Friday, June 22, 2007

during a radio interview, i sent this email:

i'd like to encourage people to stop using this phrase, 'on the ground'.

if you help refugees or other people 'on the ground,' where are you?
in the air, looking down on the dusky little people like a god?

the reply:

Thanks for your anonymous comment. I do, however, prefer to dialogue with someone who identifies him- or herself. How did you learn of Asylum Access and what is your connection to/interest in refugee rights?

As for the phrase "on the ground," it actually refers to Asylum Access staff and volunteers, not refugees (except insofar as they are our staff/volunteers). I.e.: We, on the ground, help refugees in Africa, Asia
and Latin America. As opposed to: We, in the US, removed from the issues facing the vast majority of refugees, help refugees in Africa, Asia and
Latin America.

If you want to make a difference in semantics, why not focus on getting
people to stop talking about "refugee protection" (the "poor little victims" approach) and instead talk about "refugee rights"?

my response:

i blog under a pseudonym because it allows me to share highly personal
reactions to my disease without Real World complications. i heard a
radio interview with someone from AA. other than appreciating
organizatioms such as yours involved in refugee protection, i have no
connection -- nor will i. while this may enable dismissal of my
feedback, i do appreciate your response, given that it indicates
reception of my idea, even though i may be seen as a crank.

'on the ground' is originally a military phrase. at least in that
context it has some meaning ('boots on the ground'). but it has
olympian temptations, implying that those who use it have access to
the higher sphere. i have watched the phrase eagerly adopted by
people in presumedly non-miitaristic NGOs -- perhaps demonstrating the osmotic power of ego.

i'll continue to oppose use of 'on the ground' and 'wheelchair bound'
rather than 'refugee protection' beccause promoting refugee rights
enhances refugee protection -- while the white man's burden surely
does not.

thanks for listening.

'i am not a kook'
-abe simpson

rather than take offense, she wrote:

I'm glad to know you heard our radio interview! And it's helpful to have some additional context for your objection to "on the ground" -- it had never before occurred to me to consider it as equivalent to "wheelchair bound" (which I do oppose). I'm still not sure I agree with your objection to "on the ground," but I'll let it marinate a bit.

Incidentally, we struggle with ways to explain our work to people who will only listen for 30 seconds. We find that most people from the US assume that "legal counsel and representation to refugees" can only take place in the US, so that even when we say that we work *in* Africa, Asia and Latin America, people still think we're helping refugees come to the US. "On the ground in the global south" is another shorthand phrase that reiterates that our work occurs in first countries of refuge, and that most refugees will remain in "the global south" rather than ever traveling to the US. (Although I should mention that we are trying to move away from the term "global south," as it too has derogatory connotations.) If you have suggestions for other shorthand phrases that could take the place of "on the ground" in the context of our work, it's always helpful to have new ideas about how to reach people so they will really understand what we do.


i said:

thanks for marinating. how about 'we help refugees assert their rights abroad -- in the places where they are dislocated.'?

she responded diplomatically to a barbed critique. maybe that's why she's in charge.

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by