The Refugee Question


By Nikita Nelin
“In the first place, we don’t like to be called ‘refugees.'” Thus Hannah Arendt begins her 1943 essay “We Refugees,” where she describes the psychic anxiety that weighed upon the Jews of Europe as they fled their homes and performed the labor of assimilation.

“In the first place, we don’t like to be called ‘refugees.’”
— Hannah Arendt

Thus Hannah Arendt begins her 1943 essay “We Refugees,” where she describes the psychic anxiety that weighed upon the Jews of Europe as they fled their homes and performed the labor of assimilation. In this essay, deeply felt and ironic from the start, Arendt depicts the social conditions that make one on the edge of political non-existence consider suicide. In her irony Arendt deconstructs the doomed optimism of the parvenu (those trying to assimilate) and makes her case for the pariah (the outsider). Ultimately, I believe, she seeks to call forward the need for a universal moral law that validates, through an active acknowledgement of rights, the existence of ‘human beings’ beyond nation states.

It is difficult to relate to the psychic effects of political non-existence unless one has traveled the liminal space of a refugee.  

In 1989 my mother and I traversed this space. That is, we had legally ceased to exist in one nation, and had yet to legally materialize in another. At the time our documents literally said “stateless.” Our only protection in the world came from the special interest groups that had taken a stake in our existence, primarily the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS). And even after we ‘arrived’ our identities would forever become a product of three places – where we came from, where we came to, and what we went through in-between.

I am an American citizen now and have the privilege of near assimilation. It is only the memory of being a refugee that reminds me of the existential terror of non-existence, coupled with the grace of my mother’s hand at making the experience seem like an adventure for her child. I now find myself faced with the choice between being a parvenu or a pariah, just as many other former Eastern European Jewish refugees. As a former refugee, I am deeply troubled by the way we relate to that refugee space today. As an American, I find myself on the wrong side of the issue. And as a Jew, I find my allegiances put into question between my heritage and my life experience.

“History,” Arendt writes to people like me, “has forced the status of outlaws upon both, upon pariahs and parvenus alike. The latter have not yet accepted the great wisdom of Balzac’s ‘On ne parvient pas deux fois;’ thus they don’t understand the wild dreams of the former and feel humiliated in sharing their fate. Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of ‘indecency,’ get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of gentiles.”    

Though originally addressing the condition of being Jewish, Arendt’s poetic logic in this essay is urgently useful today for all peoples cast out from their homelands, as well as all those who in some way share in the kinship of national flight. If flight is a part of your family history, you are part of this conversation, you are a part of how the world relates to, defines and defends, this liminal class. And our position on this, defines who we are.   

At the start of the essay Arendt signals to the power of personal choice and its role in one’s self-perception of identity.

“We ourselves call each other ‘newcomers’ or ‘immigrants’… A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held… but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion.”

The prospect of having lost the power of self-definition is so horrendous that one would find every available route for self-deception. One who can consider themselves a ‘newcomer’ or ‘immigrant’ can still imagine that they have simply chosen to leave one place for another. This implies agency and a kind of optimism, some faith of self-determination. The effort of psychic gymnastics required for such self-deception is the burden of the assimilated. In turn, the refugee has no choice and is at the mercy of the world to define them – and, legally, to defend them. And if the world does not respond with mercy, with active witnessing, it is the world too that carries the burden of that choice. When an individual, or a group of people, is deemed politically non-existent – void of agency and power entirely – the legal issue becomes an existential one. Our politics defines us, even in abstention.

