Displaced

By Stan Stalla | Jan 27, 2010

As I prepare to mobilize for the U.S. Government's Haiti Response Team, I pause for a moment to reflect on what it means to be displaced. Having just finished a year's work, focused on the displaced people of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, images of overcrowded tents, too few latrines, long queues for drinking water and food, and amputees waiting for prostheses are fresh in my mind. I haven't yet memorized the stats of Haitian earthquake victims —- at least an order of magnitude greater than the Sri Lankans of this past year. However, the TV news images of people camping out in Port-au-Prince streets, under makeshift shelters of plastic sheeting and fabric, remind me how hard it is to fathom even a dozen, not to mention hundreds, thousands or millions of people unable to return home.

Yet, the other day, I had an epiphany of sorts, of what it might mean to be displaced — all from the comfort of my Maine cottage. It was a biting cold January day, and I had a wheelbarrow full of belated Christmas presents to wrap for my family. Wanting the gifts to be surprises, I had squirreled them away from our main house, in the summer cottage across the street. Armed with wrapping paper, scissors and scotch tape, I tromped through the snow, up the porch steps, through the kitchen door, and into a room as cold as the sub-freezing temperatures in the surrounding woods and garden.

Never mind, I told myself, blowing onto cold fingers to limber them for the wrapping job at hand. These presents — special gifts I had sent from Sri Lanka — were to be surprises, and our unheated summer cottage was the best secret spot to get the job done. Though the seasonal water had long since been shut off, I figured, should Nature call, that the woods would be adequate. And so the minutes turned into half hours, and then hours. Fingers became stiff, Nature did indeed begin to call, and my stomach rumblings reminded me that I hadn't eaten for a while.

And that's when my epiphany occurred. Suddenly, I realized that the front door to our main house was locked, and I had no key! Unless I drove into town, to the library or laundry mat, or hung around chatting with the tellers at Key Bank, or undertook a nice, long shopping spree at Hannaford — unless I took some drastic measures, I was out in the cold! No food, no water. Unable to get warm. Displaced.

Thankfully, I hadn't just come through months of intense warfare (Sri Lanka) or been awakened by the earth moving underfoot, with walls crumbling and ceilings collapsing about me (Haiti). Wrapping belated Christmas presents in our summer cottage kitchen, I at least had a winter coat to slow the shivering.

But the reality of not being able to go home, no matter how temporary, was a jolt to my psyche. All these years, working on humanitarian crises heaped on innocent people — warfare, droughts, earthquakes — and it took a snowy day in Maine, locked out of my own home, to help me feel the helplessness, the injustice, the frustration, the anger, a bit of solidarity with those who had lost their homes around the world.

Packing a suitcase of clothes for my flight next week to D.C., I know that a seven-day work schedule awaits, each day starting before dawn and lingering into the evening's darkness. As the search-and-rescue operations in Haiti wind down, the attention of humanitarians has turned to keeping people alive — people hungry, thirsty, packed into makeshift shelters, injured, frustrated, helpless.

In a perverse way, I'm grateful for having been locked out of my home by the bay. When my work days seem long and tiring, I'll think about people whose lives depend upon a whole lot more than the turn of a front door key, a welcoming smile, a "Thanks for the belated Christmas presents, Dad."

Stan Stalla writes from Haiti about his experiences around the world.

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