remembering – that all the capability and technological advances in the universe combined, cannot circumvent the most human expressions of all: our very innate fragility, our interdependence and the inevitability of our suffering. And nor should it try.

Graphics by Laura Liminton @__studio.elle, designed by @studio.okok