To me, the attention Arendt gives to suicide in this essay is our key by which we decode the relationship between social recognition and self-determination. She is showing us the terrible psychic predicament of one deemed politically non-existent. For such an individual the last available act of self-determination is the willful termination of their own existence. It is the final act of self after all social and political laws have abandoned them.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Demons, was written with the intention of exploring the horror of true nihilism when it penetrates the realm of human affairs. Kirillov, a secondary character in the novel, chooses to kill himself as a testament to his own will and to prove the non-existence of God. Allegorically, we can see the indictment of a world that has sanctioned, or passively accepted the persistence of legal conditions which leave a human no other path of self-determination but by the act of choosing death. Arendt’s observation of the world as a product of humans as active beings mutually engaged in the public realm, is what Dostoevsky defined as ‘God consciousness,’ or faith. For Arendt, it is a social mosaic that allows for the emergence of profound complexity and interconnection. When we neglect our part in this social mosaic, our responsibility to one another, we extinguish something basic in the agreement of what it means to be human and share the world in common. This challenge, choosing to participate in human identity relating beyond the definition of national identities, is becoming more urgent today than in any other point in history.

According to The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 40 million displaced people, 25.4 million refugees, and 4.1 million asylum seekers. That is 68.5 million people without a national homeland. One person becomes displaced every two seconds. In the time it takes us to read this sentence three humans have lost their home, which Arendt defines as “the familiarly of daily life;” their occupation, which Arendt defines as “the confidence that [they] are of some use in this world;” their language, which Arendt defines as “the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings;” their friends and families, which Arendt defines as “the rapture of [their] private lives.” That is a very rapid erasure.    

The UNHCR was originally established in response to the population displacement of WWII, at the time primarily a crisis of the Jewish Question. It has since broadly expanded to deal with the crisis of all displaced peoples. Its mandate, “to provide, on a non-political and humanitarian basis, international protection to refugees and to seek permanent solutions for them.”

But the numbers of displacement are so great that no organization can be anything more than a bandage without the will of global support. And, foreseeing a spike in displacement some of the most powerful nations in the world are actively practicing a politics of shunning; Trump’s border-wall nationalism, and Brexit are just two popular examples. This is a politics that chooses to ignore the existence of human beings beyond national affiliation. “Apparently,” Arendt writes, “the world does not want to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put into concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.”

I will state this again because it cannot be overstated, this erasure is not only a national or political crisis, but an existential one because it faces us with the imperative to actively define ‘being human.’ And it is a “crisis” because right now we are directly in the act of choosing how seriously we engage it.  

A refugee is one no longer protected by the laws of any nation, thus, it becomes the role of the world to offer an acknowledgement of rights, and by that acknowledgement bring the being of human into existence in spite of their national non-affiliation. Arendt believed that it is politics, the public sphere, not the linear cause and effect but the crystal-like structure of our actions in relationship to one another, that brings the theoretic geometry of being human into form. Our relating to one another is what defines us. And so, we are asked to decide what ‘being human’ means when one is outside of the nation: Is it only national affiliation that has the power to guarantee rights, or is there something we agree on and recognize beyond the power of nations?

Many of us, like I, who benefit from the privileged illusion of national and social assimilation, have a choice between conforming to the accepted standards of the parvenu or choosing to become a pariah. I argue that this choice is an illusion, be it a well-dressed one. For all of us who retain some cultural memory of this refugee status, there exists within us a tiny voice that can only be buried and never extinguished. It cries out in our most solitary moments, balking against a world that can define a human as politically non-existent, still wishing for some universal moral law in action that accepts us as worthy of being seen, our humanness recognized, even when we have lost our national allegiance. And so, it is the duty of all those who have fled, to speak up and act on the behalf of those now fleeing, and to defend the unique lineage of our company -- it, united by the act of fleeing, across race, prior nationality, and religious beliefs, as those who have been made nearly invisible, as those in between, as the stateless, the refugee, and still ‘human being.’ 

There is a final and ominous reading of this essay available today, one which the conditions of the world in the 40s would not have likely allowed Arendt to foresee. It speaks directly to the group whose casting out forced the world to consciously consider the question of refugees? and how its answer shapes us all: “For the first time Jewish history,” Arendt writes, “is not separate but tied up with that of other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.”

We, the keepers of that history, are no longer a weak member of this world seeking recognition. But if we fail to pledge our allegiance with the plight of all refugees, we will become weak again in a completely new and terrible way, as a power, a living memory, that turned away from the ill-imagined horror we remember to be true.
Nikita Nelin holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College, and is a 2019 Associate Fellow at The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.