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Living Like a Refugee | The Nation

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Living Like a Refugee

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Carencro, LA

About the Author

Michael Tisserand
Michael Tisserand, the author of Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a...

Also by the Author

It took Gustav to make Hurricane Katrina a campaign issue.

Drastic changes in the educational system are leaving New Orleans's public schools behind.

Nearly a week out of New Orleans now, we sit in our friends' living room and watch as our city is dismembered. Neighbors in this small town stop by with clothes, a bicycle for our daughter, a scooter for my son. We meet them at the front door as CNN's cameras pan across the faces of our dying neighbors.

Being a middle-class, white New Orleanian meant being constantly reminded of poverty. Unlike some other cities, New Orleans had no major geographical boundaries between wealth and ghetto; the city was an economic, racial and cultural patchwork. I never imagined those distinctions would someday dictate who would live and who would die.

A French Quarter bar manager named Bigfoot rode out Hurricane Katrina in the Iberville Project, the substandard public housing development that many of the French Quarter's waiters and busboys, dishwashers and maids called home.

He writes in a storm survivors' blog (www.livejournal.com/users/interdictor) that attempts by Iberville residents to flag down police resulted in guns being aimed. Here's what else he says: "The people are so desperate that they're doing anything they can think of to impress the authorities enough to bring some buses. These things include standing in single-file lines with the elderly in front, women and children next; sweeping up the area and cleaning the windows and anything else that would show the people are not barbarians. The buses never stop."

Now comes the journey of the survivors.

My wife, a pediatrician, went into the town of Lafayette yesterday to try to find work. She returned and told me that she encountered a few people talking about the refugees who have come to town, worrying about possible looting. Across southwest Louisiana, people have been generous, the city's public school system even undertaking the task of registering more than a thousand New Orleans kids who washed up here.

But as time passes, how will people feel about those of us who don't find a way to move on? My family and I got out of New Orleans in time, and have been embraced by friends. We're very sad and very scared but eventually we'll do fine, as we mourn a lost community and try to piece together our résumés.

But what does the future hold for the tens of thousands of our neighbors now finally being bused to sports arenas across Louisiana and Texas?

Woody Guthrie would know. The Dust Bowl created by the storms of the 1930s and the rise of agribusiness led to the first massive movement across the country of American refugees, and those were Guthrie's people. That might be why he could write so starkly about another group of victims in his song "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)": "You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be 'deportee.'"

New Orleans has led the nation in poverty, in children at risk, in illiteracy, in its murder rate. Now, as we flee this water bowl together, we have become the second major movement of American refugees. Rather than shanties and camps, we're sheltered in homes and arenas--those of us who are still living.

My neighbor Kiki Huston is here with her three children, staying with friends in the town of St. Martinville. This week, her daughter Olivia announced that she wanted to go to Lafayette's Cajundome to help the people camped out there. When they arrived, they were turned away. "You're from New Orleans," they were told. "You should be relaxing."

North of Carencro, about ten miles from where I sit, a bus just overturned, filled with refugees. Back home in New Orleans, fires are breaking out near my old neighborhood. Woody Guthrie sang it: I ain't got a home in this world anymore.

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